I experienced a moment of pure, unadulterated joy this week. In St Pancras Old churchyard, watching my son discover a blustery autumn morning for the first time, the wind in the trees causing him to wiggle his head and smile his wide gummy smile, I felt the magic of childhood again, a feeling I thought I’d lost for ever. It was just he and I, together, discovering the world, and for a few minutes it seemed as though I’d never feel lonely again.
Parenthood involves a mix of emotional highs and lows. For every moment like this, there has also been a contrasting one – standing in a different park and feeling an almost physical loneliness. As a writer, I am used to spending many hours happily alone, but for some reason there’s nothing like the company of a small child to underscore a feeling of solitude. A study by the British Red Cross found that more than eight in 10 mothers (83%) under the age of 30 had feelings of loneliness some of the time, while 43% said they felt lonely all the time. Another survey found that 90% of new mothers felt lonely since giving birth, with over half (54%) feeling they had no friends.
The process of becoming a mother – matrescence, as it’s increasingly known – involves huge hormonal changes and a major shift in identity, as well as the uprooting of our usual support structures and routines. This is why, we are told, having “mum friends” who are experiencing these same changes is so important, and those relationships, between both mothers and their respective babies, can last for life. But cuts to services mean free support groups are harder to find in many areas, and prenatal courses such as those delivered by the NCT can be expensive for people on low incomes. And just because you share one life experience doesn’t mean that you’ll have much else in common (which is one reason why I think it’s so important to keep spending time with your child-free friends and not abandon them, as some do). Sometimes other mothers can be standoffish and competitive, or simply too exhausted to engage beyond a few polite hellos. Women who have migrated here also face linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as being separated from their own family networks, exacerbating their potential social isolation.
In a recent interview, the comedian and writer Daisy May Cooper spoke of how hard she found it to befriend other mothers when she had her baby. “If I see your vulnerability, then I’m there, like a moth to a flame,” she said. “But I’ve never been able to connect with, for example, the women that I met in my neonatal group who were trying to pretend everything was all right. And you’d go, ‘Come on, let’s have a glass of wine, tell me what’s really going on.’ ‘Oh no, everything’s fine! Let’s just talk about the kids!’ The WhatsApp group was just thousands and thousands of messages about mashing up avocados. I thought, if I can’t penetrate that surface then I’m out, I’m just not interested.”
I agree. I’m more interested in befriending the women to whom you can complain about your bruised breasts or who tell you how much they miss smoking a joint in the bath, than the ones who – as brilliantly satirised in the Australian comedy The Letdown, which revolves around an antenatal group – eye your coffee suspiciously and say: “Not breastfeeding, then?” Thankfully I’ve only met a couple of judgy types, one of whom asked me what my baby’s birth had been like as an opening gambit and followed it up with a pass-agg “never mind, he’s here now” before telling me all about her own birthing-pool floating, carrot-juice drinking, house-music listening experience.
I’ve been incredibly lucky that the women I have met and befriended in neonatal groups have been frank and funny about the challenges of motherhood, and a WhatsApp group of university friends with young children provides crucial moral support. When I was pregnant, I joined Peanut, a social networking app that aims to connect pregnant women, but I was almost instantly put off by the girlboss “you’ve-got-this-babe tone” of the Q&A profile prompts (“You’re a woman! You’re already a superhero!” “If an actress would play me it would be … Jennifer Aniston”). A friend that I met at a free parenting group run by the council recently mentioned that she’d messaged me and I’d not responded, so perhaps I should have given it more of a chance. As for Mumsnet, Daisy May Cooper’s darkly funny Am I Being Unreasonable is named after the website’s famous discussion board, to which she was addicted when her marriage was falling apart. The site doesn’t feel aimed at my demographic (and like any social media platform it has its proportion of unhinged members), but it provides many women with a vital support system at a vulnerable time in the same way that previous generations had the National Women’s Register or Sure Start.
We know that, for new mothers, loneliness can exacerbate postnatal depression – just one reason why Conservative cuts to Sure Start are such a desperately sad scandal. Living in Islington, which has retained early years centres under the “Bright Start” banner, has been a privilege because of the sheer range of groups and activities available to parents free of charge. All parents should have access to these services (postnatal depression and loneliness affects dads, too). Sadly, until we have a Labour government, things are unlikely to change, but at least there are small comforts – the friendliness of strangers has been amazing to me. Every day, someone reaches out to me and my son with a kind word, a smile, or a question. Perhaps they have been there themselves, and are paying it forward, as I will, too, if I see a new mum or dad at the playground, looking lonely or lost.
It feels as though the baby has been teething forever, so I’m grateful to the many, many parents who have recommended Ashton & Parson’s teething gel. It’s cheap, lasts a while, and puts an almost instant smile on his face.
As well as teeth, I suspect the baby is waking in the night due to cold hands, but most sleepsuit brands stop including mitts at around the six-month mark, and I don’t want to use gloves, which may come loose. If anyone knows of a solution, please let me know, for the sake of my sleep-deprived self.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist