Care and Feeding

I Can’t Bond With My Baby. What Do I Do?

To start with, remember that you’re loving your baby every day.

Mom holding a sleeping baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three kids ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years. The older two were unplanned, but they were very much wanted. I stayed home with them until they were 1 and 4, and then returned to college. Then once again I got unexpectedly pregnant, this time despite using an IUD. I didn’t want any more kids and was angry. Even though my husband had agreed that he was done having kids, once I found out I was pregnant he was ecstatic to have a third. I spent my whole pregnancy angry and resentful, but I kept thinking the happy, lovey feelings would come later.

Well, the baby is now 6 months old and I still don’t feel a connection with her. Of course I love her and want her to be happy and healthy, but I have no desire to care for her or really even hold her. She’s my first child that I didn’t breast-feed (due to complications after birth) and I am so glad that I am not tied down to her in that way. I do all the practical things I need to do to take care of her, but my husband does almost all the holding, feeding, and playing. He’s completely happy to do it and our daughter certainly isn’t lacking in love or affection, but I feel terrible that I have hardly any bond with her. Is there something wrong with me? Am I emotionally stunting my sweet daughter by not bonding with her? Should I just “fake it till I make it” or is there something I can do to help me bond?

—Too Resentful to Love?

Dear TRtL,

I’m so sorry that you’re struggling. The very first thing I would say is that you should call your doctor and ask to be evaluated for postpartum depression. Six months is well within the window for symptoms, and an inability to feel pleasure in your baby is a really, really common way for PPD to present. There’s no harm in either eliminating it as a possibility or realizing that you need to level up beyond your current coping mode of just feeling quietly terrible about this all the time.

Whether you are depressed or just experiencing a slower burn toward bonding with your baby, please remember that love is an action. You are doing a great job loving your baby: You are meeting her needs and making sure she receives the love and affection she has to have in order to thrive. Figure out the things you do enjoy doing with your baby, and do more of them. And, yes, fake it a little! Your baby is about to hit the peak-cute age of 9 months, and I have every hope that you’ll find the situation thawing a bit as she begins to seem more like a little person and less like an interloper into your settled life. Sending lots of love to both of you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am writing to ask for advice on how best to “fledge” one’s kids, balancing their need for support with the need to encourage them to grow up and move on—specifically when you are a stepparent. As context, I have been with my husband for 15 years. He has three great children from a previous relationship, now aged 24, 25, and 28. I love them all dearly and have been a big part of raising them through their teen and early adult years.

Our youngest was living out of state as we supported him through school, but he’s stopped going and is back living with us. He does not have a job, sleeps most of the day while we work, is up most of the night while we are trying to sleep, and is self-medicating. He’s also not paying rent or otherwise contributing financially or in kind to the work of the household. My husband and I have almost nightly conversations—well, fights—about this, and each night we stall at me saying he needs to kick him in the ass and give him some expectations and consequences, and him saying that we need to understand our son is depressed and we need to give him time. I see his side of the argument, but it is making me absolutely crazy in my daily life, and it is making me question my ability to stay in a long-term relationship I value very deeply.

Am I wrong to think that an adult who moves back home in his mid-20s should be expected to work, not be screwed up all the time, and contribute to the household? I want to be the best parent and partner I can be, but I’m sick of being woken up in the middle of the night, cleaning up others’ messes, constantly negotiating, and fighting with my partner endlessly. Can you please give us advice on how to work on this as a united front? FYI, my husband will not do therapy, so I need other suggestions.

—Sick of Being the Wicked Stepmom

Dear SoBtWS,

Oh, boy, this sounds terrible! I’m very sorry. I don’t know to what extent your stepson is just freeloading versus struggling with depression, and I’m not sure your husband does either, which makes definitive judgments a bit difficult. It’s not difficult to see that the situation as it stands is not tenable for you.

You need to sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write down what changes need to happen in order for your life to be livable once more. That can look very different to different people! It could mean that any messes caused by your stepson are up to him or your husband to deal with. It could mean you need to see him applying to three jobs a week. It could mean he can’t make noise after midnight on weeknights or use substances while under your roof. It could mean he has 60 days to pack a li’l hobo bindle and hit the road.

