Parenthood is a lot of things: amazing, exhausting, hilarious, smelly, challenging, moist (yes--it's nothing if not damp), beautiful. But what many new parents, especially moms, find most about parenthood is that it can be so lonely and isolating. Here's a scenario:
The change starts when you are pregnant. The first few weeks of pregnancy you begin to avoid going out--you are exhausted, nauseous, unable to drink alcohol, and you haven't made your pregnancy public, so being out and keeping the secret is agonizing. Eventually, friends stop inviting you out, assuming you'll say no. As you get into the second and third trimesters, when you do go out, the conversation always turns to your belly, to your baby. You begin to feel your individuality, your identity slipping away. But you are still working, you have your baby shower to look forward to, you are independent and able to be selfish when you really want.
Then baby comes! Yay! A herd of visitors tramples through the hospital and into your home in the first few weeks after baby's arrival. Everyone wants to meet her. You don't care about how you look, how your apartment looks: you've got the ultimate trump card. But slowly, the flood turns to a trickle, and then it's been 8 days since you saw anyone other than your baby, your partner and maybe your mailman. You are so distracted with baby and being a new parent that you forget to return texts and calls. You are up at random hours and while you could text at 4am, you worry about waking friends up: they have work tomorrow. You settle into your little cocoon of parenthood, snuggle down, smell baby's head, meanwhile the rest of the world keeps spinning on without you.
When you are finally ready to emerge, friends that are still around may offer to babysit, but you rather spend time with them than have them watch baby. So you bring baby out, but baby has a blowout and you forgot extra clothes and have to pack it in before dinner even arrives. Or baby gets sick and you decide to stay home. Or you are just too damn tired to muster the energy to get out of your house. You feel like when you do go out, you have changed so much and everyone else has stayed the same. How has it been two years and your friends are exactly where they were (literally, the same barstools) before you got pregnant?
You lose touch with your partner. Your conversations center wholly around baby, her needs, what she did today, your goals for her. The most intimate time of your day is snuggling and nursing. But the constant physical contact means you just need a break come bedtime--not a chance you'd let your partner spoon you let alone make sexual advances. You long for some sort of intimacy, but it seems hopeless. Your partner becomes distant, you withdraw, the cycle perpetuates itself.
We all know parenthood changes everything--especially the way we see ourselves and others. We spend so much of our time devoted to one (or two or....) teeny tiny person, that we cannot give what we used to to other relationships. We lose ourselves in the process too, all of a sudden our identity is completely wrapped up in their personhood. You are rarely physically alone--especially if you choose to not go back to work--yet, you feel totally, wholly and absolutely alone.
This loneliness of parenthood, and motherhood especially, is unique to the United States. The Enlightenment ideals that this country was founded upon cherish the individual over the village, champion the "every-man-for-himself" over the "all-for-one-and-one-for-all", and put the nuclear family over the community. We are supposed to act as our own autonomous, self-sufficient systems--fully functioning and excelling at life every step of the way. This is the American Dream.
Not to mention what many refer to as the "mommy-wars", whereby we judge and fear being judged for our every choice and action in how we got pregnant, gave birth, and raise our children. In this culture climate, how can we possibly find a village?
It's not impossible, though it certainly isn't easy. Prenatally, join all the parents listservs in your neighborhood, go to prenatal yoga, take childbirth classes. You may have to become an extrovert, but introduce yourself to everyone you meet there, get numbers, set dates. No one will understand you better than someone who is in the exact same situation as you. (Not even your best friend who already has three kids--they are too old, her amnesia has set in!) Commiseration in infancy is the bedrock of friendship.
Once baby arrives, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. This is challenging, yes. It may even seem like an insurmountable obstacle, especially if you have a winter baby (too cold), a summer baby (too hot) or live in a somewhat isolated area. Go to Mommy & Me yoga, go to breastfeeding circles and support groups (even if you don't need help), go to sing-a-longs, baby movement classes, storytime, new parent meet ups and happy hours. Again introduce yourself to everyone. Pro-tip: introduce yourself before you introduce your child--the person you are meeting will likely do the same--and don't be shy when you forget it nearly immediately, they probably did too, just ask again. Set coffee dates, mani/pedi dates (wear your baby! No one minds if you nurse while you get your toes painted). Say yes to everything you can, even if staying home seems more tempting.
Oftentimes the relationships we forge in the early days of parenthood seem so shallow and based on the singular fact of your child's existence. But these relationships can truly develop into a deeper camaraderie, friendship and community than any you've had before. If you find yourself only talking about the kids every time you get together, make a mental list of possible discussion topics and casually drop them in, even if they too, are shallow at first: "did you see the new Game of Thrones?" Eventually, you will get into the deeper stuff.
Most importantly, be open, gentle, kind but honest with these new friends. Value yourself and your time and surround yourself with people who also value you and your circumstance. Avoid mommy-wars, be respectful. Introduce your friends to each other, especially if one seems to be battling the loneliness--this is a kindness that cannot be overstated.
Time will ease the loneliness and someday you will feel like you again--maybe a different version of you, but still you. But if you can build your village before baby even arrives, maybe you will never know the deep sorrow that parenthood can bring, and even if you do feel this, you will have people to hold you up, to carry you, to shine light down the cavernous halls of parenthood.