Western motherhood has become increasingly isolated, says Jessie Collins. We need more physical spaces to connect.
There were many things I was not prepared for in motherhood first time around: that I was supposed to brush my nipples for months in advance of breastfeeding in order to stave off the savagery off mastitis, that mastitis is the seventh circle of hell, that the Irish system is grossly inadequate in helping you get through those times, that though you may think otherwise, babies don’t have a clue about how boobs work either.
I also wasn’t prepared for the fact that you might find yourself crying uncontrollably in early days, that if you don’t have a good mother around, you need to hire one in, that unfortunately district health nurses are a total lucky bag, and a rubbish one isn’t much good (other than they carry a portable weighing scales). I didn’t know that when you first come home you should be given a selection of over 50 box sets, that you should sit there for the first six weeks minimum – with a syphon of water coming from the tap – a constant full fridge and pretend like the world has actually started turning.
There are lots of things I was wholly ignorant of, and ignorance in my case, was not baby bliss. I needed a female circle, I needed the elders, the female tribe. Instead, I was living in a small two-bedroomed apartment in the middle of Dublin’s Docklands, surrounded by law firms and financial companies and high rollers, people I was mostly invisible to as a plied my buggy around the glass and steel streets. On my corner was Misery Hill, across from that, Blood Stoney Road – these were my haunts.
I had two life lines, family and my doctor but even he started to realise I was just coming in for the chats. I would live for the weekend, having more people around, and the one-morning-a-week-breastfeeding group where you at least just got to sit with other people who felt as crazy as you did. So apart from all the practical stuff I didn’t know (who knew babies poo started off green?) I was so totally unprepared for the shocking isolation of it and then the identity crisis that followed.
My situation was compounded by the fact that close friends had moved away and others never went down the parenting route. I soon realised that though western civilisation had provided me with all the trappings and paraphernalia supposed to arm you with the tools you need: a dynamic nappy bag, a buggy that could make it up Kilimanjaro and a benchmark of perfection that would make anyone cry when actually, what I needed more was to know my neighbours, to be able to go for a cup of tea with someone down the road.
There is an intensity to that early isolation, and it did wane but it didn’t stop. If you return to working outside the home, you get some of the socialisation back but understandably, work is not always where you can air and share your parenting experiences, and concerns. The other mothers you see lashing in and out of the creche looking like you – in equal parts stressed, relieved and guilty – are not women you necessarily get to ever go for coffee with.
The reality is, the community constructs were not there to get knitted into. Nor were the communal spaces where you could just sit and be with other parents, others local to you. The city I was witnessing was more interested in being a fast-paced, shiny and slick than making a space to connect in. So we moved, and with it came a lifesaver, a tiny square of a park with a wall in it where parents could just sit on and talk. It was so simple but really precious.
The fact is, most people don’t want to go over the tiny details of parenting with you, except the other people who are obsessing about the same stuff. It may seem irrelevant or meagre, but when it occupies your whole day, and a huge amount of headspace, it is pressing on you – the guilt over a bad fall they had on Tuesday when you took your eye off them, the transition from one creche/Montessori/school to another, whether they are making any friends, it is the stuff that weights on your very being.
In that very same park the other day, I met another local mum who followed me around as I chased my overactive two-year-old all over the place, out of the park, into the bushes, up a tree. Other people might have drifted off, had a sit-down but she needed to talk, she needed to connect. I too have been that mum, verbally vomiting on another having stored up a tanker of concerns over days. Too much isolation is not good for parenting, not for kids, not for mothers, or dads for that matter.
We all need a wall to sit on and let it out.