The risk of loneliness among some social groups has been a focus of concern since the current pandemic took hold and isolation became the order of the day. The elderly living alone or as couples apart from extended family spring first to mind and we rightly give them priority in our efforts to accompany the vulnerable.
There is another social group, however, where loneliness may be a greater problem than usual.
The lonely new mom
Even before measures were put in place to reduce social contact for Covid19, mothers – especially new mothers – were at high risk of mental illness due to social isolation and loneliness. A 2018 UK survey of more than 2,000 mothers found that 90 percent of them felt lonely after having children and 54 percent felt “friendless” after giving birth.
After the birth of my first child I felt that my life would never be the same again. It was difficult trying to figure out what would change and what could remain the same. Would I have to give up all my old hobbies? Would my husband still be attracted to me now that I was a mother? Would I ever get in shape again? Would I ever be able to go out for longer than an hour without feeling exhausted?
A 2020 Cigna report suggests that more than half of new mothers mourn the loss of their pre-baby social life and experience social isolation and loneliness. The report found: “People playing the role of primary caregiver are more likely to report that they lack companionship, have no one to turn to, feel alone, left out and isolated.”
A life out of balance
There is a difference between social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation refers to the number and frequency of connections a person has with other people. Loneliness refers to how satisfied a person feels about these connections.
Social isolation may be caused by circumstance: living in a remote area, working from home, or not having the opportunity to meet people.
Loneliness, on the other hand, may be caused by a lack of social support and infrequent meaningful social interactions; negative feelings about one’s personal relationships; poor physical and mental health, or a lack of “balance” in one’s daily activities – doing too much or too little of any given thing.
The 2020 Cigna survey asks its participants to self-assess whether they feel they have slept overmuch or too little, worked overmuch or too little, spent too much time with family or too little. Generally speaking, people who perceive that their health and life are in balance feel less lonely.
I think this research points to an important aspect of loneliness, which is self-perception. Mothers are faced with the very difficult task of raising a newborn, which is a physically and emotionally demanding job that offers little to no rest. The demands on the mother can cause her to feel like she is lacking in what she needs, sleep perhaps being the main deficit, emotional support another.
Since her life is out of balance, she may not feel like she is in a position to make new friends. And she may find that she has difficulty relating to old friends who have never experienced the weight of new motherhood. So the new mother may choose to socially isolate herself until she “feels better” or “feels like herself again.”
Craving the ‘past self’
In my own experience, living on little sleep stretches you, and that little “boss baby” demands of us a maturity that we haven’t yet acquired. Putting someone else’s needs before our own makes us come face to face with our selfishness. Let’s just say, becoming a mother has made me realize I’m not as nice as a person as I thought I was.
New moms are not always confident about the woman they have become. Not all of us are confident about disciplining children in public. Or about keeping our cool in stressful circumstances. Sometimes social media gives us the impression that other moms get it when we don’t. We are all constantly learning (and re-learning).
Some solutions for moms
Social isolation is a problem for moms, but I think sometimes when moms get together, they are afraid to open up and share their problems. Everyone is afraid of being judged. It doesn’t help that many of us have held-fast opinions on the hot button issues: sleep, nutrition, discipline, schooling, and child care options.
It is extremely refreshing to come across another person who is in agreement with us on all these issues. The feeling of relief is followed by a feeling of pure kinship. But it’s difficult to find these people. Most moms probably make do with superficial chit-chat because that’s good enough. No one has the energy to get into a heated discussion on something they’re not willing to budge on.
My mother-in-law hosts a Neeje mom’s group that I think does a great job in helping people open up and share their opinions. Every month we get together and discuss a topic while she the veteran mom acts as a moderator. Afterwards we enjoy a potluck together. In this environment, moms feel like they can open up. The focus is not about finding the best strategy, but on learning from one another, and hearing each other’s stories. Or simply convalescing.
But I think even our group attracts like-minded mothers. It’s only natural. Since I’ve become a mother, I feel less inclined than I did when I was in university to spend time with people who are extremely different from myself. It’s not that I’m less open-minded, I’m just more tired. It costs less energy to spend time with someone who already agrees with me because I know there won’t be any emotionally stressful disagreements. And as the mother of three toddlers, I have my fill of daily, emotionally stressful disagreements.
So I think we should just accept it: let’s hang out with other mothers who share similar values to ours. Let’s open up with these mothers who we feel “safe” with about our opinions and have an openness to learn from them.
When we’ve recovered, or rather, when we feel up to it (and maybe without the kids), it’s fun to get out and engage with people who have varied worldviews. During this forced period of Corona-isolation, that might look like a phone call to an old university friend, or even more simply–reading a book that I wouldn’t normally read that has nothing to do with parenting.
Becoming a good friend
Positive self-perception is the first part of the loneliness issue; the second part is developing quality friendships. The quality of our relationships does not depend on the amount of times we are in contact with another person, but on how we interact.
I grew up as a lonely kid. Though I was in a large family, I didn’t know how to connect with my siblings. When I was at school, I had friends, but I knew something was missing in our friendships. It wasn’t until I got to high school that someone mercifully explained to me what it means to be a friend.
Being a friend has less to do with how well you think the other person likes you than what we confidently feel we can offer the other person. As it was explained to me, a friend is a person who cares.
People show that they care by:
- being responsive to the other person’s emotions
- greeting the other person warmly when they see them
- speaking kindly to the person, and defending them when they are not present
- showing a desire to be with the other person by setting up times to see them in-person
- if the other person is remote, remembering to set up face-time, make a phone call, or send regular emails or letters
- remembering the things that the other person likes
- phoning them on their birthday, giving a gift, or even hosting a party for the person
- giving cards or gifts on holidays or another occasion
- telling the other person that you love or like them
During this moment of social isolation, it may not be possible to show our friends how we care in the usual ways. Let’s make an extra effort to reach out to our friends in the ways that we can, remembering their important days and letting them know that we are thinking about them. That’s the small effort that we can make to help the people we love get through this time of trial with peace and joy.