What Happened To Our 'Village'? How Mommy Isolation Feeds Postpartum Depression

By Amanda Haslam Wirtz

At times in graduate school when our studies seemed unbearable, a friend and I used to take breaks and daydream.

It was always the same dream: finish our degrees and marry men who could afford neighboring homes on the beach. We planned to take daily walks in the coastal hills with our strollers, gabbing away about baby milestones and laughing about what our husbands said the night before.

We didn’t see our picture of motherhood through the glossy filter of social media. The year we completed our program was the same year that Facebook became a thing, and Twitter and Instagram weren’t even a twinkling in someone’s eye. Instead, our idea of motherhood was based on the community of parents that had raised us. It was filled with playdates and park dates, groups of women who gathered regularly for Moms’ nights out, and “joy schools” for our toddlers. We weren’t mothering alone.

Over a decade later, my reality of motherhood looks nothing like that dream. I didn’t imagine how I would feel about leaving behind an inviting circle of professional women to become a stay-at-home mom, or the postpartum depression that would make getting out of the house seem like a coastal mountain in and of itself.

“It takes a village to raise a child” goes the African proverb, made popular by Hillary Clinton when she turned it into the mantra of the Democratic party in the late 1990’s. But for many stay-at-home moms or stay-at-home dads, we spend very little time interacting with other members of our villages, resulting in a new reality: “mommy isolation.”

One blogger from “Motherly” describes the natural source of this isolation perfectly:

“Suddenly, I realized why we are called stay-at-home moms. Because we stay at home. At the very best, we cautiously orbit our homes, keeping them in reach. Two hours is the maximum length of a play date. One hour the maximum length of a car ride. … Once you’re up and dressed and breakfasted, you’re in sight of nap time, and then it’s lunch, and then it’s swimming, and your day is reduced to a 30-minute appointment five minutes away from home.”

Yes, our schedules are one source of the isolation, to be sure. But that doesn’t explain why, even with the independence of one-nap days and modern conveniences like cars, it’s so difficult to find communities of men and women getting together to collaborate and ventilate on the most important, demanding and emotionally draining creative project we will ever undertake: raising a human being.

As a thirty-something mom of a toddler, it’s rare to find other mothers my age who have children in the same phase of life as mine. I live in a community devoid of young children or blooming families. So, whenever I’m within 100 miles of another mom around my age with toddlers, I do anything in my power to get together.

I recently visited a friend like me — one who, by magical circumstance, has twin boys the same age as my daughter. We live in different states, but we both live in communities without many parents in our stage of life, and these few hours together were deeply validating for both of us and for our children. It was like medicine for the exhaustion, the monotony and, most importantly, the isolation of motherhood. Leaving to go back to our silos was depressing for both of us, and for days afterwards, we texted each other pictures of our children and our lives.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the question we asked as we sat in our euphoric state of communal bliss, watching our children playing with sand, decorating cupcakes, and very loosely learning how to share toys. “What on earth happened to our village?”

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Shortly after that visit, my family took a trip to a resort with a kid’s club that offered activities for kids of all ages. One morning, my sister and I took our children to the main activity for the day. The kid’s club was filled to the brim with parents and children — there were probably a hundred people in the room, and as the staff entertained the children, the parents sat back watching.

Suddenly, my sister turned to me and said, “Look at all the parents. They’re all on their phones.”

What struck me, though, was not simply the number of parents on phones, but rather the instinctual habit of turning to their phones when there was a parental break instead of taking advantage of making connections with an entire village of other parents. Almost all of the adults were turning to engage with the false or distant communities on their phones.

Now, I’m not anti-technology, and I have definitely had my moments of escaping to my phone, often several times in one day. It’s a wonderful tool, and I derive great satisfaction from being able to know what is happening in the world at the touch of a screen, from seeing what my friend is eating an entire continent away with a swipe of my finger.

But our screens don’t satiate our brains or boost our mental wellbeing in the same way as actual human contact and face-to-face communities.

Postpartum depression impacts one in seven women, according to the American Psychological Association. That is a significant number, and it has grown substantially over the last decade. That means in that room of parents at the resort, there were likely other women, like me, who had struggled and lost their sense of self, having a difficult time going it alone.

The loss of community and face-to-face interaction are strong predictors of postpartum depression. In addition to previous bouts with depression or postpartum depression, studies show that “low levels of social support” and “isolation from family and friends” are important risk factors, and they illustrate our reliance, as women especially, on social relationships. Beyond our basic needs for food, sleep, a safe place to reside and maybe a shower every couple of days, we are social-emotionally intelligent beings who need contact with other beings who function at the same level we do — and perhaps even have a degree of empathy for what we are going through.

Because of our social-emotional intelligence, interaction and relational development are basic, essential needs. As one doctor describes it: “If she [the mother] can accept her dependent needs and ensure that she is in fact taken care of … she is unlikely to develop a postpartum depression. If not, she may be at risk.”

What kind of an impact could we have on the one in seven mothers struggling through postpartum depression if we turned from our screens and memes to our neighbors and friends and re-established our villages?

Read more: Learn About the New Path for Treating Depression and Anxiety

Perhaps that’s why my visit with my friend was literally healing for me. Even sharing our feelings of exhaustion and emotional deprivation was energizing. Watching our children interact for a couple of hours was normalizing. I left feeling I could handle the tantrums and challenges of the next week better and that my difficulties personally, mentally, and as a mom were real. Just as real as the face-to-face relationship I had with my friend.

Lives Unencumbered is working to help create these face-to-face communities as a part of a holistic treatment process for healing postpartum and other forms of depression. These types of built-in communities aren’t always easy to find beyond post-birth classes offered by hospitals and medical groups, making it challenging to connect with people who can understand what you’re going through.

We have a vision that includes creating support centers that offer that safe space to connect one-on-one and in small groups of individuals going through the same difficulties and struggles — to provide the medicinal support of human connection.

Help us create better support for everyone suffering from isolation and depression!

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