In 2009, I had everything I ever wanted: a decent job, a loving partner and a healthy baby. My bucket list was complete. The day after we brought our daughter home from the hospital, loved ones gathered around a homemade dinner. As we all sat down, I burst into tears. Everyone assumed it was joy or C-section pain. It was neither.
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I was feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness. My life and my body had just been upended and stitched back together, and I knew I wouldn’t find my footing for weeks. I was in a free fall of hormones, stitches, sore nipples and fatigue. That was bad enough, but hearing how normal life was going on for everyone else pushed me over the edge. My mother was still taking walks and going to her book club. Two friends who didn’t have children had been on a bike ride. Another friend had just booked a trip to the beach. I couldn’t do any of those things. And I had no idea when I could.
Having a new baby can be as lonely as slipping into your cold bed all alone after your spouse has left you.
I had a hard time articulating what I was feeling. Part of the issue was shame: I had the healthy baby of my dreams, so why was I crying into my spaghetti? It made no sense. Plenty of my friends had had babies, and I could call them up any time to ask for support or advice. How could I credibly claim loneliness as my malady?
It turns out that’s exactly what was plaguing me, and a new report from the British Red Cross and the Co-op, organizations that partnered to tackle loneliness in communities across the UK, found that I was not alone. In fact, the report showed that young motherhood (ages 18 to 24) can be just as lonely as divorce or bereavement.
Yes, having a new baby can be as lonely as slipping into your cold bed all alone after your spouse has left you for another woman or another realm.
"No one is immune to loneliness, and certainly it does not just impact the elderly. Many people who experience it, have at one point been ‘connected’ but a life change such as becoming a mother, going through a divorce or separation, deteriorating health or mobility, retirement or bereavement has caused them to start to feel disconnected," writes Richard Pennycook, the chief executive of Co-op.
The report found that transitional life events are triggers for loneliness: "When a person’s identity or role was disrupted by an expected or sudden life event, this could cause an old identity to fall away and a new one with added responsibilities and burdens to appear." It's not surprising that motherhood is one of these life events, especially when there are many barriers to connection, including financial hardships, the lack of social spaces and the stigma of loneliness.
Where was this report seven years ago when I staggered into early motherhood with bleeding nipples and a heap of expectations that were crushing my joy?
The loneliness of new motherhood is specific. It has a taste, smell and feel unlike any other loneliness I’ve ever known.
I was too tired to pick up the phone to tell my mom friends what was happening. Plus, I had no way of knowing if they had felt like this, too. None of them had ever pulled me aside and warned me that I would fall into the grips of a searing loneliness that would make me want to cry during most of my waking hours. Plus, they had all moved through it, and when I was in the darkest heart of my loneliness, I had zero faith that I would come out the other side. I was convinced I would be a cautionary tale about the perils of having a child when you could not cope with the isolation and fatigue.
We’ve all lost our village, and early motherhood was the moment when I needed it most. I didn't just need someone to hold my baby while I got some sleep, but also someone to look me in the eye and say, “I’m here. You are not alone. You will find the other side."
So If you know a new mom or are one, reach out. Encourage each other to talk to not only other moms but also to professionals. The loneliness of new motherhood is specific. It has a taste (morning breath ick), smell (sour milk) and feel (heavy) unlike any other loneliness I’ve ever known. Had I known it was coming, maybe I could have prepared better. For one thing, I could have stashed some mints around the house to combat that awful taste in my mouth and asked other mothers to share their experience around loneliness.
Most of all, I would have believed myself—that still small voice inside me that cried for company and consolation, the voice that insisted, "I'm lonely."