Motherhood feels lonelier than ever

No one told me motherhood would be so lonely sometimes. After the birth of my first son, my life flipped upside down in all the predictable ways (sleepless nights, baby gear all of the house, etc.) and some pretty unexpected ways as well. 

For the first time in my life, I felt like I was without a village. There were entire days when I wouldn’t talk to another adult aside from a few rushed, kiss-and-go goodbyes to my husband as he rushed off to catch the train. I was among the first of my friends to have a baby, and my friends who did have kids around the same time as me lived hundreds of miles away. I was never alone but so very lonely.

Maternal loneliness isn’t uncommon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.

“Loneliness, as defined by mental health professionals, is a gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have,” John Leland writes in the New York Times.

Loneliness is subjective and doesn’t necessarily correlate to being alone, as I learned as a new mom. I was never alone, but I had also never been lonelier. 

Maternal loneliness isn’t uncommon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. In fact, health experts say that when loneliness lingers for a while, it can be damaging to our mental and physical health. Even before the pandemic, former surgeon general Vivek Murthy warned that we were experiencing a “crisis of loneliness,” citing its risks to our health and wellbeing.

Motherhood can be lonely at various stages. For me, new motherhood was the loneliest time of my life. That is until recently. Because here’s the other thing no one tells you: raising tweens and teens can be pretty darn lonely too. My kids manage their own social lives, which has cut down on impromptu playdates and pick-ups that turn into pizza-and-wine nights with a couple other families. And I’ve become more protective about what I share with other moms too. Venting about sleep regression and toddler tantrums is much easier than talking about our tween’s struggles with anxiety and our teen’s dating life. Those aren’t our stories to share, after all; they belong to our kids now.

Related: Here’s the truth, mama: We never stop needing our village

Whether you’re a new mom or a mom of high schoolers or somewhere in between, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve struggled with loneliness at one point or another. I’d also venture to guess that motherhood has felt lonelier than ever lately. 

All of the reasons for maternal loneliness—lack of time for friendships and socializing, being stretched too thin, lack of reliable and affordable child care, sheer exhaustion—have reached epic proportions in the past few years. On top of that, the ways that we interact with each other have been completely upended due to the pandemic. Soon-to-be moms might need to go to prenatal appointments alone and new moms might not have visitors in the hospital due to Covid protocols. Travel has been challenging, to say the least. For many of us, the ways we spend time together have shifted to be more online, smaller, and less frequent. 

We’re burned out, stressed out, and emotionally maxed out. And, unfortunately, we sometimes take it out on each other, rushing in with rash (and often inaccurate) assumptions. 

I don’t know about you, but for me, lack of social interactions and loneliness fall into a vicious cycle too. The less I socialize and gather with others, the more comfortable I get at home, and the less I go out and socialize. Rinse and repeat.  

One of the primary causes of the rise in loneliness, according to Murthy, is using technology as a replacement for IRL social interactions. Let’s be clear, technology on its own is not at fault; it’s the way we’re using technology. 

And I couldn’t agree more. I have logged thousands of hours on Zoom, I’m communicating with friends across the country and the world via Facebook and Instagram, and I can be reached by colleagues in seconds thanks to instant messaging apps. But it doesn’t feel the same. The connections feel tenuous and flimsy. And these interactions often leave me wanting more—more connection, more friendship, more time with people I enjoy, more of the comfort and safety felt with solid friends.

Motherhood is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to keep showing up for each other—and ourselves.

As I fumble my way through this awkward new phase of motherhood and friendship, I’ve been thinking back on those lonely days of new motherhood. After a few months, the loneliness was so heavy and my desperation for a village so strong, that I did something I never thought I’d do—I joined a local Meetup group for new moms. I imagine it was a lot like internet dating (I met my husband before the age of internet dating)—filled with awkwardness and lots of small talk—but fortunately, I found a group of friends who helped combat the loneliness. 

Related: In the absence of a village, build your own

This is what I wish for all of us—a village to conquer the loneliness. Eventually my new mom group grew apart—moving away to new cities and states, and our kids developing their own interests—but I haven’t forgotten the power of the village to combat loneliness. I’ve since found other villages and am continuing to build more. When I feel myself sinking into my couch a little too easily, I remind myself of current motto shared by Michal Leibowitz (an editorial assistant for the New York Times): “I didn’t feel like going, but I’m glad I did.” I remind myself that the only real antidote to loneliness is connection, which requires that we show up—with all of our messiness, vulnerabilities and imperfections—again and again and again.

Motherhood is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to keep showing up for each other—and ourselves.

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