It’s ironic isn’t it. You’ve created another person and you’re never alone, in fact you might literally have another person strapped to you at all times, yet, you can feel real moments of loneliness when you’re a parent.
As mums ourselves who have both experienced feeling lonely, and hearing from our clients who bring this topic to coaching sessions, we wanted to share some of our thoughts and learnings to help you know that you’re not alone… even though it might feel like it.
What is loneliness?
Human beings are hard wired for connection. It’s important to acknowledge that loneliness is part of the human experience, and while it can be very uncomfortable and might bring up other difficult feelings for us, it is also a normal response to a situation which most of us will feel at some point during our lives.
Psychologists define loneliness as ‘a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships’ (Peplau L, Perlman D. Perspectives on loneliness.)
There’s more and more research being done around new parents and loneliness. The most recent statistics from a UK survey carried out by Channel Mums found that a massive 90% of mothers feel lonely since having children and 54% of the 2000 mothers who responded, felt friendless after becoming a parent. (Lonely and Left Behind, Tackling Loneliness at a Time of Crisis, British Red Cross in Partnership with Britain Thinks.)
Parenthood aside, in the wider context, other research has shown that our social networks in general have been shrinking since the 1980’s. According to this, the average person living in the 2000’s has 4 fewer friends than those living in the 1980’s. (Marisa G. Franco PhD, Platonic)
So before this all gets doom and gloom, the reason to share all of these statistics is to drive the message home that loneliness is normal and even, possibly, to be expected when going through the transition to motherhood. However, left unchecked, loneliness can have an effect on our mental health which is why it’s worth talking about.
Why are new parents more likely to feel lonely?
Going through the transition of becoming a parent can be a real rollercoaster ride. With all the excitement and joy of a new baby, growing your family and stepping into your new role it can often come as a surprise that there is also a cost of disconnecting from your old life and sometimes a complete shift in your identity.
Change in routine
I know for me, one thing I hadn’t considered before my maternity leave was how much I enjoy and need structure and routine. In a working week I would have a defined start and finish time to my day, I would have natural interactions with members of my team, and all of the incidental micro interactions I’d never thought of before, with the person on reception and at the coffee shop for instance.
It seemed like overnight, when my husband went back to work, it was just me and the baby for 8 hours a day and it was up to me to fill that time, which takes a lot of energy, particularly when you add in the fact that I was only getting around 3 hours sleep every night.
Social media has plenty of pro’s when it comes to connecting people, however, we probably all know the risks of looking at it when we’re not in the right state of mind, which can feed into unhealthy comparison and high expectations of ourselves.
When we’re feeling lonely, we might go to social media thinking it will help to solve the problem, when in reality it’s more likely to exacerbate it.
Drawing from my own personal experience again, I looked at FaceBook a lot when I was on maternity leave (Now I realise this was down to staving off boredom and looking for connection.) and the meme that seemed to be everywhere was ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. While I understand the good intention of this message, at the time it only served to highlight to me that I didn’t have a village, which made me feel even more lonely, that there was something wrong or different about me, and fed into the next point about the stigma around loneliness.
Like many areas of mental health, there is a stigma around loneliness which makes it very difficult to talk about. Ironically this is where loneliness thrives, with no-one talking about it and no common understanding, we believe that we are alone in feeling lonely.
This can be particularly the case at a stage when society seems to imply it should all be about the baby and we should be ‘cherishing every moment’. It can feel self indulgent to think about yourself and your own needs when the baby is now thought to be the most important person.
Ways to Tackle Loneliness
While we appreciate that everyone will experience this period differently, we want to use our experience to help and support you, so we’re sharing a few practical ideas below.
Make a plan
Before you have the baby, when you have the energy, think about who you are and what you need to function well. I.e are you an introvert / extrovert, do you like structure or thrive on chaos? You could use a personality profiling tool to help if you find this tricky.
Using the information you uncover, think about how you can put some activities in place to support your future ‘new parent’ self. For example, you could enrol in a baby class or set up some coffee / lunch dates so you have contact with others in your diary already.
When it comes to work, you might want to plan in your KIT days, so that you have some structure in advance. Staying connected to systems or groups that you were a part of before you were a mum will remind you that you are still you in addition to being a new parent.
It can be really hard when you’re in the grip of feeling lonely, but if you can, speak to someone and let them know how you feel. I remember the first time I was brave enough to say out loud to a friend that I felt lonely, and she looked immediately relieved and told me that she did too. There’s no shame in feeling lonely and you can see from the stats above that you might be surprised at who else is feeling the same way.
If you don’t feel that you have anyone you can confide in, think about a professional service, a coach or a therapist who could help you. A coaching session can be a great space to be vulnerable and share your feelings and experiences. Your coach can then help you uncover any underlying needs you may have and what steps you can take to support yourself.
Boost your ‘in real life’ connections
Although in some ways social media can make us feel that we’re connected to others, it is often a bigger part of the problem, showing us a stream of content of happy people doing parenthood perfectly. If you’re able to, try to balance your social media consumption with real life contact with others as this is where you’ll find the deep satisfying connection we all need as human beings.
My colleague Sarah Turner and I have been busy creating content highlighting the importance of organisations providing support for working parents. As part of this, we created this video series exploring the entire journey of maternity leave, from before the leave starts, through to preparing to return and then the first few months back at work. In our most recent video, we talk about loneliness in motherhood.
If you are interested in learning more about maternity coaching and how your organisation could benefit, have a look. If you’d like more information about how we can support you with return to work coaching, please get in touch.
This blog post is a collaboration between Maternity Coaches Laura Duggal and Sarah Turner. They are working together, sharing their experiences and bringing the best of their joint advice and knowledge to you.