The Loneliness and Isolation of New Motherhood

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Surrounded by new life – screaming, crying, unappeasable new life at that – can be far from the idyllic picture of new motherhood often portrayed, said Taryn Zarnetske, a clinical social worker at Yale New Haven Hospital. It can actually be an incredibly lonely and isolating time in a mother’s life.

“It’s one of those things that can be a little bit taboo to talk about honestly,” Zarnetske said. “But, if you ask a mom if she felt lonely she says yes. She almost always said she felt really isolated being on maternity leave.”

For many women the postpartum period can be a time of hardship, confusion, drastic change and intense loneliness.

“Women go home with their newborn and they are struggling. They are trying to figure out how to breastfeed, how to get their baby to sleep, how to handle their changed life, career and marriage,” Zarnetske said. “This is a time where everything is on the table for change — who you are as an individual, what your career is and your marriage. Many can feel uneasy to speak about it because we don’t hear about it very often.”

According to a survey of more than 20,000 adults in the United States, almost 50 percent of the respondents report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.

“The Loneliness Index findings are so significant, so reflective of an emerging threat to our health and well-being, individually and culturally, that we need to utilize these findings to drive change,” said Dr. Stuart Lustig, national medical executive at Cigna and co-author of the study. “This analysis provides broad direction on how to mitigate the negative physical and emotional health impacts of loneliness and how we can partner with employers and care providers to design interventions.”

According to research published in the Journal of Perinatal Education, 55 percent of new mothers mourn the loss of their pre-baby social life and experience social isolation and loneliness.

“We have to accept this as a problem in our area,” Zarnetske said. “Isolation increases a woman’s risk of developing postpartum mood and anxiety disorder or depression.”

Today, 1 in 7 women develop postpartum depression.

“We were in the trenches. She cried a lot. We had an exercise ball and I sat on that exercise ball for hours every day trying to bounce her and rock her and just get her to stop crying,” said Nichole Jewell, a mother of two toddlers who lives in Mystic. “You’re in the trenches, you really are. I expected it to an extent, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t thinking this is going to be lonely.”

And the benefit of maternity leave can lead to resentment at spouses who can separate at work.

“I hate to say it, because it’s not the easy way out, but my friends who go back to work… I’m like oh my god you’re not dealing with this. They have adult time,” Jewell said. “When I had my daughter and she was crying all the time I did feel some resentment toward my husband because he got to leave for 10 hours a day and he got to eat lunch in quiet and listen to whatever he wanted to in the car and go to the bathroom when he wanted. Do all these little things and I was like you have no idea, I don’t get to do any of that.”

Simply leaving the house can seem impossible, but can be key to preventing social isolation.

“When I was pregnant with my son and I just had my little girl we did something every day. We got out of the house, whether it was for an hour or two hours, just to get out,” Jewell said. “That made a world of a difference.”

For a mother like Nichole whose partner returns to work, isolation can set in within days of giving birth.

“The mom is there truly isolated, trying to figure out the day to day, all of those pieces. Breastfeeding, baby care without the support of her partner,” Zarnetske said. “It’s so hard, I think by and large what women get to is that it’s so difficult to get out of the house that they’ll just stay in.”

The challenges of the first few months postpartum are difficult to explain and hard to understand if you haven’t experienced them, Zarnetske said.

“That’s why we need to encourage mothers to speak out, ask for help and communicate with their partners,” Zarnetske said.

Husbands of women who develop postpartum depression are at increased risk for developing depression as well, and according to the American Medical Association about 10 percent of new fathers do develop the disorder.

“We need to make resources more easily available to moms and dads and open up to dads about the experiences so they are more likely to talk their wives about her potential loneliness,” Zarnetske said. “Partners are there and present for birth and deliveries and at times can see really scary things and can feel traumatized about their experience. We need to provide support.”

Life comparisons in the age of social media can also foster feelings of guilt and inadequacy among new mothers that contribute to their isolation.

“The photos on Instagram always seem too perfect. You never see the photo of screaming and throwing food on the floor during dinner, well that’s what my kids are doing,” Jewell said. “I would have moments where I thought this was just too difficult, work would be easier. I’d think, maybe I should start looking for a job, but then I’d feel guilty about sending them to daycare and not wanting to spend more time with them.”

In an attempt to assist mothers who are suffering from social isolation or loneliness Yale New Haven Hospital recently launched the maternal wellness program offering outpatient therapy for women during pregnancy and through the first year postpartum.

“There is a real need for specialized care,” Zarnetske said. “We created this program so moms can access mental health treatment and have open conversations about motherhood. We want moms to know having a newborn isn’t cookie cutter, it doesn’t have to look one way and it’s okay to struggle.”

This program is in line with Cigna’s national push toward more emphasis being placed on mental health care across all age groups.

“We set out to create a movement to bring attention to the topic of loneliness, and elevate the conversation around loneliness as a root cause of more acute mental well-being issues,” such as postpartum depression, said Jessica Buechler, deputy director of external affairs at Cigna. “We have outreached to Cigna healthcare provider network and employer clients to bring attention to the issue and share available materials and resources.”

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