It’s hard to get a moment to yourself when you’re a parent of small children, writes Jen Hogan.
There’s always some pressing need to be met, or row to be refereed. Even a solitary trip to the bathroom cannot be taken as a given.
The tragic irony, however, is that in spite of the near impossibility to ever truly be alone, feelings of loneliness and isolation in parenthood are on the increase.
It takes a village to rear a child, allegedly, but these days many parents are finding that the village is missing in action. Becky O’Haire is from New York, USA. She married an Irishman and moved to Mayo 12 years ago, where all three of her children were born.
Life in rural Ireland “was a total shock to the system, especially given the fact that we were moving back from New York City”, Becky explains.
“We were within walking distance to anything you’d want to buy or transportation to anywhere you’d want to go. When we first moved here I didn’t know how to drive a manual car, plus the steering wheel is on the opposite side to US cars, so it took me a while to be able to drive myself around. And when I could drive, my heart was in my throat on the narrow country roads.”
Becky found being a full-time, stay-at-home parent isolating, but says she’s not sure during her loneliest period that she truly realised how badly it was affecting her.
“I am the type of person to just carry on and make the best of a situation, so that’s what I did. But being at home by myself all day with the kids did take its toll and I felt like I lost some of my identity. The part of me that existed before kids, that sense of individuality, was gone.”
Taking things into her own hands Becky began to write a blog, The Cuddle Fairy, which, she says, gave her “a creative outlet and a way to meet hundreds of parents around the world”.
In addition to this, Becky found her adult interaction levels changed when her children started school.
“When the kids were younger, before they were in school, I didn’t see other parents day to day. I could have weeks without seeing anyone else besides my husband and people in the grocery store. It’s nicer now that the kids are in school and activities because I see people every day and have made more parent friends.”
Helena Gilhooly, mum of four and owner at handmade costume jewellery store BusyBeaders.com, found parenthood particularly lonely when she separated from her husband.
“Most of my friends were happily married and I didn’t go out much as my children were all under 10. I had one great friend, who I didn’t see much as she lived about 45 minutes away, but we texted and talked most days. She was a great help as she was separated herself and knew how I was feeling.
“There was no one to share school runs with, and if one got sick you had to wrap them up to bring the others to school. My two boys were on the football team but in different age groups and if they were playing at opposite ends of the county I had to rely on other mams to take one for me.”
While she eventually made friends with other parents at the school gate, Helena concedes “it took a while”.
“I don’t think people are aware of the loneliness single parents really feel. There is no one to ask you how your day was, enquire as to whether the gas bill was paid, or to help with any jobs around the house. Thankfully nowadays though, there is more online support and people have access to that.”
Eoin Flynn is a stay-at-home dad of one and blogger at walkingdad.ie. His wife’s job involves a lot of travelling which he says, means he sometimes becomes completely caught up with all that he has to do and forgets “there’s a whole world out there”.
“That can be isolating, especially as I’m still not great at asking for help when I’m struggling.”
He finds his social life and former sports interests have also taken a back seat as a result of parenthood.
And while Eoin chooses not to shy away from parent and child activities himself and has enjoyed them, he does believe that they may present “a psychological barrier to dads”.
“I myself had to swallow my self-doubt the first time I wheeled Mimi into a baby yoga class.
“Starting to write about stay-home parenting and connecting with other parents online has been a good prop to my sanity. At any time of the day, another parent who’s going through or has gone through the same dilemma as you, is just a tweet away. While online interactions are not as fulfilling as real life, they can be a useful parenting tool.”
Psychologist Aisling Leonard Curtin, co-director of Act Now purposeful living and co-author of The Power of Small, says many of her clients have been affected by this issue. She says rising house and rent prices means many parents live a distance from the support of their families and friends.
She also feels that parents who are juggling work and parenting regularly prioritise their children’s needs over self-care, while the not-always-honest social media parenting snaps have also contributed to feelings of isolation.
“The impact of loneliness on parents is huge and cannot be overstated. A large meta-analysis, which combined the results of several research studies, found that loneliness and isolation are as detrimental to our health and well-being as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having a weight within the obese range.”
When loneliness and isolation happen on an on-going basis, parents are far more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
In a practical sense, many lonely parents feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, yet often feel ashamed about feeling this way.
Aisling advises parents who are struggling to “identify who in your life is a non-judgmental, compassionate, supportive presence.
"Arrange to meet in person or speak with this person over the phone and have an honest conversation telling them how you are truly feeling.”
She says that others can help by “checking in on parents you know, if you haven’t heard from them in a while. Give them space to talk and also, if possible, invite them to engage in an activity with you.
“If you are a parent yourself, share some of the challenges that you experienced around loneliness and isolation in relation to parenting with your friend or family member who you believe might be struggling.”