Home alone: Coping with new mum isolation
The joy of new motherhood can often be accompanied by feelings of isolation. Jen Hogan talks to two mothers who share their experiences of overcoming the loneliness of parenting
Motherhood is often portrayed as the holy grail of perfection and wonderment - a time filled with love and selflessness that is fulfilling and rewarding and which gives us a sense of completeness we might never have experienced before.
Portrayals however, are rarely full reflections of reality. While motherhood is indeed a privilege and new motherhood in particular, can be a very exciting time, it can also be a time when new mums feel lonely and isolated. They can feel cut off from the world around them as they grapple with the realities and demands that go hand in hand with having a young child.
It's said that 'it takes a village to rear a child' - but these days the villagers all seem to be busy doing their own thing. Loneliness is reportedly on the rise among mothers as they are particularly vulnerable - but is there anything that mums can do to help themselves?
Yvonne, who has three children, became a mother for the first time at the age of twenty three. "I was very excited at the prospect of becoming a mother," Yvonne explains. "I imagined how life would be when my baby was born and thought about things like feeding and bathing the baby, walks in the park, picnics and a maternity leave that would be spent enjoying and getting to know my little baby. I read up on what to expect but was shocked to find that my baby didn't seem to follow any of the rules. He refused to sleep, didn't like to be put down and always seemed hungry."
Yvonne found herself trapped at home because she was exhausted by the efforts of trying to take care of the baby. "I spent most of my days in a tracksuit, covered in baby drool because I was just too tired to do everything needed to get me and baby out the door. I watched the clock constantly, waiting for my husband to come home. His work day seemed so much longer after baby was born."
"I never expected to feel so lonely," Yvonne adds. "Even though I knew that none of my friends had babies yet, I still imagined visitors calling in for a cuppa and a chat. I was desperate for adult company and found myself tearful frequently when my husband left for work. Even on the days that I did manage to get out of the house, I was alone with my baby. Going for a coffee in a shopping centre, or strolling around the park alone with my baby, just made me feel like I was the only one on my own."
Yvonne reached a turning point when on the advice of her Public Health Nurse, she joined a local mother and toddler group. "I met some really lovely women there who were at the same stage of life as me. It was fantastic to chat with other mums who felt the same and were experiencing similar struggles with their babies."
"I made a special effort to attend the group every week, no matter how tired I was because their company was priceless. Over time I built up some really good friendships and some of us even went on to have our next children at a similar time."
Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist at Solamh says that loneliness is something that gets hugely overlooked but affects a lot of people. "It's hard for somebody to say, actually I'm a bit lonely. But for a lot of new mums, they've gone from having support based on work, their social network, their peers and quite an independent social life where they've got lots of people and stimulation - to retreating into their house where they don't have the same contacts."
New mums are "absorbed by this new little baby, which doesn't talk back," Fortune explains. And because baby doesn't check how mum is doing "you're giving and giving and giving and responding to demands, but your own needs are not being met for a huge part of the day."
"In our mother's time, when they were having babies, so too were a lot of their peers - at the same time. There was very much a community approach. The neighbours would have been involved in calling in, bringing food, checking in on you. You had a much more collaborative approach to raising children."
Fortune says that people nowadays think that "they're doing you a favour by leaving you alone and giving you time to bond with your baby, but actually we need somebody popping in."
Mary, who has two children, had her first baby aged 33. She says that loneliness became a big issue for her after she gave up work, when her first child was eighteen months old. "I enjoyed work," Mary says "but my daughter was frequently ill and the demands of trying to juggle it all when coupled with a commute became too much, so I decide to stay at home."
"Everyone I knew was working, or lived a distance away and I spent all day alone with my little girl. I suffered with postnatal depression after her birth and while loneliness wasn't the cause of my depression it did exasperate the symptoms. I literally stood at the door waiting for my husband to come home and was very annoyed if he was ever delayed. It's funny, but it was a colleague of my husband who was the person who flagged to him how lonely I must be at home all day alone. He was a father himself, so maybe his wife had experienced something similar."
Her husband suggested that she try the local mothers and baby group, and while many new mothers find them helpful, Mary didn't enjoy her experience. "I found it 'clique-y'. It may have been that my confidence was on the floor because of the postnatal depression but I didn't go back again," she says.
She tried attending one again after the birth of her second child but she still didn't like it. "We had nothing in common, except that we had given birth," Mary explains. "It was really only when my daughter started primary school that I found myself feeling not quite as lonely. I met lots of mums at the school gates and friendships developed."
"Having a child of school age and juggling the holidays and collection times meant a lot of the mums I met had to rethink working outside the home," Mary adds. "There suddenly seemed to be more people around."
According to Joanna Fortune, loneliness doesn't discriminate, although a first time mother may be slightly more vulnerable, particularly if her peer group is not at the same stage.
"Loneliness can lead to mums feeling quite negative about themselves," she explains. "It can affect a woman's self-esteem and confidence and make it more difficult for mums to reach out. It can almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a lonely mum has a partner she may need her partner to provide her with a lot of validation, stimulation and engagement at the end of their working day."
If women are not at the same stage of life as their friends "they can feel the loss of their friendship," Fortune adds. "For women, friendships are quite intimate, quite intense and a big part of our lives, so that's a big loss."
In terms of combating loneliness, the psychotherapist says "to take the rule of yes. If somebody offers to do something for you or call around and help, say yes. Don't say 'Oh no I'm fine', out of politeness. Say: 'Yes, that would be great I could really do with somebody to call around. It would really help me'. For people who have friends who have had babies, be very mindful of this, and when you call around, even if the baby is crying, hold the baby, let the mum go to have a shower, go change her clothes, go and lie down for twenty minutes. Be a practical, useful visitor. Talk to your friend, not about the baby, but ask her how she's doing."
For the many women who don't have easy access to friends and family, Fortune recommends speaking to your Public Health Nurse about other support networks available. "Accessing groups that already exist such as mother and baby groups can be really, really supportive." While the psychotherapist accepts that there is some benefit and support to be offered by online parenting forums, she is keen to add that it not the same as meeting real people. "It's a good other to have but it can't replace the value of having someone physically in front of you who will talk and listen to you."
Overcoming motherhood loneliness
- Tell friends and family how you're feeling. Ask them if they can call in for a coffee and a chat.
- Check out the local mother and baby/toddler groups. You're likely to meet women there at the same stage of life who are attending for exactly the same reason.
- Speak to your P.H.N about breastfeeding/new baby support groups are often held in local health centres.
- Have a look at online parenting forums - they sometimes arrange group meet-ups in different locations.
- Consider an activity geared towards mums and babies such as mum and baby yoga, mother and baby swimming classes or baby massage.
- Some cinemas organise baby/toddler film viewings, go along and try to strike up a conversation beforehand.
- If you have children of school-going age, host a coffee morning for a few of the mums.
- Look into an evening activity that you enjoy, and is separate from being a mother. You never know what friends you might make along the way.