Isolation and new mothers

While new mothers anticipate changes such as sleep deprivation they don't often envision the isolation a new baby can bring. By Kirsten Braun

Mother, looking pensive, sitting with her baby on a sofa

There are many different types of isolation that new mothers may experience. Not all types will apply to all women, but most new mothers are affected by some form of isolation, particularly in the first six months of having a baby.

Isolation from work life

As the average age of first time mothers is 28.4 years, it means women often have a well-established career by the time baby arrives. The shift to being at home on maternity leave is a huge departure and one that many women experience difficulty in adjusting to. This can be particularly the case for women who were previously in senior roles with a great level of responsibility. Waking up in the morning with a day of feeding, nappy changes and settling ahead is a very different daily existence.

Women who work in a fast paced office environment may initially look forward to their maternity leave as time away from the rat race and office politics. While some women do embrace their new pace of life, for others it can feel stifling. Women crave adult conversations about something other than poo and sleep cycles and miss the opportunity to use their brain in a different way. In paid employment the work often varies and women can be rewarded for hard work and dedication. In comparison, motherhood can seem monotonous and unrewarding at times. This of course all depends on a woman's employment. If a woman's job is unrewarding to begin with then motherhood may prove to be much more fulfilling.

Isolation from social life

Leaving work can also result in a loss of social occasions. For many women a catch up over lunch or after-work drinks with colleagues forms a regular part of their social life. This loss of everyday interaction can leave many women feeling lonely. Similarly, when women have a baby they may initially give up other activities where they regularly see friends such as the gym, local swimming pool or running group. Even for women not specifically attending with friends, seeing familiar faces makes women feel connected.

Friendships with child-free friends can also suffer as new baby related routines can make it more difficult to find a compatible time or venue. The trendy local café with a huge line-up for a table and tiny seating may not be very baby friendly.

Women often overestimate the amount of time they will have for socialising when their baby arrives. For women who pictured their maternity leave as being a time for catching up with friends, the reality can be a disappointment. Even if existing friends have children they are often of different ages and so it can be difficult to find activities or places to attend which are suitable for everyone. Less opportunities to interact with friends may make a woman more reliant on her partner for social interactions. If a woman's relationship is strained this can make things more difficult.

Similarly, while mum's groups can be a great source of support for new mums, it is not always easy to find one where the women share the same interests. Just because women have had a baby recently doesn't necessarily mean they have much more in common. If women are experiencing negative feelings about their new role, being surrounded by other mums who enjoy everything motherhood brings can make them feel more isolated and lonely.

Financial isolation

New mothers can experience financial pressures following the birth of their baby. The loss of an income and the addition of a baby to provide for can cause financial stress which can in turn place a strain on relationships. Less money can mean that people's lifestyles have to change to accommodate their new baby related expenses so there is less eating out, weekend getaways or new clothes or shoes. In addition, the loss of an income leaves many women financially dependent on someone else, a state they may not have experienced since they were dependent on their parents. Even if their partner is supportive of the new arrangements, being financially dependent can make women feel vulnerable.

Geographical isolation

It is now not uncommon for women to live some distance away from their own mothers and/or extended family. When a woman has a new baby this distance can suddenly feel much more significant. While the distance can mean less day to day practical help for a new mother it is often the emotional support that is most missed. In addition, the realisation that grandparents, aunties and uncles will only be able to have a long distance relationship with the new baby can be difficult for some women.

There are, however, many strategies that women can implement that can help combat isolation and feelings of loneliness. Ideally women can think about different strategies while they are pregnant so they can be prepared.

Tips for remaining connected

Get out and about
Humans are by nature social animals so it is important to maintain a connection with others. Women often feel that they have to actually have an arranged meeting with other individuals for it to count as a social interaction. However, studies show that even being around other people can be beneficial. Going for a walk with the pram or having a coffee at the local café are all ways of feeling connected.

Sign up for a baby class
Whether it be a learn-to-swim, gym or music class, signing up for a class can be a great way to meet new mothers while also bonding with baby. A fee based class where you pay upfront can provide an extra incentive to attend regularly. However, if finances are tight look for other regular free activities that provide similar opportunities such as story time at the local library. Check out the local council for free activities in your area.

Find new haunts
If you want to stay connected to your child-free friends look for new places to meet that might suit you both. Find a child friendly café that still serves a great coffee or get a friend to come along to a mums and bubs movie session. You may also need to find different times to meet friends that are compatible with your new routine. Try meeting for brunch instead of your usual Sunday morning breakfast catch up.

Join a mum's group
Mum's groups can be a great source of support, it is just a matter of finding the right one. Check community health centres, neighbourhood centres or online for mum's groups. There are also many specialised mum's groups for women who want something different from the traditional mum's groups, including surfing mum's groups (http://surfingmums.com/ ) and mum's group that bake (http://mamabake.com/).

Go online
For women who are experiencing difficulty getting out and about or who are geographically isolated, connecting online is a great alternative. There are loads of online groups where you can connect with other mums. Often reading people's previous posts can give you an idea of whether the women are going to be compatible. Ideally find an online group that also sometimes meets face to face. In addition, women who are not near their family can use email and Skype and other technologies to still stay connected.

Attend Keeping in Touch days
In Australia an employee on parental leave can have 10 paid Keeping in Touch days without it affecting their parental leave entitlements (see here for more info on the rules surrounding Keeping in Touch days). While not all employers may agree to these days and not all women may wish to or are able to attend them, Keeping in Touch days can be beneficial. Women can use them for activities such as participating in a planning day or attending training or a conference. Attending such events can help women feel connected to their workplace, reducing feelings of isolation. Keeping in Touch days can also assist women to make the transition back to the workplace.

Time away
As new babies are so dependent on their parents women often fall into the trap of having very little time away from them. It is, however, very refreshing for women to have time away, even for a short while. Not having to think about checking on baby can provide a mental break that is a source of rejuvenation. Women often use any such spare time to catch up on chores or errands but it is important to have some personal time too.

If new mothers are feeling isolated and these feelings are not alleviated by some of the tips above they can contact our Midwife Check-in Service. The service involves a caring and friendly professional midwife to 'check-in' with you on a regular basis using the telephone at a time that suits you. For more information on the service see: Midwife Check-in or phone (07) 3216 0376 or 1800 017 676 (toll free outside of Brisbane).

A 2012 survey of just over 1000 Australian mothers found that:

47% enjoyed less than 2 hours of free time a week.
87% said they experienced feelings of isolation, with 36% feeling isolated on most days
73% of all mums said they took time out for themselves to maintain their sanity
Proctor and Gamble. Changing Face of Motherhood Report 2012.

Last updated: April 2015

©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2015 Issue 1.

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