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The Unexpected Loneliness of New Mothers

Why it happens — and what parents of newborns can do.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Few new parents have accurate expectations of how much their lives will change after the birth of their first child. The physical and mental exhaustion, and the constant attention newborns require, leave virtually no time for the individual pursuits or relationship activities that had characterized their lives previously. Even those who anticipate these challenges rarely anticipate their intensity.

But there is one challenge few new parents see coming, especially nursing mothers — loneliness.

One might think that having a newborn by your side (or on you) virtually every minute of the day and night would lead to the opposite problem — to craving alone time. But while new mothers might feel extremely connected to their newborn, they often feel extremely disconnected from everyone else — including their spouse.

Jancee Dunn, author of the relationship-mending book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, was surprised by the loneliness she felt. “I started feeling very lonely probably about three weeks after giving birth. I spent the first two weeks at my parents' house, and then I went home, and my husband went back to work. I remember it was late spring, and I'd take the baby out in the stroller, and we'd walk all day in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and sometimes, aside from a phone call or two, I wouldn't talk to anyone for hours… I'd get sort of pierced by feelings of isolation.”

Loneliness, especially when it continues for too long, can pose risks to our physical as well as our emotional health. (See 10 Surprising Facts About Loneliness.) It can be especially problematic when it catches you off guard.

Raquel D’Apice didn’t see loneliness coming either. In her hilarious, honest, and therapeutic book Welcome to the Club: 100 Baby Milestones You Never Saw Coming, #56 is "First Time You Are Completely Overwhelmed by Loneliness," and she writes: “Parenting is lonely. I did not know this going in. There were days when being home alone with a baby felt like — you know that moment in a game of hide-and-seek when you realize that no one is looking for you? Like that but lonelier.”

Psychology Today blogger Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points, identifies a variety of factors that can contribute to loneliness for new moms: “Having a child is often incredibly stressful on a couple's relationship, especially if you don't feel as supported by your partner as you'd like to be. In addition, there’s a tension between wanting to keep up friendships and other social relationships but feeling either too exhausted or too anxious about being away from your baby.”

Because new parents do not anticipate feeling lonely, they often struggle to identify the problem and figure out solutions. “Now that I think back on it, it never would have occurred to me to call a friend or family member and say, 'I'm lonely,'” Dunn says. “My thoughts and emotions were all over the place, and I don't know if I could have even named that feeling as loneliness at the time. I see now that it absolutely was. If I needed a connection, instead I would call someone with a baby question, like, 'Do I wake her from a nap if it's been over two hours?'”

Reassuring as such calls are, they do little to soothe the raw pangs of loneliness and isolation.

What to Do When Loneliness Strikes

1. Recognize you are feeling lonely. Ask yourself whether you are feeling disconnected and lonely. Once you suspect that might be the case, it is easier to recognize the feeling. Identifying the problem is crucial; otherwise you will chalk your feelings up to fatigue or hormones, and not realize there is a real problem to be solved.

2. Reach out to family and friends with whom you feel comfortable and create a rotation of visits so that you are not spending too many hours and days alone with your newborn.

3. Search online for new mothers or new parents' groups, and attend more than one if you need to and can.

4. Discuss other potential solutions with your partner — or, if you are a single parent, with other new parents or family members.

5. Use video calls. I often suggest new parents keep a video chat window open for hours at a time with their family or friends. You do not have to talk the entire time, but just seeing them go about their day or evening can make you feel like you are there with them, and that can take the edge off lonely feelings.

By anticipating psychological problems and taking steps to mitigate their impact, parents of newborns can spare themselves significant distress and have a far more positive experience in the first weeks and months of their child’s life.

Welcome to the Club is excerpted with permission from Chronicle Books.

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