Just You & the Baby: Postpartum Loneliness 101
There are thousands of images depicting mother and child; oil paintings, religious imagery, photographs, abstract art. And it was only after having my son that I noticed the (seemingly obvious) thing that almost all of them have in common.
The mother and child are always alone.
There aren’t many paintings called “Mother and child, but also there’s a guy there helping” or “Mother relaxing while nice neighbor holds the baby for a while.” Not that those things do not happen, but they happen less of the time. They don’t get painted as often.
Most of the time it is just you and the baby.
Hours and hours and hours of just you and a baby.
And your phone, of course. You can try to reach out to people on your phone, but they can only talk to you for so long. They have work. They have a thing. They are asleep because it is 3am, when normal people are asleep. Mostly your phone lets you access social media where you will look at all the things people without babies are doing.
And what are YOU doing during this period? Great question. The phrase, “What did you do today?” will blow your mind, because you will feel like you are emotionally and physically exhausted, but when pressed to give an answer you will say things like, “I’m not sure? I think I just ate a box of Saltines, one after the other? There were some socks in the hallway and I picked them up? I watched an old X-Files episode while feeding the baby.” Could that have been the whole day?
It was. Sometimes that is the whole week.
Being given a newborn is a bonding experience and a test of sanity. I was not prepared to feel lonely as often as I did. There are classes that tell you how to bathe a baby, birth a baby, and give a baby CPR (two fingers on their tiny chest!). But it would be complicated to design a class that could prepare you for the loneliness of having a newborn. It would have to go a little like this:
Postpartum Loneliness 101
You arrive to discover you’re the only person in the class. There’s no teacher because that would mean another adult for you to talk to. That would defeat the whole purpose.
You walk through the doors of some barebones rented community space, awkwardly flipping on fluorescent lights and saying, “Hello? Is anyone here for the loneliness class?” Your newborn sleeps in a carrier on your chest as you pass through room after empty room, the space so silent you are unnerved by the buzzing of the lights, eventually shutting them off because they feel too bright and you don’t want the baby to wake up. You walk for 45 minutes, encountering no one. You find a chair and sit alone in the dark, counting the number of tiles in the water-logged drop ceiling. You look at your phone.
“Welcome to postpartum loneliness!” you will read on a pop-up on your phone screen. The agenda is nothing, except for tending to the baby when he cries and constantly wondering if there’s something else you should be doing. The homework is to give literally everything you have while simultaneously feeling guilty for not doing more. The class meets multiple times a day for several months. Dress code is informal (you can of course wear your sweatpants/bathrobe) but attendance is mandatory.
To survive this period? Take some classes on how to care for a new baby. You can’t take classes on how to prepare for the loneliness, but take the classes that do exist on how to go into labor:who to call, when to push, how to breathe. Newborn classes on how to nurse, how to swaddle, how to sleep train, when to worry. Sit through all of these classes, absorbing the most important resources they have to offer: information and the phone numbers of other pregnant people who are going through this at the same time you are going through it.
Text those people in the weeks leading up to the birth, or when you are awake at 2am on a silent, winter Tuesday. There is a good chance they will be awake as well.