There’s an old riff that if you want to make a friend, ask them for a favor. It’s counter-intuitive advice. Wouldn’t you want to offer a favor to cement a budding bond? That might help too, but if your potential compatriot is willing to invest in you and your shared connection, it will quickly deepen the affinity.
Stepping off my Carnegian milk crate I’ve been working to craft a connection with our daughter in her first weeks of life, and the quip about friendship has bounced around my head during long walking sessions when I try to get her to go to sleep. Mostly because I thought that I understood what bonding meant. I didn’t.
If you read through your state, or employer’s notes on parental leave it may mention bonding — the idea that you should, if you can, take time off from work to spend time with your new child and bond. (I wholeheartedly agree with this perspective, and honestly view any employer that doesn’t offer paid time off to both parents of a newborn as both cruel, and unforgivably penurious.)
But what is bonding? In my now-hilarious pre-baby perspective, it meant something akin to a give and take. The baby would get to know me, I would get to know the baby, and we would bond as a pair. Incorrect.
I’ve since learned that bonding with a newborn doesn’t run in both directions. Sure, your kiddo will get to know your face and voice a little as they jet through their first weeks of life, but if you are hoping for a loosely equitable distribution of affection with your brand-new child you will be set up for disappointment.
This is not a diss of babies, mind. Given the size of our brains and therefore heads, humans are born rather underbaked so that they don’t kill their mothers while entering the world. As a result they need lots of post-womb time to get up to speed with quite literally everything, from holding their heads up to learning how to drink without choking. They are useless at birth, and thus in need of chronic, and complete help.
Enter bonding! Bonding with a baby is the simple, and repeated act of pouring love and care into the child without restitution. Most of what you will get out of bonding with your child is a little bit more sleep. If you take the time to walk her until she truly falls asleep and you can put her down, for example, your reward will not be a cupcake she baked for you, or a crisp $50 note, but instead a bit of rest so that you can pull yourself partially back together. Repeat ad nauseum.
If you can secure a friendship by asking for a favor, how much of a connection can a baby create with you by demanding around the clock care until you want to fall over and cry? Quite a lot! And you simply cannot bond with your child unless you are taking on some of the work. The work creates the bond. And that bond that matters so very much, as without it you will not have a child per se, but instead a terrible roommate cum houseguest that is trying to take over all your hobbies and bank accounts.
Bonding. It’s the outpouring of work into your new kid. They need it, and because you want to love them as much as you can, you need it too. Even on the days when you are exhausted and you just want the darn child to stay asleep for more than five minutes. Even when they manage to soil the new diaper you are putting on them not once, but twice. And even after they demand to keep eating even after they are full and then spit up on you and the couch and then get hiccoughs and then cry because it’s all too much. And then ask to eat again.
The good news is that as you invest in the child, you will care more about it. By caring for it, you will care more for it. It’s a good circle, as without it I doubt our species would have survived.
The loop of childcare and childrearing is not what I expected thus far. It’s better, thanks to the work it requires. Proves what I knew!
The featured image on this post is an excerpt of a piece from Christian Bowen, whom I wish to thank.
isn't it amazing? i know it's so cliche, but you really do learn a ton about yourself, and about relationships.