The Loneliness of Early Parenthood

It’s common to feel socially isolated after having a baby, but estrangement from friends doesn’t have to last forever.

A woman on a beach holds hands with a group of her friends, who are blotted out by graphics.
E. Bacon / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

A prospective parent is a magnet for unsolicited advice. During my pregnancy last year, I found myself trying to parse the accurate wisdom from the overblown. One claim seemed especially questionable: My social life would disintegrate, according to my sisters-in-law, co-workers, and everyone else; indeed my very attitude to friendship would change. Any new acquaintances I might make would be dictated by my child’s age, pastimes, and social circle, and my old friends would be alienated by my life’s new focus. After all, who wants to listen to a parent drone on about their offspring’s unrecognized genius?

Much as I intended to defy these assumptions, the social foundations of my life were, as predicted, upended following the birth of my daughter. Every invite I received was now subject to scrutiny and risk assessment. A wedding was doable: Strapped onto my front with a soft cloth sling, my baby was transformed into a delightfully snoozing, unobtrusive mass, and the merriment continued without disruption. A book-club gathering was less successful; I had to bow out midway through when our discussion was disrupted by loud shrieks. And evenings out have been superseded by my daughter’s elaborate bedtime routine. It seems inevitable that new parenthood will continue to affect our former social lives—often negatively.

Research suggests that, just as everyone warned me, new parents commonly experience estrangement from their friends. The charity Action for Children, as part of broader research into loneliness, surveyed 2,000 parents. It found that the majority (68 percent) felt “cut off” from friends, colleagues, and family after the birth of a child. Common reasons for this feeling of isolation included lack of money and the inability to leave the house when caring for small children.

In another study, researchers from the Netherlands found that “the strength of friendships typically decreases after people become parents.” This period of weaker attachment is attributed to exhaustion and tight budgets when children are younger; it bottoms out when children are at the age of 3 and require sustained supervision. Women tend to regain contact with their friends after the child turns 5, whereas men are more likely to remain distant from their former friendships, even after the child turns 19. This is in line with the fact that adult men tend to have fewer close friends than adult women in general, and with research showing that male friendlessness trebles in the period between early adulthood and late middle age.

Although becoming a parent can be a lonely experience for both mothers and fathers, research suggests that new motherhood can be particularly isolating. In a survey of 2,025 mothers, 54 percent admitted to feeling “friendless” after giving birth, while another survey emphasized that this was a problem for young mothers in particular. Julie Barnett, a professor of health psychology at the University of Bath, co-authored a study of first-time mothers’ experience of loneliness in the U.K. The mothers were interviewed when their babies were four to nine months old; all were on maternity leave during that time while their partners were back at work after having taken a short stint of paternity leave. The mothers’ social isolation was partly due to them being the primary caregivers. “There were fewer opportunities for social interaction,” Barnett told me. “If women are coming from full-time work that suddenly is not there anymore … other people are still going to work but you’re at home with the baby. That sometimes led to a perception that the friends had gone.”

The women in the study also discussed their experiences with breastfeeding, which Barnett said “had a role in accentuating the loneliness of mothers in several different ways.” At times, it constrained their physical ability to interact with others, and isolated them from their partners, who could neither replace them nor relate to their struggles. Meanwhile, the mothers tended to make unfavorable self-comparisons with an ingrained image of “effortless” motherhood. The feeling that they were not coping as well as they should be—physically and emotionally—made relating to other mothers difficult for them. Nevertheless, Barnett notes that the social void in the lives of new mothers was a “transient loneliness”: By and large, things improved within the first year.

The nature of new parenthood can lead to loneliness, but the weakening of new parents’ social circles is also a result of the nature of friendship. “Across adulthood, one of the most important determinants of friendship is how our lives are organized,” says William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University. When your life undergoes a major change, such as the arrival of a new baby, the structure of your friendships can’t help but change, too. “Friendship is always a matter of choice—we choose to spend time together. The role crunch that happens in young adulthood when you’ve become committed to a partner, [or] you have children, perhaps both of you have full-time jobs—all of these things leave very little time and freedom for friendship.”

For new parents, then, the key issue is the extent to which their old friendships can both accommodate, and be accommodated within, their newly organized lives. “With friends who don’t have children, it can be a bit of a litmus test. Are they able to accept and understand that, in some ways, a child changes the center of gravity of our entire lives?” Rawlins asks. Viewed in this way, change may be inevitable, but the loss of our friends may not be, if we and they are both willing to adapt.

This makes sense in theory, but in practice, it can be tricky to recalibrate one’s expectations of friendship after becoming a parent. On whom does the onus of compromise rest? I came across this tension recently on MumsNet, the U.K.’s largest parenting website and discussion board. A mother with a six-week-old breastfed baby was disappointed that her baby wasn’t wanted at her friend’s birthday lunch. She wrote that she was asked to either attend on her own, or not go at all. In the ensuing melee of responses, both parties were described as selfish: One for wanting her newborn to gate-crash an adult occasion, and the other for wanting to wrench such a vulnerable creature from its mother.

This particular scenario—in which the child is so young and the occasion is a social one—does seem to call for the child-free friend to be understanding, in Rawlins’s opinion. An all-or-nothing mind-set can lead to the erosion of a friendship. But he also sees how a request to leave kids at home could actually be a (potentially misguided) sign of investment in the friendship. “There’s a bit of a compliment to someone saying, ‘When I’m with you, I want to experience just you—I don’t want to dilute it, I don’t want you distracted.’”

Perhaps it is because I used to relish such uninterrupted time with friends that I now find our meetups frustrating. At one recent lunch with a friend, I found myself endeavoring to sympathize with her family struggles while simultaneously thwarting my daughter’s attempts to escape from her high chair. My perennially divided attention is, for the most part, a reality that I both bewail and accept.

One way of potentially preventing these feelings of social estrangement after the birth of a child is to construct friendships with other parents who are going through similar experiences. After all, “similarity breeds friendship by forming a basis for conversation and joint activities,” argue the Dutch researchers in their study. The new mothers in Barnett’s study reported that some of their most understanding relationships were with other mothers of young babies. And there is, I have found, something immensely comforting about being part of a friendship group with other new parents, and experiencing their unflagging sympathy.

That doesn’t mean abandoning relationships with childless friends. Friendships that speak to our differences, Rawlins says, have value, too. “People who have known us before and after children can kind of curate the person we’re becoming,” he says. Drawing on their knowledge of our pre-parent selves, they can encourage us to keep pursuing our past hobbies or ambitions. In doing so, “they keep us from getting complacent.” Retaining such friendships might be more difficult than defaulting to socializing with other parents, but it’s worth striving for all the same.

As my daughter turns 1 year old, my old feelings of frustration have ebbed with time. Things are getting easier: Breastfeeding is no longer all-consuming; the clouds of early sleep deprivation have cleared, making socializing enjoyable; and my daughter now meets her babysitter with laughter instead of hysteria. I’ve been able to savor the rare dinner with friends where we talk about anything and everything that isn’t child related. But I’ve also reconciled myself to the fact that the structure of my life has indelibly changed—I can momentarily step outside of my parental identity, but I can never entirely cast it off. I have to work harder than I did pre-kids to make my old friendships work. For now, my benchmark for social fulfillment isn’t a state of pre-child “normalcy,” but a constant negotiation: I do my best to make room for the friendships that matter to me while accepting that I—at least occasionally—might have to comply with my child’s dubious taste in playmates.