Mama Said: The loneliness of the newborn parent
The loneliness of being a new parent is strange and hard to explain, but Emily Martin gives it a go…
One of my friends is pregnant with her first baby. She’s due any day and is “glowing”. Which is what we say rather kindly when we actually mean she’s twice the size she was and often goes a bit red in the face if she has to go upstairs.
Life for her has been slowly narrowing down and, with just a month to go, she now only: checks her pregnancy-app to see what her baby is up to (getting nails and eyelashes etc); reads reviews of travel systems and buys things like ‘a Moses Basket’. I know her baby will never sleep in it, but I don’t want to be that friend, so I’m keeping my mouth shut.
She’s looking with amazement not only at her own body suddenly making a new human, when until now it has simply been a vessel for wine, but she’s also equally amazed at discovering there are Isofix points in her car. Pregnancy truly is a magical time. An exciting time. And hopefully (and I really really do hope) this is the little bit of quiet before her heart bursts with love and her life fills with a new purpose that she’s totally ready for.
When I had my first baby, the Girl, I felt exactly the same. Excited AND baffled. Like I was studying for an exam in another language that I couldn’t speak…yet. Everyone was smiling at me as I became unimaginably huge (have I ever told you she was born “naturally” at 10lbs 6oz?) and I felt thrilled about choosing baby carriers, reading my work leaving-card, painting her room pink, thinking of lovely girl-names and doodling them on bits of paper. But, as the big day approached, I also felt a bit like I was heading towards a cliff with absolutely no choice but to go over the edge and hope for the best.
To cut a long story short, it was a difficult birth, followed by a five-night stay in hospital where I honestly don’t believe I slept for more than one hour or ate anything but cereal bars. And then we went home. But not to the white-waffle blankets, afternoon-sunshine streaming onto the Moses Basket, neutral-toned soft toys and fun strolls with our travel system that I’d imagined in my post-pregnancy life.
Instead, it was physically painful in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I was deliriously tired and back home to a new life that felt out of control and a mess. As I scrambled to get to grips with the long LONG days, I felt like I couldn’t get my bearings. Everything had changed. Getting her to sleep at night felt like a whole day of work at the end of a whole day at work. All my relationships with everyone suddenly felt different, and not in a way I’d expected or particularly liked. It sounds dramatic, but I felt like the old me had died. And for the first time in life, I felt terribly lonely and strange. Even though, with my new baby friend stuck to me 24 hours a day, I was never ever actually alone. And still everyone kept smiling at me and reminding me what a special magical time this was. I hardly showered, I didn’t sleep. My shoes rubbed some skin off my toe and it got infected without me noticing. Self-care was way down the list.
I saw a tweet by an author and journalist I like (@NellFrizzell) and I can’t stop thinking about it. It said, “The loneliness of being alone with a small child is such a strange and specific loneliness. I could write thousands of words on it. Because, there are so few people to talk to about it at the moment”.
I never really talked to anyone about how I was feeling because it felt very at odds with how people were treating me which was with elation and delight. “A baby! How wonderful!”
At the time of writing this we’re in deepest, rainiest November. My daughter (now seven and my very best friend) has had her class bubble closed due to a case of dreaded Covid, so for two weeks we’re sitting together at the kitchen table working and home-schooling. Chatting over our cups of tea it feels so strange that the person who created that strange empty feeling is now the person who fills it completely.
There’s been a lot of talk about how hard 2020 was for the elderly and the vulnerable. Those who are shielding due to ill health or those who simply live alone. But I’ve been thinking about new parents sitting in their living rooms with sleepy, tiny newborn babies, trying to get their bearings like I scrambled to do during those first months but they, unlike me, haven’t had the option of meeting up with friends or seeing family. Having someone to stay overnight or come and watch the baby so they can sleep or have a shower. I’ll never forget one rainy November morning in 2013 when someone knocked on my door with a takeaway coffee and a prawn sandwich for me, held the baby for three hours and chatted to me about the world outside. It was the first time I felt better - like I might eventually find myself somewhere in my new life. And maybe even like it.
If you’re a new parent and feeling any of this resonates, remember you are not alone. And you’re doing a brilliant job.
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