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.