The Loneliness of Motherhood

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Motherhood can be a lonely, lonely thing. Which is strange, isn’t it, because mothers are almost never alone.

In the age of social media, the irony of lonely while surrounded by people, wanting companionship while feeling touched out, is being shared by parents in droves. Articles, tweets, and a few Instagram pictures are followed by hashtags about being tired or touched out or being the “bad” mom who forgot today was crazy hair day at school. Or it’s the article or post that touches lightly on the subject of postpartum depression, never during, but always after.

Usually, these glimpses provide a place for other mothers to tentatively reach out and give tiny snippets of their own stories. Solidarity, my sisters! Or, how brave to post such honest things! Or it’s just a way to laugh at the reality.

And laugh we must because sometimes this loneliness is more than a portion of motherhood. Sometimes it’s a weight, it’s stifling, it’s smothering.

Let’s laugh to keep from crying.

Motherhood can be lonely. But why?

I wonder if it’s because we’re pack creatures, social animals that really do need a village. Maybe it’s not children that need a village to raise them, but mothers that need a village to support them.

Today, motherhood is endless nights of half-assed sleep because lying down means running down the endless list of things that were done, things that were forgotten, and things that need doing. It’s nights debating whether an earlier bedtime for self should occur, or if the book, the show, the wine, or the game is worth a few less hours of sleep. And this has to be debated because at this point she probably just wants one single freaking hour of time alone, an hour to read or drink wine or peruse Instagram or just not be touched. But, of course, regardless, the next day will start early, too early, because of all the prep that has to happen before the day even begins.

Time to wake up and teeth and wash faces and find matching (sort of) clothes. Yes, maybe pjs that pass for clothes can suffice for daycare, but they definitely can’t be the pjs with smeared peanut butter and you definitely can’t pair it with a Halloween mask. Please eat breakfast, but make sure your teeth are brushed. Where’s your book bag. Did I brush my hair? My own teeth? I forgot to finish my makeup, but at least I drank my coffee. It’s fine, we’re late, let’s go!

Motherhood is giving up every first sip and every last bite. This is such a truth that it’s become a joke. How many memes and posts and videos and cartoons have you seen with moms hiding in broom closets or bathrooms just so they can scarf down a chocolate bar without guilt (or maybe with guilt, but the chocolate helps)?

Motherhood is a love that’s so big and strong and overwhelming, that it gives you strength on the days that the little ones test your patience. It’s a love that overpowers the basic survival instinct. I know without even thinking about it, I would give my life for any one of my children, no hesitation. I’d step in front of a car, a train, whatever.

And yet.

Can I please just finish one piece of pie without a little tiny food gremlin coming over and sticking toddler sized fingers into the crust? Please.

Motherhood is lonely in the weirdest sense because you’re constantly surrounded by people who respect almost no boundaries.

Motherhood has you touched out and craving people, frazzled and craving adult talk, tired and craving alone time.

And no one warns you! No one warns you about the days that feel endless, just about the years that pass quickly. No one warns you that there will be days that you just want to sitforonegoddamnminute without someone using your body as a jungle gym. No one warns you that motherhood is exhausting because there’s no real start time, but there’s definitely no end, no sick days, no PTO, no pause.

And so when all these feelings hit, you just feel lonely and upset that you’re probably the world’s worst mother, because you’re not fawning over your child every second of every day. It feels lonely because most of the emotions you feel throughout the course of the day are hard to pinpoint and hard to explain. It feels lonely because how many times can you vent about the same thing? It feels lonely because the baby you were pining for, dreaming about, love so much, wanted so much, maybe after a loss, maybe after years of trying, maybe after an adoption process, etc, etc, etc….maybe after all that, they’re still just a child and you’re just a mother who is like every other child-mother combination. You’re still just human and you need breaks, but motherhood never seems to break.

But when cries for help sound like complaints and the best people can say is, “Babies don’t keep!” It’s not very surprising that it’s lonely.

Currently, with a raging pandemic, this loneliness can hit even harder, especially for new moms who may not have the normal support that would have been provided otherwise.

Motherhood is lonely. And it’s okay to acknowledge that. And it’s okay to vent. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to say you’re overwhelmed. It’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay to reach out for help, personal or professional.

We need to know it’s common to feel this way and that professional help is a viable option.

Vent away. And if you have no one to vent to, feel free to shoot me a line. Sometimes talking, writing, helps.

“It’ll be Fine.” Invalidation, Dismissal, and Lifeguards.

One of my dear friends is pregnant with her first baby. During the time of Covid-19, it’s already uncertain and strange. Baby showers, classes, and tours are all either non-existent, online, or reduced. Add the insecurity of the job market, balancing safety with not being too overly paranoid, and the weird limbo that everyone lives in currently with growing a human being inside of one’s body…it’s a pretty crazy time.

