Every mother feels lonely sometimes. In some ways I don’t feel I’ve any right to talk about this, because I am so RIDICULOUSLY fortunate in the people I have around me. It feels as if single mothers have the right to be lonely, and mothers who have lost their own mothers have the right to be lonely, and mothers who live in the middle of nowhere in the countryside and have a bitchy antenatal group have the right to be lonely, and I don’t. But sometimes, I still am.
This week the charity Action for Children published a study saying that a quarter of parents felt isolated some or all of the time. For parents aged 18-34 – ie, new parents – it rose to a third. Well, I think they need to run their numbers again, or use truth serum and a lie detector (those are real, right, and not just a plot device on Homeland?). Because if I feel lonely, then I reckon everyone does.
For me, one of the most beautiful things about becoming a parent was the way that everyone, from my immediate family to people I’d never met, rallied around me. I’d never even thought about the meaning of the word “community” until I started to receive gifts from cousins in America, or advice on sleep from my Bangladeshi neighbour who used to be a midwife. My parents bought us a pram; a variety of completely random people helped to carry it up and down the stairs at the station. The mother of a colleague made the baby a hooded cardigan, apparently just because she “likes to knit”.
If there is a wording you can put on a thank-you card that expresses the gratitude I feel towards these people, collectively, I never found it. They helped me to make sense of my new role, caring for a tiny person around the clock; they showed me that humanity means caring for those who need care, simply because they need it. And yet I felt alone.
As the mother, I think you are alone: though there may be a tribe around you, helping you to raise your baby, in some sense you are still the only one standing at that particular precipice. You are responsible for a baby now, and your decisions will make a huge difference to somebody’s life. To who somebody is. For me, that was overwhelming at times, although I got advice from older generations, although I was surrounded by peers who felt exactly the same. In the middle of the night, I was the only one lying there wondering whether the sleeping baby was “too quiet”.
It’s not nearly as bad as it would be without my husband, of course. It took us a while, but now that our daughter is a toddler we’ve found a rhythm of looking after her: he gets her up and gives her breakfast, I brush her teeth and get her dressed, he puts her shoes on, and so on. He does his best to look after me (I don’t always make it easy) and even seems to like me most of the time (I don’t make that easy either). He’s also my favourite person.
But here’s the thing about co-parenting: two can be the loneliest number. When I had breastfeeding problems and he suggested switching to formula, I felt completely undermined. When he wanted the name Celeriac, whereas my first choice was Bob – it wasn’t those names but it might as well have been, we were so far apart – there was a bitter row. When our newborn got a weird skin infection and I didn’t notice for a couple of days, his assessment that it was “not your finest hour” added shame to the guilt.
I knew not to call a divorce lawyer thanks to the Best NCT Group Ever, who were all having the same kinds of feelings – and, thank God, were willing to talk about it. Some baby groups work and others don’t; it was a piece of extraordinary good fortune on my part that I found a group of about eight local mums who were all quite different in terms of background, age and personality, and yet bonded over the things we had in common. At the time, I thought of us as being in the trenches together, battling this huge task while under heavy fire of information and advice as to what we should be doing.
We met at least twice a week (there was somebody going for a walk in the park, or to a stay and play, or our local café nearly every day in that first year) and occasionally even went out at night to get obliterated on 1.5 glasses of wine, because that’s all it takes in the first year. When they all went back to work full time while I was doing only mornings, my “free” afternoons with the baby suddenly yawning out in front of me, I was bereft.
Being at home with a baby, let’s be clear, is incredibly lonely. I’ve met people who say that their baby is the best company they could wish for, and they make me feel tremendously bad about myself because I get bored. I am not someone who can cheerfully play “peepo” for an hour. Give me a 13-month-old and a box of Duplo and I’ll become absorbed in trying to build a complicated house, rather than engaging with the child.
Even now that my daughter is 2 and talks just about as well as I do, I still find it hard to hold a conversation all the way through dinner some days, my thoughts drifting off towards work. She’ll jolt me out of it – “I can get down and play now Mummy, can I?” – and the guilt surges up, that yet again I have fallen short. I am alone with that feeling, too; I tried to explain it to my husband a couple of times and he told me I was insane.
What I suspect is that everyone has a different definition of loneliness. I am surrounded by amazing, supportive, helpful people but I do at times feel that none of them quite UNDERSTAND. This starts when you’re pregnant and have to go to your first wedding or party where everyone but you is absolutely smashed, and however nice and fun they all are, you can’t shake that slight sense of detachment. It continues in subtler ways, as the love takes hold, and you live with the fear that Something Could Happen.
That is not to complain! I’m writing this at home alone, and struck by the sudden realisation that I’ve shared more than usual. People are going to judge me, because that’s what we do with mothers. The hope is that somebody out there will read it and realise that they are not alone in feeling this way. It’s normal to feel lonely, I think. Even when you’re at a point in your life when you’re never actually by yourself.
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