Gina Barreca: The Loneliness Of The New Mother

Feb 23, 2020

By: Gina Barreca For Hartford Courant

“I’m fine but, wow, thanks for asking! Very few people ask how Mom is doing; we usually get asked how baby is doing, and that’s that.”

My simple “How are YOU?” was met with a complicated response when I asked my niece Anne what her life was like now that she had become a mom. This surprised me not at all.

For 40 years, women have felt safe trusting me with their imperfect-mom stories. This isn’t because I can share their experiences but precisely because I can’t: As someone who’s never given birth, I can’t compare. I can’t judge them. I listen.

That’s when they can say, as did Anne, “Caring for a newborn is intensely busy and incredibly boring. You adore your baby, but you also mourn your former life.”

Like many women at home with a newborn, Anne has discovered her new role arrived swaddled in complexity: “Motherhood is presented as a phase of life that’s entirely Instagram-able and joyful, and parts of it are, to be sure. But lurking beneath the surface is a darkness I’d never encountered.”

Anne gave birth a few weeks ago. She’s a marathoner, a swimmer, a librarian, a Brooklyn native and a smart, self-reliant cookie. Her husband is wonderful, and her parents live nearby. She’s fortunate, and Anne knows it.

And yet it is Anne who also acknowledges that she’s facing “a sense of isolation for which no person, no health class, no college course, no blog, no nurse or doctor, no YouTube channel and no book” could have prepared her.

Anne does not seem to be undergoing postpartum depression, although one in seven new mothers will. Postpartum depression interferes with a woman’s ability to care for herself or others in her family.

All — all? — Anne is doing right now is renegotiating every aspect of her life.

I imagine all women do when they give birth.

Sherry Louise, Air Force veteran and mother of three, remembers when she was “visibly pregnant” and found that everybody noticed her and sought her out as an eager student for their own stories. “They wanted me to cross over and join the motherhood ranks.”

But once she delivered, these well-wishers deserted: “After I gave birth, it was as if I were a ghost town. It was like I was alone in an empty world, pushing my baby cart. Cars would stop on a dime so I could cross the parking lot when I was 8 months pregnant. Once I had the baby, cars no longer stopped to wave me across. I was just another disheveled and leaking mom that took up too much invisible space.”

More than 100 women posted replies in answer to the question I asked about loneliness and motherhood. More than half focused on the difficulties of being recognized as people once they gave birth. They spoke of the sanctuary provided by libraries that welcomed infants; they described the shunning they felt in churches where they felt judged for having “uncontrollable” babies or were accused of “distracting” other worshipers.

“The blogs make being a mother look like bubbles, peach tea, and hysterical joy 24/7,” wrote Kim-Marie Evans, “where really it’s like being under house arrest. I walked in circles in the mall just to be near people. People smile and tell you how cute the baby is, so you at least get to have conversations with humans.”

Some women do what advice-givers suggest is easy: They find or create Mommy-and-Me groups where the adults and the tiniest of children bond for a lifetime over crafts.

For others, though, like Yasmin Winjnands, such initiatives appear impossible: “I’m not great at making friends. I became so lonely that I did the grocery shopping in parts just to talk to someone other than my very beloved baby boy. It was an awkward, although beautiful, time.”

An awkward though beautiful time, one described by many women as taking forever yet not lasting long enough. Here’s to looking every new mother in the eye, not just smiling at the baby, and asking her “How are YOU?”

Here’s to listening for her answer.

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