For her, it’s beginning to feel more and more overwhelming, since this first pregnancy for her means adding a sibling to her blended family. Covid-19, of course, complicates this even further, as her postpartum period will be balancing healing with a newborn with older children with school with keeping her sanity intact.

Where is her partner in all of this? Mostly working. Which is the setup that everyone (mostly) enjoys. Financially, he’s the heavyweight in that household. Which works well until one matches a demanding job with demanding hours with family. In that case, work doesn’t accommodate. And so, being the one that will be just staying home, the household and parental duties land on her.

The only advice I could offer (that I recommend to everyone, EVERYONE) was to get a postpartum doula.

“Seriously,” I gushed. “I didn’t even know about postpartum doulas until kid number 3. And even with older kids and my partner to help, they were amazing.”

My friend laughed and said she had tried explaining that to her fiancee, but he shrugged it off.

“It’ll be fine. We have my mom down the street, the girls can help, and when I’m home, I’ll help, too! It’ll be great.”

My own partner did the same thing, somewhat offended. “What? Why? I’ll be home for two weeks. And then we have the older two. And my mom would happily come over all the time. She loves to see her grandbabies. And my friends would gladly come and help.”

It’s not the same. It’s not the same. It’s not the same.

Everyone reading this blog post who is currently or will be pregnant: Hire. A. Postpartum. Doula. And if you cannot afford one, reach out anyway, because 1) payment plans and 2) sometimes there are doulas who can offer free services.

Note: Doulas are worth all the monies. And there will be a future blog post exploring why the privilege of having a doula means they deserve money for their emotional and physical labor, but also the barriers that exist for those who would benefit the most from doula work. Yes, it’s a bit complicated.

And still. A lot of people will be met by that simple refrain: “It’ll be fine.” A wave of the hand. A shrug of the shoulders. A (seemingly condescending) smile.

“It’ll be fine.”

And then a feeling will sprout beneath the ribs, a worry, a flutter, a weight. And then people will wonder, Will it be fine? Am I being too overly dramatic? Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Or Why don’t they understand? I don’t know how to express this.

It’s very reminiscent and I believe it’s very related to the sexist beliefs that women tend to be emotional. And emotions are illogical. Emotions are easy to wave away. And then add pregnancy hormones to the mix and partners are more likely to think of any worries (especially extreme ones) as a hormonal fluctuation that will dissipate with quick reassurance.

But it’s not reassurance.

It’s a dismissal of valid, legitimate worries. It’s invalidation of someone’s experience. This dismissal discourages any ability to talk it out. It is the opposite of what needs to occur. Maybe the worries could be easily addressed. But at this point, there hasn’t even been any acknowledgement.

This sexist belief permeates everything. Women are less likely to be believed at the doctor’s office. There is a reason that the root word of “hysteria” mean uterus. Long ago, the uterus was blamed for all disease. And while that may seem absurd today, the biased belief that women are more likely to be “dramatic” or “hysterical” or “emotional” means that many times, women are misdiagnosed or told, “You’re fine.

Complicate the matter further by having the audacity to be overweight, a person of color, gender nonconforming, etc…well, you get the idea.

And what does a doctor’s biases have to do with a relationship? Well, kind of everything in the sense that this belief is sexist and sexism is systemic. That is why a partner in a loving relationship is more likely to wave away fears and anxieties. Yes, pregnancy hormones can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety or depression in prenatal or postpartum time periods. However, this doesn’t mean that symptoms should be overlooked, ignored, or dismissed. These are the time periods where people are the most vulnerable and less likely to explain how and why they need help. And, thus, it is imperative that partners challenge themselves to push past the “It’ll be fine” refrain that society and our culture has conditioned them to respond with.

Postpartum doulas are amazing. And I will advocate for them forever, even if my own partner still doesn’t understand the impact that they had on me during the postpartum periods. It’s why I recommend them to friends, family, and strangers alike. And that’s why I try to be an advocate on the behalf of others. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of the worry, anxiety, or depression, it’s difficult to ask for help.

I always hate (and I have unfortunately said it myself when I didn’t know better) the suggestion, “Let me know if you need anything!” Because that places the emotional labor on the person. It’s like telling people, “Have fun swimming! Let me know if you start drowning!” Lifeguards don’t wait to hear a clear call for help, because if you’re already drowning, how can you open your mouth and yell with water pouring in?

But then how do I know when someone is struggling? Well, that is a blog post for another day, which I promise to post and link very soon.

Lifeguards are trained. As a partner, friend, or family member, it’s good to train to be a lifeguard for the important people in your own life. And remember that a lifeguard doesn’t work alone. It’s impossible to be someone’s everything.