Last week a young mother was engaged in a struggle (two struggles, as it turned out) next to my parked car in our town centre. She was holding a very tiny baby in one arm, and attempting to unravel her complicated pushchair with the other. It wasn’t working! So I held the baby (very trusting of her) while she unfolded the pushchair, successfully. We chatted. She was clearly a devoted mother and had a lovely rapport with her baby, as do the vast majority of new mothers. However, this close, loving, committed and total involvement with her new infant had come as a total surprise to her. She was about to begin her University PhD and was realising how upset and worried she was at the thought of leaving her baby – she was clearly deeply troubled about this and almost in tears at the thought, even with a stranger in public. Her words have stayed with me: “I had absolutely no idea I would feel like this about my baby, when I made my PhD application.”
Indeed. And this aspect, of post-baby sea-change in attitude to motherhood, surprises so many previously non-maternal, bright, professional women who see their baby as a wonderful extra dimension to their lives, while at the same time maternity leave being a brief interlude in a career. Remember this though: After Childbirth Your Brain Is Altered: that non-maternal not-necessarily-particularly-interested-in-children approach you may have lived with all your life dramatically alters (with the vast majority of women). This is, in the main part, to do with the introduction of a massively increased quantity of the hormone oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ hormone, into your system following childbirth. It works! You didn’t have so much of this hormone operating before, because you didn’t need it in the same way. To put it bluntly, oxytocin is one of Nature’s main ways of ensuring your baby’s needs are met, that it is loved, nurtured, fed, cherished and generally treated in the best way for it to thrive; and all this loving and cherishing comes from you, the mother, as the chosen though unwitting recipient of large ‘doses’ of this hormone. Wonderfully, you are given oxytocin to galvanise you into becoming committed to the difficult but rewarding task of caring for your baby – it smooths the way for you, makes it so much easier.
But, and here our car park friend was finding herself in a difficult position (the second struggle she was facing that morning), if you begin to leave your baby too early, too often, and for too long, not only will the baby experience a reduction in your valuable and loving input, but you too will feel keenly the loss of time and loving nurture with your child. It is you, the mother, who may not be ready for the separation, let alone the baby. The oxytocin was doing its work that day, and showing the mother how deeply bonded and committed she was. The overwhelming urge to be with her baby was a natural result of Nature at work. It is no myth: the mother-baby bond is intensely real and is there to serve a vital purpose. That PhD might be able to be reduced in priority for a year or two, but the baby?