When I worked for a housing association I occasionally had to visit folk in their homes. Some of these were old people, most of whom would delight in making a cup of tea and having a chat. I loved it, but I’d always leave them wondering how regularly they were getting to see other folk, and hoping they weren’t too lonely.
There was an “otherness” to it then, the idea of loneliness. It’s a funny thing. I mean it’s not, obviously; it’s not funny in the slightest. I mean funny in the odd sense; in that it can sneak up on you and make you feel it in circumstances you wouldn’t have expected. And it’s one of those societal issues that we don’t really pay attention to until it affects us.
Like level paving or easy access to toilets, the lack of which affect thousands of disabled people daily, loneliness was something I’d never really considered until I had a baby. (Uneven ground is another reason I carry Soren most places. Buggies and wonky pavements can do one. And as for having no changing space in your loo…. come onnnn).
I’ve always, if I’m honest, been pretty useless at being alone. Not day to day, I could happily while away hours pottering in the house or reading, sans company. But I’m not good at living alone. I’ve always preferred the hubbub of family members or friends, knowing there’s life going on, even if you’re not actively taking part in it at that moment. It’s comforting, to me.
When you have a child, you’re never alone. Ever. This week, while in the shower, I sensed in that creepy way you do sometimes that someone was watching me. Sure enough, when I wiped steam off the shower screen there was a baggy-bummed two foot human turning the bidet tap on and off, and giggling. Thankfully, he was my son. (Lolz.)
You’re never alone, but you can feel very lonely. I remember the slow spread of panic at the thought of being on my own with him for the first time – alone, but not. Alone in the sense that there are no other adult humans to talk to, to share the bewilderment and fear (and joy) that I felt in those early weeks. No-one to make you a cup of tea, or to laugh with when you inevitably get shat on.
Of course, you can go out. You can to toddler groups. When you remember what day the local one is on, and manage to get yourself and baby dressed and there on time, which takes about 2 hours, only to get to the car and realise they’ve shat, again, and you have to change them, again, and you’re going to be so late there’s no point in going.
Or, when the kid is a bit older and you feel like you can safely get to things (roughly) on time, and maybe meet a friend in a cafe for a coffee: how lovely, you think. Coffee! Out of the house! That’ll be nice. And it is nice, for people without young babies or toddlers, who manically try and swipe at every object within arms reach, wriggle about on your lap and want fed as soon as your coffee arrives. Or just throw every bit of food you give them on the floor. In a word – STRESS.
Loneliness fills in the gaps of your life when you’re home with a baby. It echoes round the house at 11.12am on a Tuesday morning as you fold laundry and think about what you might do next
It’s not just being at home that’s the problem. It’s tricky to maintain friendships when your life is so radically different, when you can’t remember what you’ve been up to apart from caring from your sprog; when you’re questioning your identity.
Loneliness fills in the gaps of your life when you’re home with a baby. It echoes round the house at 11.12am on a Tuesday morning as you fold laundry and think about what you might do next. It sits quietly in the bedroom as you make lunch. It’s there, at 3.40pm, in the hush of the boiling kettle, while your kid clatters pot lids across the kitchen floor and you make your 5th cup of tea and realise you’ve not spoken to an adult human in 48 hours.
That our society doesn’t recognise the work that goes into parenting doesn’t help the feeling of exclusion. The value of the unpaid work done in this country is estimated at £1.01tn, equivalent to approximately 56% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the Office for National Statistics*. Women do 60% of this work.
Loneliness in the UK is an epidemic: 9 million people, according to the British Red Cross, report they are “always or often lonely”. The impact of loneliness on our health is huge: it can affect every aspect of our physical and mental well being, from making us more likely to develop anxiety and other mental health disorders to problems with energy levels, our weight and even the ability to form relationships.
In response to this, Co-op and the British Red Cross have teamed up to raise awareness and launch services to tackle loneliness and social isolation in communities across the UK. Their study, released in December, found that new young mothers were one of the groups most likely to be affected by loneliness.
There won’t be any one solution to feeling lonely, some of the time. Maybe it’s just part and parcel of being a stay at home parent. But if you are feeling lonely, know you’re not really alone, and come say hi.
*(They also have a handy calculator which you can use to work out the value of the unpaid work you’ve done. For interests sake, not to, say, use as bribery.)