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Struggling With Loneliness and Isolation As a Parent

Where’s that village when we need it?

Nostalgia for the communities of family members and friends who formed a safety net under our parents is strong today. Parenthood is, by its nature, socially isolating. Mothers, especially when breastfeeding, get extremely connected to their infants’ needs, often at the expense of their previously supportive relationships with their partners, and it comes at a price. A mom in my practice summed it up, “I had no clue going in that parenting was so lonely. Neither did my husband. Now I know that it is, and what it is, I talk with my closest friends about it. My husband, who didn’t have that many friends to start with, doesn’t talk to anyone, not even me. It’s tough on both of us, individually and as a couple.”

Social isolation, the dearth of meaningful social relationships, can lead people to become emotionally removed from the surrounding community, typically leaving families with limited, or merely superficial, social contacts. Fathers may be at particular risk since they tend to have half the number of close friends women do to begin with and are less likely to admit to feeling lonely.

Parents are not alone in their struggles. Last year’s survey of 20,000 adults, not just parents, by the insurance giant Cigna found that nearly half of American adults 1) felt alone sometimes or always, 2) felt left out and 3) felt that the relationships they did have lacked meaning. Only seven percent reported having someone in their lives who really understood them. Social media was neither the problem nor the solution; there was no difference in loneliness between light and heavy users. These trends, many of which seemed to have started in the 1980s, are especially tough on parents, who may juggle fatigue, boredom (“baby brain”) and anger at their situation. How do you combat social isolation and build your own village?

  • Rely on and disclose more of your distresses to the friends you already trust, asking explicitly for their support and help. You can swap babysitting nights, meals and play dates;
  • Get out of your home for errands, and take a walk “just because,” unless the weather is dangerous. The fresh stimulation to your brain, health, and imagination is as important for you as it is for your child. The Cigna study found that loneliness and isolation are as dangerous to your health as smoking cigarettes;
  • Remember that more informal support groups exist than you might think, such as your prenatal class buddies or parents of other children in your daycare or preschool. Four couples from my prenatal classes took turns visiting one another’s places with their children for adult social support. Twenty years later, we still stay in touch. If you are geographically isolated in rural areas or on military bases, online groups are terrific and plentiful. I know a stay-at-home dad who simply leaves his shared video camera on for hours with other at-home parents as they go through their routines. “I feel deprived when there’s no service!” he says;
  • Talk about social isolation regularly and honestly with your partner. It goes with the territory, even though you probably didn’t expect it. Leave the blame and judgment at the door. Identify the problem, give it a name and then concentrate, together, on the solutions.
More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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