The Invisible Motherhood

 

Tomorrow is my thirty first birthday. It is the first birthday that I don’t feel like celebrating with a group of people – and for a reason. Six months ago my daughter was born. Half a year has gone by since I trespassed the invisible border between “married, no kids yet” to “married, with baby”. As I did, I gradually entered the land of social isolation. Previously I had already painlessly moved on from “single” to “single and dating occasionally” to “dating steadily” to “engaged” to, finally, “married”. With a few connections lost and gained along the way – an expected attrition, nothing alarming. Social circles expand and shrink as we build and let go of connections constantly, according to circumstances. But never before have I felt so inept of making new connections – and not for the lack of trying.

Something interesting happens to you when you become a parent. You become emotionally complete yet socially isolated.

As a mom I am emotionally fulfilled by just being with my spouse and my baby. My heart is full. My soul is smiling. I feel that I would be quite content if from now on we have to live on an uninhabited island – just the three of us (there is a reliable wi-fi on an uninhabited island, right?). But I am not on the island. And socializing is still a part of life. I feel conflicted. I savour being in this sweet motherly isolation, a cocoon of love for the three of us that we have created. But occasionally I do want to talk to another human being (besides my loving husband and my dear daughter) who, preferably, shares the same parenting experiences, values and hopes. There must be other mothers out there who share the same beliefs. I feel reasonable doubt that I can spend the rest of my life without making new friends – especially with other mothers. But I do worry – what if I stay in my self-imposed sweet isolation; if not forever, then for a long or too long of time?

So is it a social inertia that pushes me to look for new connections in this land of motherhood? What is this force of social habit that makes us hungry for interaction? Human is, after all, a very social animal. Do I really need new connections to feel complete and secure – or is it my social experience and memory telling me that? I am in a new social landscape here, and I am only learning to navigate it.

I remember experiencing something similar. A few years ago I moved to Argentina for a few months. My hopes and expectations were that Buenos Aires is swarming with young, sexy and smart locals and expats and I would fit right in. Technically, I was right. It swarmed. But a new environment takes its toll – you’ve got to learn the language before you go places. So for the first few weeks I barely spoke enough Spanish to hold a five minute conversation with a cab driver. I was sad and isolated. I wanted to be happy and socializing – but I couldn’t. I was tongue-tied. For the first time in a very long while I experienced loneliness – I was alone in the city, in the country and on the entire continent. Eventually, as time went by and my Spanish quickly progressed beyond intermediate, I felt more confident and met other people, locals and foreigners, who were, just like me, looking to connect. I met Argentinian, Colombian, German, Ukraine, Czech people. I felt calmer as my social life perked up and the wall of isolation was broken down. I spoke the language now – and life instantly seemed better.

Now I find myself in a similar situation – except I haven’t travelled across the world. I’ve had a baby! So maybe I just don’t speak the lingo yet? Maybe all other mothers are happily connecting over coffee and at the playground and going on picnics and playdates, while I alone just don’t speak enough of that common social language?

Here I find myself moving at the speed of light – away from the connections and social circles I’ve had before – and into the social vacuum. All my life I have been a pretty outgoing social creature, with multiple groups of friends for any occasion. Overbooked for the weekend, lining up dinners, always up for catching up for a coffee, hosting parties in my downtown condo, casually driving to the States for a party or flying to meet friends across the country every once in a while. I am an extrovert, although I tend to recharge my social batteries in solitude. But turned out I am a circumstantial extrovert. I’ve settled. I got married and my focus shifted. I found the move from highly sociable lifestyle of singledom to a cosy and domesticated romantic life of a couple quite soothing. But the move from married life with no kids to married life with kids has so far turned out to be more like “married with kids and no friends”. My previous connections are fading away, and even though I know that it is inevitable, I am still a little sad.  I value my social ties, but I now value the comfort of family life more. Introversion is a part of a normal integration as a new family. At least this is what I am telling myself. Now that we are a couple with a baby – my social circles have dried out even more while new ones have not yet formed. And this is how I found myself in a social draught – and I get thirsty, for goodness’ sake!

