Loneliness is often not the lack of people in the room, but the lack of connection to those in the room.
Loneliness is not a mental health problem in its own right, but for a lot of people, they are experienced at the same time. For a lot of new mums, loneliness can be an exceedingly difficult companion on the voyage of motherhood.
I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt lonely; in fact, that feeling is a biological one. We feel safe as part of a group and feeling safe means we are more likely to survive the dangerous world we live in. Our world has changed somewhat since the development of the fight, flight, or freeze instinct: as humans, we spend more time alone than in groups, and we interact physically less often than we would have done previously (particularly now in Lockdown 2020), but physical distance isn’t necessarily the cause. Having a connection to someone; to have a shared experience, share a meal, agree on a difficult subject, enjoy a hobby together: these social activities are where the wellbeing comes in, and they can happen over the phone. But if we’re struggling to find that connection, we feel lonely.
We might feel out of sync with some people; the baby doesn’t want to wean like friends’ babies do, doesn’t reach milestones at the same time, or perhaps everyone else appears to be coping with the demands of motherhood. Everyone else appears to cope with getting up in the night, why can’t I? I suspect this is particularly highlighted in early motherhood if your experience of giving birth is not the same as that of those around you. Having no shared experience can feel very isolating, and this can lead to feeling like to loneliest mum in the playground.
Loneliness can happen for a variety of reasons and it takes many different forms. Here are some of our perspectives:
My daughter wasn’t very keen on food. I weaned at six months and she just wasn’t interested. All my friends’ children enjoyed their food, we’d go on picnics where they would try new fruit, or chew on a piece of bread, but mine wouldn’t even consider it. I eventually spoke to a health visitor who invited me to a weaning group. None of these kids would eat, but I felt connected to all those mums.
When I was experiencing post-natal depression with my son, I was cripplingly lonely. I’d never been diagnosed with a mental health problem before and I was terrified of what was happening to me. Attending a group for mums with PND was very much a milestone for my recovery: I was in a room full of women and we all shared a language, which is what I love about The Motherkind Café. There’s no need to explain, because we know.
Three days before my son was born, my favourite band released their most recent album. It was one of my Christmas presents that year, so I put it in my car and listened to it every time I drove anywhere with him. It became the soundtrack to my early days of being a mum. One day, when I was on my way to meet up with some of my NCT group for a walk and a coffee, a song called “Sunshine” came on. I sang along as usual, but when I got to the line “sometimes the things we love so much just eat us up from the outside in,” I found myself bursting into tears. I suddenly became aware of how I felt like I was slowly disappearing into motherhood with nothing of myself left, and it terrified me. After parking, I needed a few minutes in the car before I felt like I could get out and face the rest of the group. I spent the whole afternoon desperately trying to act normal, but I wasn’t fooling everyone, because at the end of the meetup, one of the other women asked me if I was really doing ok, and wouldn’t let me fob her off when I said that I was.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough to make me realise that although I wasn’t alone, I was lonely. So I told her a bit about how I was feeling, and she listened to me. A couple of days later, she texted me to check I was still ok, and a few days after that, we met up for another walk, and little by little, I made A Mum Friend. And it was a wonderful feeling, knowing that there was someone else out there who I could talk to and who would get it. True friends in Mum Land are worth their weight in gold.
If you’d asked me before, I wouldn’t have said I was lonely. I’m quite introverted and I like my own company, but I’d made a special effort not to turn into a hermit because I’d been worried about feeling isolated after having a baby. I was keeping in touch with friends and colleagues and meeting up with my NCT group, and of course, I had a little sidekick coming everywhere with me, who had his own busy schedule: swimming, music groups, baby sensory classes, to name just a few. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy all of those things; I did. I liked getting out of the house and seeing other mums and babies and keeping up with my friends who didn’t have children. I’d equated seeing lots of people and doing lots of things with the avoidance of loneliness – after all, how could I be lonely if I was so busy? But I felt like I was on a parallel track to all of them, out of step, like there was nobody there who truly saw me, and that, I realise now, was a loneliness I hadn’t expected; the loneliness of not being able to say how I really felt. All it took was a small step, the smallest, just someone asking me a simple question and patiently waiting for the answer.
I still have that CD in my car, and I still sing that song. I remember the feeling, but it’s passed now, and in its place, I have the knowledge that I don’t need to feel eaten up any more. Instead, I remember the day I was honest about how I was feeling, and that I need connections with other people too, even if I think I don’t.
I think it goes without saying that single parents feel lonely, but what struck me about my experience of motherhood is that it wasn’t in the obvious times or places. When I was a new mum, I went to live at my parents’ house to help me cope with the demands of looking after a newborn baby on my own, so I was thankful to never really be alone for the first ten weeks of my son’s life. If anything, I desperately craved total solitude. Nothing quite reminds you of how much you miss that alone time like motherhood and the noisy demands of a small person 24/7. I do remember feeling very suddenly isolated from the people in my “old world” who didn’t have kids, but it was lovely to now find myself in this incredibly supportive new community of mums who (mostly) looked out for each other. There was a level of understanding, empathy and kindness that I had never experienced before in my life. People who’d had children also understood that doing this on your own was unbelievably hard, and that made me feel proud of myself, as I realised what a mammoth task I was taking on. I also found communities of women on social media who were willing to be honest about how conflicted they felt about motherhood and about their experiences of postnatal mental illness, which made me feel less alone when I could feel my own mental health unravelling.
But once the bubble of a new baby faded and I started to make a recovery from the anxiety and depression that had been a feature of the early weeks of my son’s life, I started to consider moving back home. I did my first two nights there with him when he was about eleven weeks old. The house was dusty and messy from some recent building work and I was anxious. Didn’t he know it. He cried solidly from 9pm, when I tried to put him to bed, until 12am, when we both finally passed out. I don’t think I’ve “grown up” so much in a 24-hour period before or since. I didn’t properly move back to my house with my son until he was about nine months old, which was when the loneliness of being a single parent really hit me.
The worst days are when you don’t really speak to another adult, from the minute you both get up to when you finally go to sleep. I’ve found that I’ve got less good at making conversation with other mums at groups now my son is older, like I’m no longer in that new-mum club where everyone is looking out for each other. I went to a new playgroup near me recently and not a single other mum spoke to me. It was only when one of the helpers came over that I had a conversation with an adult. Then there’s the long evenings without a partner to come through the door at 6.30pm, change the dynamic, make things fun again and (ideally) either take over the longwinded “bedtime” process or at least cook you dinner while you do it. But probably without question my least favourite part of parenting solo is “The Park on a Sunday Afternoon.” The park on a Sunday afternoon is the domain of dads and happy families. Meanwhile, I will myself to be cheerful, pushing my son in the swing for the 700th time, eyes ragged from another 5am start, and all around me I see visions of mums who have extra support and company in this parenting rollercoaster.
What I’ve learnt is this: tell some of your close friends that you find weekends hard – a few of mine assumed that I’d have other things to do – and if you can, find some single parent pals you can rant to over a cuppa at the weekend.
Thankfully, as my son gets older and more interesting, hanging out with him is becoming much more fun. I’m really looking forward to having a little buddy for weekend adventures to come and being able to do things together that we both like. Just don’t ask me to hang out in the park on a Sunday.
For anyone struggling with finding a shared experience, The Motherkind Café is a place of acceptance. It’s run by mums who have all had different experiences, but whatever you have to say, you’ll find nothing but support and reassurance, and we will all share a cup of tea (even if it’s only a virtual one at the moment!).