Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Family & Loneliness

This month saw the unvelining of a new study investigating triggers for loneliness in the UK. Motherhood was identified among the top causes of loneliness.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot these past few months, and 7 months into my 12 months of maternity leave/isolation unit, I feel like I've figured something out about myself, motherhood, and loneliness.

It's a cliche that all expectant first-time mothers envision motherhood in a manner that significantly deviates from the reality. On my part, I imagined maternity leave would allow me pockets of free time during the day to pursue my own projects. This didn't happen, because babies nap sporadically here and there, sometimes for just twenty minutes, or sometimes after crying for ages and leaving you completely exhausted. Maternity 'leave' is just another full-time job, in no way more flexible nor less demanding than your previous full-time job - in fact you constantly have to work night shifts and double shifts, skip lunch, come in hungover, sneak out for a quick personal phonecall while the boss is distracted, etc.

As well as underestimating how demanding of my time maternity leave would be (not motherhood, I knew motherhood would be hard, I just thought you got more breaks than you do), I was determined to make 'mum-friends' and get involved in local activities so as to avoid cabin fever and loneliness.

I did do this to an extent and it has been great, but there were also some issues:

  1. I'm an introvert by nature, so I found it quite exhausting to constantly expose myself to new people and to have to do 'an activity' each day if I didn't want to spend it in my livingroom talking to a human that has zero interest in anything I have to say. Sometimes all I wanted was to chill with an old friend I could make little to no effort with, confident in the knowledge they shared my sense of humour and could tell me about their life without giving me a compressed back story.
  2. You end up talking about the babies constantly, which at first was, in fairness, all I wanted to talk about. But now I find it really boring. Sorry, Francis - I love you but if I have to talk about whether or not you enjoy broccoli with one more person I might lose it.
  3. You still get no time off. You get to be with other sleep-deprived mums with tiny humans to look after, you can have solidarity and share advice and be supportive to one another, but you both have at least one baby to look after each so you won't be able to get a break from motherhood in these contexts. As the study reveals, rest is a key way to fight loneliness since low energy and stress are conducive to it.
I've been very lucky in that my father lives in London and is retired and very happy to be hands-on with the baby, so I've been able to get a lot of help from him, as well as my in-laws who are also local and very forthcoming with the babysitting. This has made a huge difference, and it has made me realise that a huge cause of loneliness in new mothers must arise from the fact that we no longer live in small, mutually-supportive communities centred around the family units that make them up. Most of us, especially in big cities like London, moved far away from our families for work reasons, and when we start our own family we find ourselves miles away from the very people that can help us with all things family-related, around whom we can be most relaxed and demanding.

When I became a mother I didn't suddenly become a self-sufficient parent, I didn't become a different person, I didn't stop being a daughter or a sister. There's a reason transition periods can so often lead to loneliness - transitions are gradual adjustments, and individuals require a lot of support to undergo them, as well as a rock solid foundation in order to still know the things about them that haven't changed. Nothing provides us with this base more than family. Being around family as a mother means I can also be looked after, I can learn new things from those I trust the most, I can make mistakes without feeling judged or embarrassed, I can do things slowly and gradually and with plenty of breaks. This is what made all the difference for me. Going to baby group or downloading the Mush app were an amazing source of friendship and support, but they weren't critical in the way my dad was when I needed someone to do bedtime so I could nap for two hours because I was falling asleep while holding the baby.

For us, it's really made us reassess everything - do we want to live in London where everything is a long train ride away, where there's endless variety and choice but no single community and social connections are often fragile and temporary? What kind of network do we want around us as our family grows and expands, and what kind of context do we want for our children to grow up with? It's a conundrum that faces parents across the country - rural vs urban, near folks vs near work, exposure to a wider variety of experiences vs a more close-knit but less varied community. There's no right answer, but for me one thing is clear: family is more important to me than ever.

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