It takes a village to raise a child, so they say, but what if that village no longer exists?
Parenthood has a funny way of keeping you overly occupied as the kids rally around you and ensure you are never truly alone. The sad juxtaposition of being lonely and isolated as a parent is that, while you may physically never have a moment to yourself, the desperate isolation you feel from friends, family and life in general can hang on your shoulders.
With partners at work, friends and family leading their own lives, nap-times and school-runs dictating your free-time, it can be overwhelmingly isolating.
While this isn’t a new phenomenon, it is only lightly spoken about and parents-to-be are often not forewarned about the isolating factor of babies. Lately, it is striking a cord with more and more parents who openly admit: “I’m lonely and feel lost.”
The question is, how much can this isolation and loneliness affect our mental health? And how can we step out from the loneliness?
Aisling Leonard-Curtin, chartered psychologist, co-director of ACT Now Purposeful Living and author of The Power of Small, explains that, "there was a large meta-analysis, which combined the results of several research studies that found that loneliness and isolation were as detrimental to our health and well-being as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having a weight within the obese range. Simply put, the impact of loneliness on parents is huge and cannot be overstated.
“When loneliness and isolation happen on an on-going basis for parents, they are far more susceptible to anxiety, depression and burnout. It can also have an impact on our physical well-being, decreasing our immunity to common colds and flus whilst also increasing our chances of experiencing back, neck and headaches.”
Avril Fitzpatrick was 19 when she became a single mother. Now a mum-of-three, she says, "I lived in a rural area with no amenities or parent groups. I had to travel for everything. I felt like everyone was judging me being such a young mother. As my friends started moving on with their lives and I was home with the baby, who I adored, depression set in and anxiety when I was in public places. My family were amazing and only for them I would have sunken into a hole."
Avril’s support network had changed by the time her second baby arrived. As her partner returned to work, she felt the isolation again. A third child later and she recognises the continuing difficulties anxiety and depression bring as a result of loneliness. “I still avoid going out anywhere I don’t know with the younger two by myself. I can’t do crowds because I’m terrified one of them will get lost. I adore my kids but worry that my anxiety is holding them back, as well as me.”
The necessity of friendships has become more important to our mental health as our busy family and work lives take on a level of stress that is incomparable to decades before. The essential need for friendships as a parent has an impact on our mind, our trust in ourselves as parents and our judgment.
As Leonard-Curtin says, “Friends are vitally important as they can provide a space for parents to reconnect to aspects of their identity outside of being a parent. Whilst being a parent is undoubtedly an extremely important role, being overly focused on a parenting identity can be detrimental to psychological well-being.
“In an everyday practical sense, many lonely parents will feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, yet often feel ashamed about feeling this way.”
Coach, mentor and mother-of-two Yvonne Smyth moved to Northern Ireland shortly before the birth of her first child. Without family or friends nearby, she felt the isolation grow. "I didn't have much awareness of mental health or the importance of community back then and so I didn't seek out opportunities to meet other mums. I was so excited to become a mum as it was something I'd eagerly anticipated since a young age and I threw myself wholeheartedly into my role as mother."
Without other reference points though, other mothers to chat to and share the journey with, I often felt completely overwhelmed. “But the challenges of motherhood were so different – unpredictable, often exhausting and I guess like most mothers, I was just making it up as I went along and doing the best that I could, which often didn’t feel good enough at all.”
Depression is a reality for mums and dads suffering through the loneliness of parenthood. Feeling disconnected from the outside world, doubting ourselves, lacking familial support, being unable to partake in social occasions or join groups aimed towards parents and their children can negatively segregate and isolate parents.
These are parents who wish they were able to forge connections with like minded individuals and negate the loneliness of being at home with children but struggle to find their way out.
To alleviate the isolation it takes guts for the nervous parent, planning for the disorganised parent and willingness for the unsure parent.
It is important for our mental health to find that support network that will see you as more than just the parent.