There is a unique kind of loneliness in motherhood. I felt it the strongest in that first month. My mother came to help when we were first home from the hospital. Around 10 p.m. she’d say her “goodnight, I’ll be back in the morning,” and I would pin a brave smile over my mouth, give her an extra clingy hug. Watching her climb the stairs and shut the door behind her, I was eight years old again, waving to her from a foggy bus window, my pillow over my lap, my stuffed backpack hung around my little frame, heading off to wilderness camp. Do I have to do it by myself? What if I can’t do it? Is this all a big mistake?
Night is when no one else can do what mother does. I could feel the weight of my mantle press deeper into my shoulders at the thought of it. At dinner time, all the lights are on and the house is alive. In a few short hours, though, everyone will be sleeping, and there I’ll be - baby and I, and the two a.m. moonlight casting its pale blue glare on the kitchen appliances we pace past. The hours on the clock go up to twelve, then back to one, and start over. I’d witness every number of night, every night. I’d give my solitude company through soft lullabies. I’d hope for an easier night. I’d whisper for maybe a longer stretch of slumber, post feeding, or perhaps not too many cries to wake my husband, who had to be up early the next day. I’d pray I could sleep when baby slept, which is much harder than you’d expect. If it had to be a rough one, my heart would cry out for something beyond myself to respond and give strength. I’m her only mother, I’m the only one here. She doesn’t want anyone else, so this is mine to do. I both loved it and feared it so greatly.
I wonder if there isn’t something altering about this experience, that carries itself into later stages. Now my daughter is 15 months, but the loneliness persists. I see it in other mothers, too. My girl and I will go to the library for “story time.” I watch us mothers file in with our kids, our bags, our car seats, our strollers, wearing our ponytails and yoga pants. The little ones bound away to find the best corner to explore. We mothers shout after them with warning or direction hardly ever obeyed. Each of us pick a vantage point, and from there we watch our kids. And that’s it. We say nothing. It’s silly, actually. It’s like riding a packed subway car, all the while acting like no one is around you. We pull out our phones, keep one eye on the child. Occasionally we float awkward comments to one another, usually when our child starts interacting with theirs. But we quickly go back to our invisible cubicles, quietly vigilizing our offspring. We think our thoughts, and feel our feelings, in solitude. Maybe we feel better in silence. Maybe we’re too tired to say more. Maybe we’re too familiar with being alone. Maybe we’re afraid of what others think of us. Maybe we’re afraid of what others think of our children. I have felt all those things and more. Sometimes, I feel lonelier sitting in a room with mothers - whom I know, for a fact, have been through exactly the same thing I have - than I do when I’m home alone. And there’s something sort of tragic in that. Motherhood can be lonely work.