When your bundle doesn't bring immediate joy

The pressure to find joy in new motherhood can be overwhelming.
The pressure to find joy in new motherhood can be overwhelming. Photo: Getty Images

I often throw the word "joy" around.

It's a small word, but it weighs a lot. Especially when it eludes you.

I am searching for a card for a friend whose third baby is due soon, and I come across a lot of "bundle of joy" cards, a term that bugged me when my own bundles were born. I derived a whole bunch of things from them right off the bat - purpose, hope, a terrifying level of love. But joy didn't happen for a while.

When my daughter was born, I waded through some dark days of what I now recognise as postpartum depression.

I was sure she would be a rare human casualty of avian influenza, a disease that was making the rounds - mostly among birds, mostly in China - in the months leading up to her birth. We didn't live in China, and she is not avian, but her dad rode the train to work, where I figured he'd contract the virus from a fellow traveller, come home from work, pick up our daughter and promptly infect her.

Crazy, right? I laugh about it now, especially with my kids. "Tell the story about bird flu!" they'll beg.

News reports about Hurricane Katrina, unfolding in New Orleans while I was on maternity leave, sent me into hours-long crying jags. I couldn't believe the state of the world hadn't occurred to me sooner.

My friend Christina, who had two children, told me, "Everything changes at four months." And it did. My daughter was sleeping and smiling and rolling over. I was feeling less like a puddle of tears and more like a doting mum. Life was good.

But what if four months came and went, and the gloom still hung in the air? I would have taken it as a sure sign of failure, one more thing I was not picking up as quickly, as naturally, as others.

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Which is the thing about joy. It's so powerful that we can't help but wish it for the people we love. But it's also so personal. And few things feel worse than being told to feel joy about something that fills you with an altogether different set of emotions.

I didn't experience the same darkness when my son was born. I couldn't fathom my state four years earlier; I scoffed at it. What a rookie. All those tears and the bird flu thing.

I'm afraid we do that to each other: assign joy to certain endeavours and scoff at the people who don't experience it in the moments we've preordained. I'm afraid we give "bundle of joy" cards to people who feel more like bundles of nerves.

I read a new study the other day called "The Joy of Cooking?" Three sociologists interviewed and observed 150 mums to determine how the return-to-the-kitchen movement exalted by foodies and health officials affects most families. They quoted food columnist Mark Bittman, who hopes "to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden."

Most of the mums, did not see cooking as a joy. Too little time, too little money, too little appreciation from the hungry charges.

Reading these mums' laments was so liberating. Mealtimes at their houses sound so much like mealtimes at my house. Joy is rarely on the menu.

Which isn't to say cooking can't be joyful, but that goes back to the personal. One person's joy is another's burden, and we'd all do well to honour that.

I've gotten more honest over the last few years about what I'm feeling and what I'm not. Divorce and therapy will do that for you. But so will good friends and good books, both of which can offer the language you can't come up with on your own.

Grace helps too. I'm learning to go easy on myself - and others - when I see a darker set of emotions in the place carved out for joy.

Now if I can just find a card that says, "Your baby won't get bird flu. But call me if you're scared, and I'll come over with chocolate."

- MCT