I have connected with a few new mothers. Somewhat have. You would think that it is an easy “I am a mom, you are a mom, we have oodles in common” instant connection. But not really. Soon enough I have discovered that conversations eventually need to move beyond labour stories and diaper choices and sleep deprivation. I do want to talk about our babies – but I also want to talk about books and movies and travel and aspirations and career choices and childhood dreams. All that building material that relationships are made of. Ultimately, we connect through commonalities – and there needs to be more to it than “we are both mothers”. Prior to being a mom, I didn’t exactly walk around making friends with women only because “we both have vaginas” or “we both have blonde hair”. Motherhood is a very common experience, no matter how unique it is to you personally – it’s still a widely popular thing. It is a common ground, but a very vast ground. Shared experience of motherhood is simply not enough to build friendships exclusively upon it.

Being a mom is surprisingly not as socially uniting as I thought it would be. If anything, it can be alienating at times. Differences in parenting styles can either make or break a new connection. You are twice as vigilant now – you are not only making friends for yourself, you are choosing friends for your little one to hang out with. This can be quite daunting. Sometimes I feel like I am a casting director making a selection, as I am looking carefully at the choices other mothers make – and I catch myself making judgement calls quite quickly.  I swore off judging other parents soon after giving birth – and, to be quite frank, I am still guilty of that. I remind myself that no one is perfect. There are as many mothering styles as there are women.

As a woman, I am empowered and fearless. I believe in feminism and girls power. I feel solidarity with other women, I occasionally even feel the fierceness and the beauty of my own womanhood. But as a mother, I don’t quite feel a sense of belonging to some worldwide sisterhood of moms. I even doubt it really exists. Motherhood is such a powerful and transformative experience – but also a humbling and deeply personal journey. Mother is a defender and a protector. By nature, a woman gets locked in on her child rather than focused on the outside world. Instincts, mother nature and the universe itself – they all want you to concentrate on protecting and bringing up your baby. Which I do, with all my heart, every minute of my day. But I am also a curious one by nature and a sociologist by education – and I can’t help but observe these patterns of gruelling social detachment that are new to me.

I will never forget the first time I became invisible. People looked right through me. I am not exactly unfamiliar with people looking at me – in particular, men. So I remember this one day a couple of months into being a mother. I was out and about with a stroller, feeling tired, looking sharp – leggings, headband, runners and no makeup, the standard new mom costume. A group of men passed by – and I couldn’t help but notice that they looked right through me. I have become invisible. Not just as a woman. As a person. A stroller made me invisible to others. I ended up in a blind spot. Let me explain a little more. Close to the end of my pregnancy, I was walking (OK, not walking – waddling, panting and hurting) through the mall when I suddenly realised that the mall is full of mothers with strollers.  They were everywhere I looked. I have never noticed this before, but once I did – I couldn’t stop looking! It dawned on me – the malls are the sanity asylums for moms! Mothers with newborns, babies and toddlers of all sizes – that’s where you spend your time between feedings and naps. This is where you flock to break the isolation and feel connected to the human world. That is where I would be soon enough too, having my new version of a public outing. That moment was an eye-opener. It took me almost a full term pregnancy to start paying attention to all these moms with strollers around me. Prior to this. and I am not proud of it, I simply didn’t notice them. I think this is what is called “cognitive blindness”. Mothers with strollers are so far on the periphery of our attention that we often exclude them from our attention span. Motherhood doesn’t just make you feel isolated – it can make you invisible to others.

As I said, I am here not for the lack of trying. I went to mommy and baby drop-in groups, postpartum groups, baby yoga sessions and educational classes. What I can see is a multitude of women each having their own experience and their own struggles. But I don’t see the unity, I don’t feel this sisterhood of motherhood that I have so much imagined. I see loving and tired mothers who, just like me, put on enough concealer to hide the bags under their eyes and who listen to the stories of the other moms only to say “I’ve been there” or to think “Gosh, am I ever glad that my situation is not that bad”. I see mothers who judge, worry, protect and care. We all do it.  All in the same way – and all by ourselves. Deep inside I feel that we have more in common than we chose to show and share.

