‘What are you up to today then?’ ‘I thought I might go to baby massage at the Children’s Centre, then I might make a start on the ironing this afternoon’ ‘Well, that sounds fun. Quite a busy day!’ So would go the morning conversations between myself and my husband during my first maternity leave. After the final ‘busy’ comment, I would generally stare at him with a contempt I would struggle to muster up for any offence these days. Busy? Seriously? The patronising assumption that an hour of waving your baby’s limbs around followed by discussing signs of teething with a group of women I barely knew hardly counted as ‘busy’ or ‘fun’ in my eyes.
I loved being a mum, but in those early months I struggled with maternity leave in a way I never expected. It was boring, the days stretched out and, above all, it was lonely.
This week Action for Children published a report stating that a quarter of parents feel lonely, isolated and ‘cut off’. They claim this level of loneliness is shocking, but I’m not shocked.
Prior to giving birth my days had been genuinely busy. Working as a secondary teacher, I barely get a moment to myself. At times it drives me crazy, but I’m never isolated and in 7 years I don’t think I’ve ever clock watched. I can honestly say I love working.
Yet when my son was born, I made this choice to give it all up for a year and revel in the domesticity of motherhood. While I’m glad I did, there were definitely times when I found it more frustrating than fulfilling. I’m far from the only person to ever feel this way, and it certainly isn’t a modern phenomenon. In 1963 Betty Friedan published the hugely influential book ‘The Feminine Mystique’, credited this book with kick starting the second wave of feminism. In it, she exposed the unhappiness felt by many supposedly well off women, blessed with a comfortable home and a healthy family, who simply couldn’t find fulfilment through domesticity alone.
If such struggles were felt by mothers who had grown up in a society expecting such a life, I wonder if this loneliness and disaffection isn’t felt all the more keenly by women of our generation who have grown up to expect so much more? These days many mothers have spent years educating themselves, working and often carving out successful careers. To go from a respected colleague to a stay at home mum is never going to be easy. It’s not just the lack of work colleagues, but everything that goes along with it: the structure, the intellectual stimulation, the post work socialising, the sense of purpose and achievement, and having something to talk about other than snot, vomit and poo! Viewed in this light, the loneliness felt by many new mothers is anything but shocking.
However, far from a sentence of loneliness, parenthood can also be the doorway to a whole new community. I lived for years in London never meeting a neighbour, but now know so many they even offer to babysit so we can go out! These days I can go shopping and run into friends in a way which I never thought possible in a busy metropolis: I was happy to believe the ‘everyone in London is grumpy and will never talk to you’ stereotype. After weeding through the boring baby chat, I’ve even made a couple of good ‘mum-friends’ who I hope will remain part of my life for many years to come.
Plus, for those of us who really can’t cope, at least the work of people like Friedan means we do have the choice to return to work when we just can’t take any more baby yoga!
Having said all that, my due date is a week away and I’m about to start this whole stay at home thing again. Could someone maybe pop round in a few weeks and make sure I haven’t gone completely mad??