Lonely: Surviving the First Year of Motherhood and Learning to Reach Out
Pushing the bright green stroller that my mother had just given me, my 3-week-old son asleep inside, I circled lap after lap of the closest indoor shopping mall to our house. It wasn't yet 8 a.m., but I was already there, alongside the early mall walkers in their white velcro shoes. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing the exact thing that I needed to be doing for my mental state at the time. I was getting out.
Almost 35-years-old when our first child was born, I had worked outside of the home since I was 16. Most of my friends were from work. We stopped at each others' desks every morning before entering our own cubicles for the day, we shared lunch together, on Wednesday nights after work we'd all go out for tacos; then, literally overnight, I found myself alone.
After years of spending 47 hours a week among voices, laughter, whispered confidences, my life was now one of staying home full time, alone, with a baby. I had left my friends behind at work -- I knew that none of my co-workers had decided to stay home after their children were born; they had all returned to work after a six week maternity leave. I knew that. But I had been so focused on finally having the baby that I had been waiting my entire life for, that I never thought about who I would be with when I no longer worked.
Who would I be with? Now, I can see how alarmingly unprepared I was for the overwhelming floodwaters of change that came when I went from working outside of the home to just staying home.
I was lonely, and it hurt.
Lonely in the most devastating description of the void and desolate hole I felt I was living in. 4:15 in the afternoon would find me staring out my front window, my quiet baby in my arms, anxiously scanning the road for my husband's car. I was only able to begin breathing again at the sound of his key in the lock. To this day, the turn of the lock and then the push of the door remains one of my favorite sounds.
How would I start to make friends? I didn’t know how. My social world consisted of one. I ached for someone to talk to, the comfort of community, but I never felt ready to meet anyone. I looked a mess, unshowered and in my husband's T-shirts. Any free time I had I thought should be spent in keeping up my home and playing with my baby. Having an infant with colic who only slept two hours at the most at any one time, and then only if Christmas carols played in the background while he faced the fish tank -- left me with no time for anything other than trying to get some solid sleep myself.
It wasn't too long before the emptiness that I felt since I quit working began to creep darkly over my entire life, leaving me frozen and numb, unable to smile and worsening the isolation that enveloped me. Even if I were to meet someone, I wouldn’t have had the mental energy to string three words together to form a sentence, much less manage a give and take conversation with interest and a smile.
But here I was, on this early morning, alone -- pushing my three-week-old newborn in his equally new stroller, lap after lap, along with the mall walkers. I talked to my baby, telling him stories as if he were 35-years-old; I talked to the air, telling it about the upcoming TV shows I was going to watch. I was scared that if I didn't practice talking that I'd forget how. I was lonely, but I was out of my house; somehow, my survival instincts were still intact enough to shout out, “interact, interact!” And so I did.
On one of these early morning mall walks, I saw that the bookstore at the west end hosted a Toddler Story Time on Tuesday mornings. I decided to go. The first day before walking in, I took a deep breath. I froze when I saw no other moms with newborns there. Immediately, I felt out of place among the put-together moms with toddlers that already seemed to know each other and were there with their friends. But I resolutely made my way toward the back of the children’s section and stayed for the entire reading. I was embarrassed, both at how haggard I knew I looked and at how desperate I must have appeared -- a three-week-old at a story time?? Come on. But I knew I had to keep coming, to show up every Tuesday, making my way past the pretty moms who were there with their crew, to my same spot in the back, where I would lean against the tall book cases and nurse my baby, closing my eyes and losing myself in the sweetness of the sound of conversations around me. Interact, interact. Interact to survive, and maintain sanity -- interact.
I was lonely. The solitude sat like a balled up sandwich stuck in the middle of my chest.
I knew I had to find something, some way, some route out of my suffocating existence. I looked through the self-help book section after a Tuesday morning Story Time, and found a study on loneliness published by The Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. They found that loneliness has a broad and profound health effect on our overall well-being. People who are lonely have significantly higher incidences of diabetes, heart related illnesses, sleep disorders, obesity, and high blood pressure. These are just the physical tolls, there is a multitude of emotional, as well: increased occurrence of anxiety, insomnia, depression, and withdrawal from others. As I read, I felt refueled by this information.
Loneliness was as toxic as it felt. Loneliness was a force that needed to be reckoned with.
