by Erin Skillen
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: June 2017
It’s 4:59 a.m. I’m alone in bed having a panic attack. My kids are at my ex’s house. I’m trying to breathe deeply and calm my body but the twisting in my chest and the aching in my stomach won’t stop. Without an adult, child or dog next to me, I cannot find a soothing rhythm of breath to mimic in hopes of regulating my own. I have the best of friends and family in my life. But they aren’t there during these moments in the middle of the night. So there’s no one to pretend to be okay for. No one to help me work through it. In those breathless, painful moments I am very much alone—and lonely.
I assumed that the big ‘L’ was a result of my marital status, and part of it absolutely is. I thought that loneliness was a luxury that most parents with young kids would kill to experience. I assumed that many of us would be thrilled to just use the bathroom without being harassed for attention the entire time. And we would (using the bathroom uninterrupted is amazing!!!), but I have learned that simply being surrounded by other humans doesn’t preclude even the busiest parent from feeling lonely at times.
In thinking about loneliness, I started talking to other people about it and I no longer believe it’s rare for parents, except maybe in the traditional definition of being alone. There’s a spectrum of loneliness, many of us are feeling it to some degree, but very few of us seem to actually admit to it. But now I know that more of us are dealing with it than you might think, but most of us won’t admit that at a block party or PAC meeting, or maybe even to ourselves.
Loneliness isn’t one thing to all people. It’s complex and varied. For me, it’s being alone in the middle of the night, with no one to reach out to. For other people, it’s sitting at a playgroup full of parents feeling unable to be yourself and connect with anyone else. It can be the feeling that though you have lots of colleagues or acquaintances you speak with on a daily basis, you can’t actually express a genuine thought to any of them. So we pretend. We make B.S. small talk. We keep it to ourselves. And we feel alone.
While being immersed in the type of loneliness I’ve been feeling in my separation, it was easy to forget the kind I’d experienced when I was married. The loneliness I felt back then had nothing to do with my husband. It was because I felt I didn’t belong anywhere after becoming a parent, and that feeling got even stronger after I had my second child. But it was manageable because I had my partner and he got me so I could cope with feeling disconnected from, and inferior to, the other moms around me. I could pretend that it didn’t matter that I felt like a washed up old lady compared to the vivacious (and well-rested) non-parents at work. I couldn’t find a new identity that fit and as a result I felt lonely.
Some parents feel extremely lonely within their marriages after the kids arrive on the scene. While the experts say it’s essential to prioritize your marriage, most of us can’t help but put the adorable little newbies at the top of the pecking order. And that puts each member of the couple down a peg or two. Having kids changes people and those changes can alienate partners. Ethan Hawke’s character in Before Sunset articulated it well, saying “I feel like I’m running a daycare with someone I used to date.” The partner you knew is still there, but kind of not really the same anymore, and they value other new humans over you. That can be hella lonely.
So what’s the answer? Do we just wallow in our isolated pits of loneliness and try to ride it out alone? I sure as hell don’t know what to do to fix it. But I do know that while I felt like a complete loser admitting I was lonely at times, the response taught me it was totally normal. Most people actually seemed relieved that I was owning up to it and pretty much interrupted me with some variation of “Me too!” every time.
Being a parent is hard, but it can feel a lot lighter when you commiserate with others. Somehow just putting a name to loneliness makes it less daunting, less shameful and less powerful. The middle of the night can still be a difficult time for me, but knowing I’m not the only one out there feeling lonely actually does make it a little easier to face alone.
Erin Skillen is a coffee-addicted mom and media producer in Victoria. To ditch stress she shakes her booty to Beyonce, spins around in a giant metal hoop and writes romantic comedies with another mom.
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