(You’ve stated your husband refuses therapy. Is your stepson seeing a medical professional? That’s something I would have on my personal list of deal breakers, although I suspect it would be coming out of your wallet.)

When you have a list in hand, take it to your husband first. If he won’t back you up, there’s no point bringing it to the “kid” at all. You can explain that these are your nonnegotiables for continuing to live together and helping support your stepson. The difference between ultimatums and boundaries can be hazy, but I believe you are more than justified in having the latter, and I encourage you to start looking at apartments if your husband is unwilling to make the necessary changes to respect those boundaries. Honestly, faced with the prospect of supporting the stepson without your financial help or your willingness to do laundry, he might find a fire lit under his ass.

Keep me posted.

More Care and Feeding:

I Want Quiet Time With My Toddler. My Husband Wants a Night on the Town.

Children, Please Stop Calling Your Uncle “Ditzy”

My Mom Is Burying My Children in Toys. How Do I Get Her to Stop?

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter cheated on her boyfriend of 10 years. The couple, in their mid-20s, met in middle school. Her boyfriend did not shun her when bipolar disorder struck her in high school. He got himself educated about the illness and became an incredibly supportive partner to our family.

I love this young man like a son. I’ve known him since he was a kid. I don’t want to see him hurt. And I feel my daughter is being cruel, shortsighted, and hasty in her decision to break up with her boyfriend for the new guy. I don’t like the new guy and I feel like I’m betraying the old boyfriend if I even speak of him. Is it possible for me to maintain a good relationship with my daughter while shunning the new guy? If not, how can I possibly get used to the idea of warming up to the interloper?

—Get Yourself Together!

Dear GYT!,

Ah, if only we could make decisions for others, how much better life would be! I totally understand how frustrating and upsetting this situation must be for you, and also that some of your emotions are probably getting mixed up with a larger sense of powerlessness around your (now solidly adult) daughter’s mental illness. I’m afraid you will, however, have to practice some acceptance.

I know you’ve known this guy for 10 years and have obviously become very close to him, but when two people have known each other since middle school, it is often both appropriate and unsurprising that one of them might feel the need to experience more of life. Was the cheating remotely OK? Absolutely not, and you are welcome to talk to her about how disappointed or sad you are about her conduct. But people do bad things, or selfish things, or foolish things, all the time. A woman in her mid-20s dumping a boyfriend from middle school she’s outgrown, for better or worse? Well, that’s none of the above. And it’s happened. Her new guy is here, at least for now, and I’d like you to think about whether you don’t like him because of this particular situation or if you think he’s actually a bad or toxic partner for your daughter. Ask what she likes about him, and try to see it. Your children’s romantic partners come and go, as you are learning a little later than many parents. Making peace with your daughter, however, is always right on time.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m part of a big, very nosy Hispanic family. We all live very close to each other in the same town. My cousins are like my siblings. My eldest cousin is the only one with kids so far, an 18-month-old and a 6-year-old. My aunties—the kiddos’ great-aunts—utterly disregard my cousin’s wishes with her kids. For example, when left alone with the kids (which is often, both the children’s parents work nights), the aunties will give the 6-year-old a baby bottle full of warm milk. The kid is in first grade and already reads. Both my cousin and I have tried to tell them that this is wrong. The child is well past the age where bottle drinking is OK. Every time this gets brought up, it causes a family war. My aunts justify it by saying that this or that cousin had a bottle at an advanced age. Usually they just shut me down by saying that I don’t have kids and can’t give an opinion, despite the fact that the child’s parents agree with me. I seriously worry for the child’s welfare and psychological well-being. I have no idea how to approach this anymore, but this is absurd and it needs to end.

—Six-Year-Olds Should Not Be Sucking on a Bottle

Dear SYOSNBSoaB,

They should listen to your cousin. If they don’t? That’s why free child care is never free. It may not cost money, and you may not have a better option, but it’s not free.

(Also, you do not need to approach this anymore. It’s not your fight. Your cousin will care enough to put her foot down or not. Also, a bottle of milk a few times a week is not going to turn this kid into a serial killer.)

—Nicole

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus