I was eight months pregnant and packing. My husband and I were leaving Park Slope for Upper Manhattan’s Inwood. I was excited to settle in our new two-bedroom on a gorgeous park and tidal estuary, but miserable to be moving so far from a beloved neighborhood and world of friends.
My son was born on a Friday evening in June. Soon after I had the good fortune to discover I had landed in an uptown village of moms who hit the parks hard all summer long. Happy me and happy baby. My little boy and I tumbled into the arms of a gang of new moms equally desperate for connection. It made all the difference.
When my son was six months and winter froze the swings and slides, I gathered fellow moms in my living room on a Saturday morning for the first of what was to become four years of weekly meetings. Then, with kindergarten looming and a second baby keeping things exciting, my husband and I moved 10 miles north where I started a group for moms that has met weekly for 13 years. We are still going strong, rotating living rooms on Monday mornings after packing our sweet little babes off to school (now in 3rd through 12th grades).
Our Minds are Not Designed for Isolation
Humans are healthier, saner, more productive and happier when we are regularly in good, close contact with others, says an abundance of research. Our minds are simply not designed for isolation. This is especially true during periods in the lifespan when our brains are undergoing dramatic change as they do during early childhood, adolescence and a recently identified period of neuroplasticity, growth and transformation: matrescence.
While it may not roll off the tongue, this term was coined as a non-stigmatizing way to describe the many shifts women experience when becoming mothers. Matrescence refers to a period of physiological as well as psychological, social and economic changes that come with new motherhood. In particular, researchers are exploring how the striking neuroplasticity of this period may be nature’s way of priming parents for
- greater resilience,
- increased problems solving,
- enhanced tolerance for boredom (ha!),
- heightened vigilance to detect threats, and
- a capacity for stronger attachment.
So even if “mommybrain” leaves you a few points down on the executive function survey, good things can be happening in your brain that may last into old age.
The Creeping Isolation of Modern Parenthood
You’ve barely finished inspecting fingers and toes when it launches: the multi-year, sometimes amazing, often topsy-turvy period of re-orienting to a new life as a parent and what it takes to raise a very young human. Family and friends rally and celebrate and sometimes help tremendously. But as you settle over the weeks and months, often with a partner needing to return to work, the days with a young baby can get very long indeed. In creeps isolation.
You Weren’t Meant To Do This Alone
Studies confirm the factor that most predicts postpartum depression and anxiety – aside from earlier bouts of clinical depression – is social isolation. The maternal brain thrives on community, a sense of camaraderie and belonging. This way, the forming neural pathways are paved with oxytocin, the feel-good, love, bonding, human connection hormone. The maternal brain does not thrive on lonely: stress hormones can get way too involved in the new construction underway. Healthy conditions lead to the healthy brain changes we want.
Societies have always embedded parenting within family and community. I joke in my childbirth classes that the institution of the extended family never made sense to me until I had children. And then I got it. Boy, did I get it. With the arrival of each new baby, my husband and I were of one voice: “MOM, can you come visit again? PLEASE!!!! How long can you stay?”
Virtual or Real?
Many of us live far from our families. Relationships with friends who don’t have children often change after a baby is born. “How’s-it-going?” texts and baby photos keep us in touch, sort of. Not quite alone, but also quite alone, we surf the web with longing and desperation, reading birth and parenting stories, googling “is it normal when…”.
We may not realize how much we need actual human connection. Eye contact or a smile between two people, these spike oxytocin and activate soothing systems in our bodies. Watching another mother wrangle her baby in real time may save hundreds of hours of “is this normal?” searches. In my classes folks comment on how good it feels to talk through things in the company of others, recognizing that the digital download only goes so far.
(Interestingly, research into the “loneliness epidemic” under discussion in the U.S. finds that the greater the number of hours teenagers spend on their screens, the greater their feelings of loneliness.)
So What’s To Be Done?
I’m a big fan of DIY moms community. Take the initiative. Get out to a park and invite a few moms to gather every week in the park, at a café, or in your living room. Have the group read a parenting book to serve as a point of discussion (may I suggest The Aware Baby, by Althea Solter, the book we started with years ago on my living room floor? Parents of toddlers will get a lot out of Listen, by Patty Wipfler).
Find a facilitated group. Some are drop-ins where it is great to make connections, but you may discover a rotating crew showing up. Others, like mine, run for a series of weeks with the same women and babies and can offer a chance for building stronger ties.
When my daughter was born in 2010, I began offering 6- to 8-week moms group series modeled on the groups I’ve run for myself and friends over the years. More recently, I’ve started Toddlers-and-Up parenting support groups that meet once a month over a 4-month period with participants exchanging weekly check-in phone calls. Both these groups are highlights of my weeks.
Each meeting we divide the time roughly into thirds. We open with small group discussion off a series of questions I pose, move on to parenting practicalities, and then devote a chunk of time to support-group-style mindful listening. We explore what inspires and challenges us and where tripwires from the past can, well, trip us up.
Because parenting young children can be such a moment-to-moment survival game, each week women say how much they appreciate the opportunity to slow down and reflect, describing the inspiration and solace they find in each other’s stories. I love seeing the trust and friendship grow each week. And even though my children are older now, I learn so much from joining newer parents in the project of being scientists of our own experience.
If you can’t get to an in-person gathering, I highly recommend the California-based organization run by Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting. They offer classes and groups by phone and on-line and an impressive amount of parenting info and perspective on their website. The depth and insights of Hand in Hand parenting classes will at least partially make up for the lack of in-person contact. Promise.
Or, you could just move to Upper Manhattan.
Whatever steps you take, I encourage you to build your parenting tribe.
You need to laugh with other parents. And more than likely you need a few good cries as well. Parenting is an extraordinary undertaking. Doing it in close connection with others is good for your brain. And what’s good for your brain is good for the entire family.