The Royal Foundation, which supports the charity work of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has researched the effects of the pandemic on parents of young children and discovered that they are experiencing “dramatically increased loneliness”.
No great surprise there. I imagine loneliness has increased dramatically for many people whose contact with friends and family has brutally ceased. No wonder so many of us are getting dogs. You can natter to them all day and have the bonus of legally standing in a park talking to other human beings.
When you’re a parent, though, it’s not just you suffering. If a parent is struggling with poor mental health, chances are that life for their children won’t be much of a picnic, either.
On many occasions, when talking about how much support parents need, I have found the response to be: “Well, it’s their choice to have children, so why can’t they get on with it and why do they have to clog up coffee shops with their prams and the boring chat about babies, while I’m trying to enjoy my bun and do my much more important work, tappity-tapping on my laptop?”
To the untrained eye, those clusters of parents enjoying a toastie and a natter and talking about sleep patterns may seem ditch-water dull but actually, it’s a survival tool. None of us are designed to spend all day, every day on our own with a baby or young children. And if you’ve got some chaos going on in your head, you even more desperately need the respite of adult company – for your own sake and your child’s. The luxury of having someone to hold your grabbing baby while you stuff a waffle in your mouth, unhindered, is a joy I cannot overstate.
Throughout this pandemic, I’ve thought how it would have been had this happened when my children were toddlers. You need to be out and about with toddlers and young children. Staying in is like trying to contain an especially hyperactive chimpanzee. You take them out, tire them out and look forward to when they are asleep and you can read the same half-page of the book you’ve been reading for weeks before you pass out, exhausted from a day of spending every second of every minute trying to stop your crawling baby or toddler falling off something, sticking a button up their nose or eating fire. Very small children have no sense of personal safety.
When my son was about three, I really was not very well in my head at all. The poor kid would walk into the kitchen to find me sobbing. I’d be Mary Poppins one minute and Miss Trunchbull the next. I was going through a traumatic time. “In the old days,” my GP said, “we’d have called it a nervous breakdown.” Whatever it was, the whole time I was going through it, there was a small child alongside me who I was desperate to give a magical childhood to, but all the crying and mood swings were getting in the way. In stepped my mother, my father, brother, aunt, neighbours, friends, who sometimes almost literally carried me through it all. What are people in the same position doing now, during this pandemic?
Parents aren’t known for putting their own welfare first but in this pandemic, away from our usual support networks, it’s even harder – but critical because how well the parent is doing directly influences how well the child is doing.
Again, I know there will be eye-rolls from the “you made your bed, lie in it” brigade, but children aren’t children for all that long. Before you know it, they’ll be at the same work place as you, sat next to you on the bus, renting a flat next to yours, so it’s in everyone’s interests that the kids are okay and able to function fully and happily in society.
The best thing I did for my mental health in lockdown was to take the pressure of homeschooling off. I was on my own, stressed about the virus, anxious about my work disappearing and trying to hustle for the kind of work I can do at home. What no-one in my household needed was the added stress of keeping my seven-year-old “up to date” with school work.
I decided that at just seven, she needed some books, a television, pens and paper and a mum who wasn’t hissing, “Oh, SOD OFF” every time a fellow mum on a WhatsApp group posted pictures of their child’s lockdown achievements. “Look, she learned to bake bread and has written a play!” while my own had watched hours of back to back, noisy American kids shows.
The loneliness of parents with small children this winter needs to be addressed and acknowledged and the right support given. When you are in the thick of it, it can be almost impossible to call out for help. The findings of the Royal Foundation’s research need to be taken seriously.