“Do call us if you ever get lonely, won’t you?”
These were my boss’s parting words as I left my temp job in the city, 35 weeks pregnant and off to have my first baby.
It was an odd thing to say, I thought: why would I be lonely? I was about to have a baby, there was literally going to be a whole new person in my life! Within weeks I would know exactly why she said what she did. Very quickly I would uncover the raging epidemic of loneliness in motherhood that runs silently throughout our society like a dark river, never really seen by those who haven’t been a part of it.
Looking back I should have seen it coming.
Friends I had known and loved for years stopped inviting me out once I became pregnant. Not from malice or a falling out, but because our relationship had revolved around pubs, bars, smoking and drunkenly putting the world to rights – once I couldn’t drink there was no place for me.
Although they welcomed my baby warmly and congratulated us appropriately, once I swapped wine glasses for breast pumps and nightlife for night feeds there was no space for me in the lives of my metropolitan, party-life friends, or for them in mine. The rare meet ups we did have felt awkward, like we no longer knew how to relate to each other. And I suppose we didn’t.
Meanwhile, like many mothers of my generation, my family could only offer long-distance, moral support. They were scattered around the country, hundreds of miles away from me and my newborn baby. For the first 6 months my parents valiantly made the effort to visit once a month, driving 200 miles each way. But the time, effort and cost made it impractical to carry on long-term.
So I staggered, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived to local baby groups looking for friendship.
I struggled to find enthusiasm for endless coffee meet ups about feeding, sleeping and colic. I loved having a baby and being a mother, but I didn’t want to talk about it all the time. I was also alone in following attachment parenting, which made me feel even more out of place among mothers who casually left their baby distressed and crying in the pram while they chatted away, seemingly oblivious. Gradually I retreated and accepted the loneliness of my new role as an accidental full-time stay at home mum.
My story of loneliness and motherhood is unique to me. However, I’m not alone in feeling that a crushing weight of solitude is a day-to-day part of mothering.
Now that we’re in a global pandemic and social distancing is the new normal, our loneliness is compounded, but mothers have been feeling increasingly isolated for decades.
For centuries we raised children in large extended families. It’s only since the end of the Second World War that we’ve been trying to do the same amount of work (plus more if you are also working for money or a side hustle), with little or no daily, practical support.
My generation of mothers has the added complication of the internet, with social media placing extra pressure on us to be the perfect Instagram-worthy mum.
We now need to make it through the day alone, we need to fill our child’s lives with extravagant sensory tables, wholesome forest school activities and expensive wooden toys. Meanwhile we’re under pressure to work for money on top and give ourselves daily doses of self-care to make it all bearable. It’s exhausting just thinking about it!
There’s never been a lonelier time to be a mother, but the flip-side of the digital coin is that the internet gives us enormous opportunities for connection that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
Here in the UK we’ve only just started to come through the other side of nearly 18-months worth of lockdowns and not a day has gone by without me feeling endlessly thankful for living in the digital age. I don’t know how we would all have coped without the ability to connect with family over Skype, order food and household essentials online, and discuss the hardships of lockdown life with other mums on Facebook.
I want to finish with some tools you can use as a mother to start chipping away at loneliness, whether you’re a first time mum with a newborn baby in lockdown or a mother of multiples struggling to be everything to everyone.
This isn’t the easiest time to come up with a list of ideas to beat isolation, but I hope some of these tips will be helpful.
Reach out to your existing network
I don’t know about you but, for me, it’s easy to forget that there are people already in my life that I just haven’t ever connected to properly. In the first global lockdown in March 2020, for example, I started swapping WhatsApp voice notes with my adult niece who has a preschooler and a (then) newborn. It was lovely to chat with someone in a similar position to me with a shared background and I don’t know why we didn’t do it before.
Have a think about who is already in your life that you haven’t spoken to in a while but who you might connect well with and take advantage of our amazing technology to reach out to them wherever they are. A tool like voice notes for example offers the convenience of a text that you can answer in your own time, but can be deeper in content yet less time consuming than typing.
Recognise the difference between Friends and Mum Friends
This was a big penny that dropped for me only relatively recently: friends are folks you can chat to about anything and sound off to when you need it, and mum friends you meet at the playground and swap stories of sleep deprivation with. These do NOT need to be the same people! Maybe it’s obvious but that realisation was huge for me.
It instantly lifted the pressure to try and find a life-long friend in another mum, when in fact it’s okay to be casual friends whose main connection is our kids. Plus, your old single friends who you used to be close to can be your best friends again if you make the effort to reconnect – just leave the mum talk out of it and enjoy having non-kid-based conversations again.
Think outside the social media box
When I was pregnant I joined a whole load of Facebook groups, mostly generic pregnancy and due date ones. I expected to find some people to connect with and chat to but they were so big and broad that I quickly found myself feeling disconnected. What I’ve found is that the groups I feel most at home in are not specifically mum groups – they’re just topical groups that happen to have lots of mums in them.
If you’re feeling like none of the mum groups you’re in have members you can connect with then ditch them and look for groups about other topics that you’re interested in instead. Even if they’re not specifically mum groups, they may have loads of members you can connect with more easily because you have shared interests besides kids.
Reconnect with yourself
I think one of the most isolating aspects of becoming a mother is that you lose a lot of what made you YOU. For me, it’s the little things like not doing my trademark make-up everyday, or not finding regular time to have my hair cut into my favourite style. They’re small things but they all come together to help form my identity – if I don’t even look like “myself” in the mirror anymore, I start to feel even lonelier because I don’t know who I am.
Find ways to get back your sense of your old self before you became a mother, assuming that’s an old self you miss. If not, start consciously carving out new habits to go with a new identity, because maybe your loneliness is to do with hovering in between an old and new self and you need to work on stepping into a different sense of who you are. For more ideas on how to do this, check out my post on matrescence – the transition period we all go through when we become a mother.
Reconnect with your partner
I know you may be yearning for connection with others but sometimes it’s okay if your “village” is just you and your partner for now. Try and schedule a regular date night to reconnect with who you were as a couple before you had kids. It’s the worst feeling being lonely even though you live with someone else and sometimes it’s to do with the shift from being a couple to being parents.
Try to carve out a regular slot where you temporarily pause your relationship as parents and instead create a space for just being a couple again. You can do this even in lockdown and with no babysitter by dressing up and eating a nice dinner as if you were in a restaurant, or getting in a takeaway and snuggling up with a movie after the kids are in bed. If you’re co-sleeping and go to bed at the same time as your child, perhaps use nap time instead and have a day date.
If you’re forever nap-trapped with a young baby, think creatively about how else you might be able to date your partner using online spaces, messaging services and video chat to invite in some romance, intimacy and connection. And of course, do check out my post on gentle baby sleep techniques (100% no-cry!) if a lack of sleep is adding to your problems.
So I hope this post has helped you to feel a little less isolated, even if it’s just knowing that you’re not alone in your loneliness. This mothering gig is tough, but it’s the most important job in the world and you deserve to get the support you need to do it.
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