You can smell a new mother’s loneliness. Unless you’re the state | Nell Frizzell

As a new mum, I know loneliness cuts deep – and the lack of services for parent and child plays a large part in this

It is the strange lot of young mothers to be never alone, but often lonely. You may have a baby stuck limpet-like to your breast, hip or lap, but for many women, particularly those heroic superbeings we call single mothers, loneliness stalks the days like a tiger.

According to new research by the British Red Cross and the Co-op, over 80% of mums under 30 feel lonely some of the time, while over 40% are lonely often or always.

Of course they are. When you’re earning just £20.70 a week in child benefit; when you have to sit in a dark room every couple of hours in order to tempt some food into an overstimulated child; when your family are at work; when you are still knitting your body back together after childbirth; when your friends don’t know how to change a nappy and you can’t afford a babysitter; when your partner is too tired to talk to you after a day at work; when you’re too shy to walk up to pram-pushing strangers in the street; when a place at nursery costs as much as your rent; when the local library has closed down; when you’ve had no sleep and have lost your nerve – of course you stay at home. Of course you get lonely.

Yet it feels somehow taboo to admit to loneliness when you’re in the constant company of your own child. Mothers are somehow assumed to need no more stimulation than to stare adoringly into the wet eyes of their baby from birth: the amusement of a hiccup or an unexpected mid-air wee should be substitute enough for adult conversation; the feel of a chubby hand around your finger should wipe away any interest in your friends, sharing anecdotes, going on holiday, resting your head on another person’s shoulder, talking about your day …

Even for mothers, like me, who have approached child-rearing like the fermentation of a strong cheese, the hallmarks of loneliness still catch in my throat. The small plate of biscuits, drying out on a side table at 9am in desperate anticipation of your one visitor, who isn’t coming until 5pm when they knock off work; the too-long chats with the woman at the shop who politely asked your child’s age – and is the only person you’ve spoken to all day who didn’t have dribble on their chin. You can smell a new mother’s hunger for company like the tang of vinegar: a little too strong, a little too sour.

How do you solve a problem like maternal loneliness? Well, we could stop making it financially prohibitive to continue the human race in this, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The government could take some of that money we pour into defence every year and use it to subsidise nurseries, fund children’s centres, and pay a maternal allowance that a family could actually live on. In Germany parents get €194 a month – over £170 – in benefit for the first two children; parents can take leave from work while being able to return to a guaranteed job for up to three years; and childcare is better subsidised. In Britain, we would rather give tax breaks to millionaires than pay mothers to create a healthy nation.

We could also do more to encourage women to build a support network before having a baby; if women had more paid time off, they could leave work more than a few days before giving birth, and therefore have time to adjust. That way they could meet other mothers-to-be in their area before they are tied to a crying, feeding dependent 24 hours a day. We could offer longer prenatal courses on the NHS, protect and expand NHS breastfeeding services, and create more children’s centres and forest schools. We could do the work early, rather than throwing new mothers to the wolves.

Half the women surveyed by the National Childbirth Trust last year reported that they experienced mental health or emotional difficulties at some time during pregnancy or in the year after birth. I would bet my spit-soaked shoulder that much of that is due, in part at least, to loneliness. Motherhood can be lonely for everyone, of course – but for the millions of British women on low or no incomes, living alone, trying to survive off food banks and uncertain benefits, without a job to return to or a support network to fall back on, the situation can appear desperate.

These women are growing our future; they have pushed a nation out of their bodies and into the world. It is now the government’s responsibility to nurture, shape and support that nation. If we have money for war, Brexit, business and a royal family, then we really should be able to find it for mums.

• Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist


Nell Frizzell

The GuardianTramp

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