There I was, head over heels in love with my new baby, but at the same time, being swallowed whole by one of the bleakest periods that I have ever lived through. I remember how robotic I felt during this time when I knew no one, as if I were watching my life through a video camera -- feeling untethered from any identity I once had. I was alone, so alone, and when my husband traveled, days could go by without the sound of another human voice in my life. The silence around me so deafening that not even every radio turned on in the house could drown it out.
Clearly, changes had to be made, for me and my new family. I had a child now, and he needed a happy mother, and I needed to be a happy mother. And so one morning, as I held my infant close to me, my silent tears wetting his little cheeks, I planned a path to dig myself out of the dark tomb that was choking me. I began by looking through church bulletins and joining their moms groups. I then checked the newspaper for diaper bag clubs at health clinics, and joined their morning sessions. I joined a stroller walk club from a posting I saw up on the Y's community board. Since I was breastfeeding, I looked for a La Leche League and found one through The Quaker Society.
Whether I made the meetings or not, it didn’t matter, I was part of something. On my calendar, I had a place to go penciled in and scheduled for every day of the week. When I had had enough sleep the night before to be a safe driver in the morning, I went to whatever group event or activity I had written in on the calendar. Monday through Friday, getting out of my house had become my new job.
I can't say that I felt that I belonged in every group that I tried, because I didn't. Many of the women at the groups I walked into already had friendships in place, and I often felt like a fifth wheel. Were there sparks of potential friendship at some of these meetings? Sometimes. I longed for a smile from someone who knew me, but what had to come first was learning to find my place in this new world that was now my life. When I was lucky, a bright face eagerly awaited me at one of these groups, but more often not, there wasn't.
I never knew what would meet me on the other side of the door when I walked into these places; I was grateful when the atmosphere was an open-armed welcoming one to strangers. But when it wasn't, I kept my chin up and promised myself to return the next week, to try again, despite the disappointment of being the one there without a friend.
I didn't click with everyone at these outings, but I did make the friends I needed to. Women like Anne, from across the street, who come springtime, shared walks with me. And Carrie from The Quaker Society, a single mother who gave me courage to do more things on my own by setting an example; and Laura, from Ireland, who had a baby boy, Devon, on the same day that I had my Alec.
These women, these once wonderfully steady fixtures in my days, have since drifted out of my life. I don't remember how. I get misty eyed at this loss because they were an essential part of the fabric I was then weaving of my new life as a stay-at-home mother; they were the golden threads throughout this new tapestry, holding the loose stitches in place for me when I couldn't.
It took the entire first year of my new life to find people to talk to, to have phone numbers that I knew by heart. It was almost fall when I finally met someone I could call spontaneously to spend the afternoon with me at the park. I had survived what I now think of as the most bewildering, pathless year of my life.
During this time, I found a book called Lonely; a memoir written by Emily White. Inside these pages, I had just what I needed then: manageable action items to finding friendship. There was a checklist in the book that I followed like a tourist depends on his travel map: volunteer, create park play groups, start a church play group, attend free lectures, form a book club. Emily White's book offered limitless ideas for starting points in looking for friendship.
In the midst of feeling hopeless for myself and for my baby -- for having a disconnected mother -- there was a light bulb moment. As overcome as I was by my life that was now barely recognizable from what it once was -- it hit me, the critical importance of being proactive in creating a social community.
Passively hoping for people to come into my life was not a plan. I had to find my friends. My mental and physical survival depended on it. Interactions and smiles with my child depended on it. My little boy needed a happy, unlonely mother.
Through that almost unbearably lonely year, I grew to realize that life should be lived fully, not merely survived. Just existing did right by no one. Friendships, even surface ones in the form of acquaintances, can tide us over during the changes in life, the transitions to a new being, that leave us stripped of who we used to know.
Some people are in our lives forever, some are our life lines for just that moment that we need them -- neither less precious than the other. If you have to work to find people, to have them be your oxygen during these achingly desperate times, then that, I determinedly whispered to myself one winter morning while my beautiful son and I walked to our Friday morning Moms Club, then that, is what you have to do.
I smiled with the hope that maybe this time, there might be a new mom there, and she'd be looking for a friend.
You can find Alexandra on her personal blog, Good Day Regular People, where she writes of small town life while raising three boys. She tries hard to go unnoticed, and fails miserably. You can also find her on twitter @gdrpempress.