Unexpected Loneliness of New Motherhood

There's that lovely moon again, a kindly face watching over her sleepy brood. Awake for another nocturnal milk feast, I treasure these simple moments of just baby, moonshine and me, but those first months of motherhood were tinged with loneliness - a surprising predicament that I hadn't prepared myself for.  I associated loneliness with the elderly and the bereaved.  What right did I - a healthy, mobile person, with a family and a home- have to complain of loneliness?  Encouraged by similar experiences shared on social media (see Channel 4's special loneliness season). I finally feel able to share my thoughts on this wonderful and challenging chapter.

Photograph: Amal Hirani
Why was new motherhood so lonely?

1. The Monologues.  I went from teaching full time in a secondary school, talking with hundreds of people a day, to being alone with my newborn, nine hours a day, everyday.  Sure, we 'chatted' in our own way and those delightful smiles and gurgles went a long way, but I would yearn for my partner's return, that wonderful moment of hearing the key in the lock.  Of course, I have a phone, but people weren't always available for that rare window when I wasn't feeding, changing, bathing or settling him to sleep.

2. Physical Discomfort.  My partner's paternity leave flashed by in a pain-killing haze of stitches, engorged leaking breasts, haemorrhoids and post-birth bleeding.  I dreaded his return to work; I still felt so broken.  For me, breastfeeding didn't really become comfortable until the fourth month.  Staying at home in greater comfort, attempting the perfect latch was the better option.  Loneliness was the price I paid.

3. Mental Anxiety.  I'd like to think of myself as outgoing and confident.  New motherhood found me lacking in this self-assurance and I hadn't yet learned to trust my instincts. I dreaded social occasions, becoming panicky in large groups.  Having always been a confident speaker, I was now rather sullen and if I did say something, I would usually regret my contribution.

4. Exhaustion.  It's hardly a news flash, but the regular night feeding is tough.  Everyone tells you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but it's not that straightforward.  For the first week, my adrenaline was so high, that all I wanted to do was to stare at this tiny human, this miracle of life.  He'd only really properly sleep on me, or my partner, which is lovely, but after the SIDs warning, I was petrified of squashing him.  This new level of tiredness made socialising impossible.  Again, it was better to be lonely than face the world.

5. The Mission of Leaving the House. My parents visited when they could and weekends usually brought family and friends.  But in the day-to-day, fresh air and conversation were the best remedies for loneliness, but that meant taking everything necessary for nappy changing, feeding, leaking, soiling, thirst, hunger, cold, warmth, rain and sun.  I would have preferred to use a baby carrier, but I quickly developed mastitis if I walked too far with our little one pressed against me.  We did have a pram but to avoid the crying, I usually ended up carrying him and pushing the buggy one-handed.  Our local station had too many steps to take a buggy and the 'Mind the Gap' warning suddenly provoked real fear.  The tradition of confinement in some cultures seemed like a good idea.

6. Fear of Rebuke. I cared too much about what people thought and wanted to be regarded as a 'good' mother who had her shit together.  If my baby suddenly started crying in a shop, I'd quickly want to soothe him, but also not to attract negative attention.

7. Isolation. Few of my friends had children and my family all lived a train or plane away.  Because of numbers 2-5 above, making new mum-friends wasn't easy. I really wanted to meet other mums. I was astounded at what all mothers had endured to bring new life into the world and enraged anew at how maternal strength had been dismissed by the patriarchies of history.  I wanted to know their stories and share my own. Playgroups or baby classes were good options, but could be very hit and miss. Some were very unfriendly and didn't even ask your name, some were brilliantly led and gave you tea and cake.  In the early days, the few I went to were rather rubbish where I paid £8 to feed and change my baby amidst the chaos of a baby sensory disco, next to nannies who stared at their phones.

8. Routines.  I did make some lovely new mum-friends, but hanging out wasn't always possible. Their babies actually slept in stationary buggies; my little one would need walking outside in a sling.  My spirited wide-eyed baby would usually be too distracted to feed out and about; my friends mostly bottle-fed and could feed and pause without their rejected leaky boob hanging out.  Conversation would go between how much milk the babies drank, sleep times and weight percentiles.  I never really knew and would often return home feeling like I was doing everything wrong. 

My experience was very mild compared to other new mums.  Moreover, it was only when I was alone with my baby that I truly got to know him.  By the time my first baby was six months old, I was more confident to mix with the world. I've now got two little boys and despite moving to a new area, I've not experienced that same intense loneliness again.  I've regained my self-confidence and have learned to trust my instincts.  I've made new friends at playgroups and playgrounds and it's my chatty confident toddler who now makes the introductions.  If I see a parent who's also braved leaving the house, I try to make the effort to say hello as it's far too easy to ignore everyone else once you've found your clique.  But sometimes, we don't leave the house, or my only adult chat is with the check-out cashier, but that's ok these days because it's the price we pay and we'll soon hear that key in the lock before bath time.

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