How the birth of my second child made it hard for me to love my first
Caitriona Palmer talks to Rebecca Abrams about a shocking maternal taboo
When Rebecca Abrams gave birth to her second child, she braced herself for the sleepless nights, the exhausting days and the relentless slog that typifies life with a newborn.
But what Abrams could never expect was how the birth of her son radically changed her feelings for her first child, a bright-eyed two-year-old little girl named Jessie.
"I'd often seen women with several children in tow who were maybe sweet with the baby and then incredibly snappy and short-tempered with the older child," Abrams says. "And I'd always thought that that was so unfair. It was shocking really, and I thought that I would never be like that."
But in the days and months after the birth of her son, Solomon, Rebecca Abrams became that mother: one who would coo sweetly at her newborn child while in the next breath bark at her unsuspecting toddler.
According to a leading US paediatrician, Paul Young, many women experience anxiety and intense sadness about the inevitable change in the relationship with their first child following the birth of their second.
"At a minimum, anxiety about being able to 'split themselves in two' and be as good a mother to two children as they were to one is nearly universal," he says.
Although the level of extreme anger felt by Abrams towards her daughter is less common, says Young, feelings of frustration or anger towards their first child are perfectly normal.
"Two-year-olds can be demanding and are, of course, pretty egocentric, so I think it's common for a mother of a newborn, who feels tired and consumed by the need to care for her newborn, to feel some anger toward anyone or anything that interferes," says Young, a professor at the University of Utah.
Two years ago, Abrams published an award-winning novel, Touching Distance, in which one of her characters struggles to connect with her daughter.
"It wasn't until the words were on the page that I realised that actually I was drawing on my own experience -- that feeling of disconnection with your own child -- which I think really haunts women when it happens," she says.
"It is very, very hard for any woman to talk about the fact that they don't feel very loving towards one of their children."
When Abrams first brought Solomon home, her daughter, frustrated by her sudden frostiness, and struggling to adjust to a new sibling in the house, became determined to get her mother's attention.
While Abrams nursed her newborn, Jessie tried to clamber all over her. She stole her brother's freshly laundered baby-grows and put them on her teddy, and muddied his pristine Moses basket with her dirty wellington boots.
The more Jessie acted up, the more her mother struggled to love her. Despairing that she would never love her daughter the same again, Abrams felt isolated and alone. Her emotional distance from her daughter felt so alien that she was unable to share her anguish with her husband.
"I didn't even begin to tell him how I was feeling about Jessie," she says. "I didn't feel there was any scope for him understanding. I didn't feel confident that I would get a good hearing if I said, 'Guess what? My feelings for my daughter are not what they were.' I don't think he could have coped with it either."
Before the birth of her son, Abrams had endured a difficult pregnancy that required frequent hospitalisation. And in the minutes after Solomon's birth she suffered a massive hemorrhage that left her dazed and weakened. She returned home from the hospital with her newborn son an emotional and physical wreck, and wholly unprepared for the clawing needs of an energetic two-year-old girl.
In need of help but unable to ask for it, Abrams instead channelled her energy on making it seem as though everything was fine.
"Looking back, I wonder why I didn't ask for more help. At the time I thought, 'What is the matter with me? Why am I being so pathetic? Why am I not coping better with this?" she said.
Renowned psychologist Penelope Munn blames societal pressure on young mothers and the "ideas of romantic love that assume a good mother will replicate a nurturing, romantic relationship with each successive child".
Munn says that the overly simplified view of motherhood in baby-care books and parenting magazines offers a simplistic and overplayed scenario: mother meets baby, falls head over heels in love, and lives happily ever after.
This model, says Abrams, may work well with one child "but is profoundly ill-matched to the reality of mothering more than one".
"I think mothers have a great many unrealistic expectations dumped on them," says Munn.
"It's a real shock for a lot of mothers when they then have their second child to discover that that is very difficult to replicate with two children," according to Abrams. "And you just literally are torn in two. You don't know which way to go."
Paul Young says that more public awareness of the difficulties of "second child syndrome" is needed, and that paediatricians should advise women "that having negative feelings at a time when everyone expected them to be ecstatic is normal".
A year after the birth of Solomon, Abrams was jolted back to reality when her daughter innocently asked her mother at bedtime one night if she was still "her little darling".
Suddenly Abrams was able to see through the fog and realise how vulnerable and sad her daughter seemed.
"At that point, I took myself in hand a bit and thought, 'I have to rebuild this relationship'," she says. "It was very conscious. It wasn't like suddenly this great flood of love came back."
Likening the nurturing of the relationship to the careful way a vintner tends to his vines, Abrams consciously spent time with Jessie, made herself think about her daughter when she wasn't there, and gradually and slowly learned to love Jessie again.
Abrams' experience and the publication of her novel encouraged her to speak out about this unspoken maternal taboo. Soon after she began to receive a flood of letters and emails.
A woman in her sixties wrote a heartbreaking letter in which she thanked Abrams for sharing her story. "I finally now understand my relationship with my mother," the woman wrote. "I never understood why my mother was so cold to me'."
Over a decade later, Abrams is now faced with a new challenge -- the parenting of two teenagers. "I feel lucky to have a very close relationship with both my daughter and my son, and I'm loving watching them become young adults," she said.
Now a bright and beautiful 15-year-old, Jessie says she doesn't remember much from her early childhood except for one persistent recollection: "She had a memory of me being absent," says Abrams. "Physically absent and also emotionally absent."
But despite these memories a remarkable bond persists between mother and daughter.
Thirteen years on from all the heartache, says Abrams, Jessie is still her little darling.