Ask any parent what the most difficult thing about parenthood is and an array of different answers is certain. Sleep deprivation, the struggle to juggle and tantrums are likely to feature, but not all challenges are easy to admit.
Loneliness and isolation in parenthood are often associated with the early days’ restrictions and mammoth adjustments involved. But for many parents, loneliness persists well beyond the early weeks, creeping into their daily life and making up a significant part of their parenthood experience.
“Chronic loneliness and social isolation has a huge impact on a person’s health and wellness” including “links to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes”, psychologist Sinéad Brady of workstyle.ie explains. “At its most extreme there’s a link between loneliness and early death.”
Longer commute times and living distance from family and friends, and social media portrayals of “perfect” parenthood all play their part, Brady believes. “We have to open more meaningful conversations about the reality of life and life as a parent.”
And it's not just stay-at-home parents who are vulnerable. Father of one Gavin Leonard is a business start-up consultant and author of the "Not just a princess" series. He met his wife Wu Fang while working in China, where they ran a large English school before returning to Ireland in 2014.
“Every day we worked together, we lived together, we really spent 24/7 together. The issue we had though was that we were very stressed, working hard and wanting to start a family. We knew we didn’t want our children to be raised in the Chinese educational system as it is very stressful for everyone.”
Gavin says his work can be “very lonely”. “When you start your own business you have no choice but to put in every hour necessary. I remember having a meeting in a bar four hours after my daughter was born!”
Fang and their daughter Jade return to China for at least two months each year. Gavin misses them hugely but the time he can afford to take off work is limited. “I work as hard as I do now to try to get a deposit for a house. Dublin is so expensive for housing and trying to get a mortgage as a self-employed person who has been away for 10 years is very difficult.”
Gavin tries to meet up with dad friends periodically but says “every time we try to arrange something, one of us will have an issue so generally we spend most of the time rescheduling”.
Mum of two Samantha Kelly is a social media consultant, trainer and founder of the Women's Inspire Network. She found the initial adjustment to working from home isolating and "challenging", not helped by the guilt she felt as she tried to combine work with motherhood.
“I felt awful guilt. Even though my body was here at home, my head was in the laptop. If it was a sunny day I tried to get most of the work done early in the morning, take a break in the afternoon, take my phone to the beach just in case, then work late at night, so I could give them quality time.”
As a “people person” Samantha “missed having someone to bounce ideas off or just chat”. As a woman in recovery (Samantha is 11 years sober) she appreciated the importance of community and the need to surround herself with like-minded individuals, so created the Women’s Inspire Network to support other female entrepreneurs who may find themselves feeling similarly isolated.
Blogger Ellen Brophy split from her partner while pregnant with their third child. Moving home to live with her mother, Ellen didn't initially struggle with loneliness. Things changed however, when she got her own place. "I had to get used to my own company at night when the kids went to bed. This was hard for a chatterbox like me but, bad and all as social media is, it was a lifeline because I could chat to my friends without leaving the house.
“For me, the real loneliness comes when my children do something wonderful and I’m dying to share that with someone who loves them as much as I do. It’s those moments that I feel most alone and even though they are glorious memories that are being made I feel a tinge of sadness every time.”
Ellen feels frustrated when others say they “feel like a single parent”.
“I understand when someone is saying that, it’s because the workload of parenting is left to the person at home. However the difference is, your partner, whether they are there or not or whether they help are not, is still on your team. When a relationship breaks down in many cases you lose the support of the parent. In some cases you may have the other person actively working against you. That’s the difference.”
Writer and mum of three Geraldine Renton's life was turned upside down when her eldest son, Ethan, was diagnosed with the terminal condition Hunter's syndrome. Geraldine gave up work to become Ethan's carer. "If you want to see who your real friends are become a carer," Geraldine says.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends and the ones that are still here are busy living their own lives. It’s hard. It was easier when Ethan was younger and much more able-bodied but now it’s harder because there is so much to pack and bring when we go anywhere and then there’s the accessible issue.
“Watching other children Ethan’s age leaves a lonely feeling in my body right down to my bones. It’s a little like ‘what ifs’ or ‘what may have been’– it’s a lonely thought and feeling as I don’t have any friend who lives near and is going through something similar to my role as a carer.
“I don’t openly talk about loneliness or isolation. It’s something I think most parents feel over their lifespan of being a parent. I worry if I did discuss it, I would somehow come across as someone who is complaining and I’d hate for anyone to think that I don’t like my life or blame my son for having to be his carer. I guess I fear judgment.
“Loneliness and isolation, no matter who you are caring for is indeed something that become part of our role. I truly believe that and I don’t think you can know that until you live it.”