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The Loneliness of Early Parenthood

So it’s pretty much inevitable - the disintegration of ones social life once a baby comes along. As Kawther Alfasi notes, "my very attitude to friendship change. Any new acquaintances and socialising I might make would be dictated by my child’s age, pastimes , and social classes with my old friends being alienated by my life’s new focus. After all, who wants to listen to a parent drone on about their offspring’s unrecognised genius?"

Much as we might intended to defy these assumptions, the social foundations of life will be upended following the birth of a little one. Every invite received will now be subject to scrutiny and risk assessment! It seems inevitable that parenthood will affect your former social lives—often negatively.

Research suggests that new parents commonly experience estrangement from their friends. The charity Action for Children, as part of broader research into loneliness, surveyed 2,000 parents. It found that the majority (68 percent) felt “cut off” from friends, colleagues, and family after the birth of a child. Common reasons for this feeling of isolation included lack of money and the inability to leave the house when caring for baby or small children.

In another study, researchers from the Netherlands found that “the strength of friendships typically decreases after people become parents.” This period of weaker attachment is attributed to exhaustion and tight budgets when children are younger; it bottoms out when children are at the age of 3 and require sustained supervision. Women tend to regain contact with their friends after the child turns 5.

Although becoming a parent can be a lonely experience for both mothers and fathers, research suggests that new motherhood can be particularly isolating. In a survey of 2,025 mothers, 54 percent admitted to feeling “friendless” after giving birth, while another survey emphasised that this was a problem for young mothers in particular. Julie Barnett, a professor of health psychology at the University of Bath, co-authored a study of first-time mothers’ experience of loneliness in the U.K. The mothers were interviewed when their babies were four to nine months old; all were on maternity leave during that time while their partners were back at work after having taken a short stint of paternity leave. The mothers’ social isolation was partly due to them being the primary caregivers. “There were fewer opportunities for social interaction,” Barnett states. “If women are coming from full-time work that suddenly is not there anymore … other people are still going to work but you’re at home with the baby. That sometimes led to a perception that the friends had gone.” As well as this, new mothers tended to make unfavourable self-comparisons with an ingrained image of “effortless” motherhood. The feeling that they were not coping as well as they should be—physically and emotionally—made relating to other mothers difficult for them. Nevertheless, Barnett notes that the social void in the lives of new mothers was a “transient loneliness”:

The nature of new parenthood can lead to loneliness, but the weakening of new parents’ social circles is also a result of the nature of friendship. “Across adulthood, one of the most important determinants of friendship is how our lives are organised,” says William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University. "When your life undergoes a major change, such as the arrival of a new baby, the structure of your friendships can’t help but change, too. Friendship is always a matter of choice—we choose to spend time together".

For new parents, then, the key issue is the extent to which their old friendships can both accommodate, and be accommodated within their newly organised lives. “With friends who don’t have children, it can be a bit of a litmus test. Are they able to accept and understand that, in some ways, a child changes the centre of gravity of our entire lives?” Rawlins asks. Viewed in this way, change may be inevitable, but the loss of our friends may not be, if we and they are both willing to adapt.

One way of potentially preventing these feelings of social estrangement after the birth of a child is to construct friendships with other parents who are going through similar experiences. After all, “similarity breeds friendship by forming a basis for conversation and joint activities,” argue the Dutch researchers in their study. The new mothers in Barnett’s study reported that some of their most understanding relationships were with other mothers of young babies. And there is something immensely comforting about being part of a friendship group with other new parents, and experiencing their unflagging sympathy.

That doesn’t mean abandoning relationships with childless friends. Friendships that speak to our differences, Rawlins says, have value, too. “People who have known us before and after children can kind of curate the person we’re becoming,” he says. Drawing on their knowledge of our pre-parent selves, they can encourage us to keep pursuing our past hobbies or ambitions. In doing so, “they keep us from getting complacent.” Retaining such friendships might be more difficult than defaulting to socialising with other parents, but it’s worth striving for all the same.

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