Why does it feel so lonely to be a parent these days? What can we do about it?
Having been a parent for a little over a year, I don’t have any experience with how parenting used to be in “the good old days”. I suspect a lot has changed over the last few generations. Being a mom can be lonely for me at times and this is a big reason I decided to start blogging. I hope it will allow me to connect with like-minded people and share some ideas for making life better. This loneliness got me thinking: has parenting always been like this? Why is it so lonely and what can we do to change it?
The first big issue that has changed parenting for our generation (perhaps more than any other) is technology. With a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, I think it is easy to get lost in cyberspace and forget that there are real, genuine people in your house to connect with face to face. I’ve noticed my husband and I sometimes get pulled into reading the news on our smartphones in the evenings rather than talking about our day or making plans together. Now that our daughter is getting more proficient with solid foods, we’ve been making a point to eat dinner together as a family with no cells phones or TV interrupting our conversations. This definitely helps, but we are also trying to avoid getting sucked into the back lit screens after the baby is in bed. This piece is key for our marriage. We go to bed early and talk before we fall asleep. It’s a simple thing but our relationship was suffering before we started doing this and I think it really helps.
The other challenge with cell phones is that being constantly plugged in has made it so easy to confirm plans the day before. It should be a good thing, but I think it has made it socially acceptable for people to cancel plans last minute, or remain in “play it by ear” mode at all times. There is something to be said for making a plan to see someone and then showing up at the agreed time and place. If you want healthy relationships, you have to nurture and respect them. Time is precious. Don’t blow off your friends and family. Make plans and follow through.
Social media plays a role in this loneliness, too. People used to talk to the people they know: their families and neighbors, friends from school, colleagues or people they met on vacation. Of course, social media makes it easier to keep in touch with all these people as we move to new cities or just new phases in our lives. But it also allows us to self-segregate in ways that are becoming really unhealthy. If you find that you disagree with someone’s politics or parenting philosophy, you can “unfollow” them in your news feed. We’re surrounding ourselves with an echo-chamber of people we agree with all the time and can’t understand why “those idiots” think differently. (Hint: it’s because we haven’t bothered to ask them.) Thanksgiving dinner gets awkward when family members of differing political views start talking about things they never discuss with anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We’re losing the ability to listen intently to the varying perspectives of people we care about with genuine interest and empathy. Social media is making us socially inept.
That said, I recognize that we really do rely on social media to keep in touch with people. This has been especially true for my family as my husband and I moved out of state to find good jobs. Our parents and siblings are several hours away and we don’t get to see them every day. But this is the modern trend; when you become an adult, you go where the jobs are and start your life there. Gone are the days of living on the same street as your whole extended family, finding a good job at the factory in town and staying put until you retire. As a result, we don’t know our neighbors anymore. I kid you not, I’ve lived in this apartment for well over a year and only just today introduced myself to the woman across the hall with a daughter nearly the same age as mine. We were both pregnant when I moved in so we have enough in common to at least say hello! Yet she had not previously made the effort, either. We’d just smile knowingly in passing and hurry on.
It really dawned on me at Halloween that life could be much more pleasant and fulfilling if we took more time to get to know our neighbors. Seeing all the kids out and about reminded me that we can create a sense of community if we put in a little effort. And why not? Nowadays many moms are working moms, like I am. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and yet the American working mom tries to go it alone (or with just the support of a working partner). There was a time when the grandmothers and aunts would chip in with child rearing. The neighbors knew you and would keep an eye out since your kids were outside playing with theirs anyway. How can we really expect to move away from our extended families, put in 40 hours a week at the office and still be the breast-feeding supermom we all think we must be without any outside help?
I’m calling for sanity. Let’s not pressure ourselves anymore. Let’s find what works and ask for help when we need it. Let’s put down our phones, turn off the TV, log out of Facebook and talk to our kids, to our spouses and to our neighbors. Let’s show up to that girls night instead of bailing out last minute. Let’s plan ahead and take all our vacation time every year. Let’s visit extended family and invite them to visit us. And when we hang out online, let’s be open minded and support one another, even if we sometimes disagree. In fact, let’s listen more when we disagree. Maybe we’ll find common ground in unexpected places and get the chance to feel more connected.