By all means, I owe it to myself and to the people in my life to acknowledge the friendships that I already have and cherish. There are a few moms and non-moms that are so close to my heart although some of them live just so far away across the country or the globe. I keep wondering how could I expand my connections here, in town – and over and over again find it unexpectedly hard to socialize as a new mom.

After becoming a mother, I found myself detached from almost all of the social circles I’ve maintained previously. It is not a surprise – it is expected. But nevertheless I am occasionally reminded that I can no longer have a casual lunch at a new restaurant downtown or meet up for a drink at a bar on Friday night. I have a baby. That means everything I wear during the day is the kind of clothing that can be spit up on, pooped on and tossed into a laundry basket. Everything I eat is the kind of food that can be eaten on the playmat with one hand. I also might become dangerously jealous over the new heels you are wearing. All my shoes now are the comfortable ones. But screw the shoes. This is not what matters. Kids grow up fast and I know at one point in life I will find myself with all the shoes I can wear – and with my little one all grown up and not needing me as much anymore. So shoes can wait while I insatiably enjoy every minute of being with my baby. My life is structured around one very little but very important person.  The next important person is my husband. Then, my family (even though they happen to live half way across the world from me). Only after all these primary and crucial connections are secure and attended to, only then I can consider a friendly chat or a phone catch up with a friend. And please – don’t take it personally. I want to socialize. But other needs shove my social life into the furthest corner. Here is the dilemma – motherhood is so absorbing, satisfying and fulfilling, that you might not want to go and seek connections  But this quality time can gradually build a wall between a new mom and the outside world  – and this is when the isolation kicks in. Conundrum presents itself – as a mother, I crave connection and interaction with other moms and friends, but by the time I have either time or energy to get up to it, the opportunities have already sipped through my fingers and the phone numbers in my iPhone remain undialed.

You are devoted to your baby now. Everything else takes back seat. While it might take a village to raise a kid, it still takes effort and time to build new connections. Staying in touch with friends who don’t have children is not always easy – do many people have time to meet with me at 9pm, after my daughter falls asleep, and then listen to me talk about her love for solid foods and this new baby clothing store I have discovered? Admit it, this is not as interesting as the hot weekend you spent in Las Vegas or a trip to the local winery. Connecting with another mother can also a challenge. No matter how much I want to take a stroll in a park and chat with another mom – it takes twice the amount of coordination for sleep schedules for not one, but two babies. Plus driving time. Plus appointments. Plus feeding time. You get yourself an ordeal.It’s not impossible, but it can take a few days of planning. “Let’s just do some other time, shall we?”

So here I am, bitching about my social isolation. But I am so damn hopeful at the same time. My hope is that there are other moms who feel the same way and that there is, after all, an invisible sisterhood to which we all can relate and put aside our judgements and busy schedules. And gosh, am I ever so impatient to find it already.

I bleed my heart out for you a little bit. Here – I love being a mother so much that I might have sacrificed my social life for it. While doing that, I am still hopeful that the vacant space would eventually get filled, that new people would come along, that old connections will resurface and that the motherly social life would be as full as before or even better. Motherhood restructures your life – and particularly  your social life. But I remain an outspoken and hopeful mom who believes in the existence of other moms who also yearn for solidarity and connection, who want the best for their family and who sometimes end up in isolation for feeling that nothing might be good enough.

So I am one day away from my 31st birthday – and I for the first time in my life I chose not to celebrate it with a group of friends. Simply because I no longer have a “group of friends”. I choose to be with my baby and my husband. I am fulfilled, happy and, occasionally, socially marginalized. And that’s OK. I am hopeful that I am not the only one feeling that way. Happy birthday to me. Hold on there, my invisible sisters.

 

Olga Barrows

Vancouver, BC, July 2016

 

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