The three text dots that start and stop. The gradual radio silence from your college best friend. The group text chain that started out strong last March, then fizzled to a meme and eventually died. The work friends who seem more like hallucinations at this point. The realization that the only people you see on a regular basis are your kids — and the gnawing wonder over whether anyone remembers you beyond those whom you clothe and feed. Or the opposite: the nagging guilt over an unreturned text, an unanswered invite.
We’re living in a social netherworld right now, with glimpses of promise on the horizon (warmer weather! vaccines! a return to in-person school! maybe even summer camp?) tempered with setbacks ranging from strange COVID variants to malfunctioning vaccination websites. Normalcy seems on the brink but not quite, like a treat that keeps being snatched away.
While COVID-19 remains our top public health threat, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project are sounding the alarm about one for which there is no vaccine: parental loneliness.
The report, “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It,” found that 51 percent of mothers with young children reported serious loneliness, which has increased substantially since the pandemic’s outbreak. This will come as no surprise to anyone whose weekly happy hours have been replaced with “Bridgerton.”
Folded into this isolation is a deep sense of shame, said coauthor Richard Weissbourd, a family psychologist and the project’s director. Who wants to admit to feeling left out and friendless? Loneliness is largely seen as a problem among the elderly, not among busy young mothers, he said.
“The sheer numbers and the degree of loneliness is concerning. We’re in an era where we’re paying attention to the transmission of the pandemic as we should be, but we have another epidemic going on,” he said. Loneliness is linked with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and early mortality.
“We need to give really concerted attention to [loneliness] in the way we give concerted attention to other emotional, physical, and mental problems, and we don’t. The loneliness of the elderly tend to be on our radar, but young people and mothers with young children are much less on people’s radar,” he warned.
Loneliness is generally defined as negative feelings that emerge from a perceived gap between desired and actual relationships.
In the case of mothers, “This is often a crisis of perception: People are feeling that they’re giving more than they’re receiving, which was surprising and heartbreaking,” said coauthor Milena Batanova.
“Everybody’s a taker now; nobody’s a giver because everybody’s so wiped out,” Weissbourd added.
It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who meant to send a text but fell asleep watching Netflix. Mothers surveyed wanted some kind of adult connection or affirmation — but weren’t getting it. It’s a crisis of reciprocity: People need connection, and they’re also too depleted to provide it.
“Moms of young kids are saying they really didn’t have anyone in the past few weeks take more than just a few minutes to check in on them and to ask how they’re doing in a way that made them feel they cared,” said Batanova. “They’re feeling that they reach out to others more, listen better than others listen to them, or they try to understand better than others try.”
For both givers and takers, there are answers.
First, vulnerability. Batanova encourages lonely people to be honest about it, like any other illness. While social media can be the devil for a host of reasons, she sees it as a support system, too, where people can openly share among peers working through the same emotions.
“It can be a lifeline if they join and participate in the right groups. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen posts from moms who are sad or lonely, who are always reaching out to people and their friends aren’t reaching out to them — and I cannot tell you how many moms have been generous and validating and comforting, and I’ve seen them create groups out of that,” she said, with plans for playdates and distant meetups.
Second, pick your spots. Batanova encourages frazzled parents to reach out to nonparent friends or friends with older kids who might not be mired in the same whirlwind. It’s also fine to reach out to friends who’ve ghosted.
“Be honest but nonconfrontational,” she said. “For example, I have two friends who live in other parts of the country. We have a really strong bond. We’ve known each other for years, and at some point during all this, I felt like I was always the one reaching out, texting on our thread, and it got to the point where I just felt a little debilitated and frustrated.”
Instead of stewing, Batanova asked point-blank what happened. This inspired new levels of transparency with her group.
“One of them confessed that she was having a hard time. The moral of the lesson is to assume good intentions. Give people benefit of the doubt. They might need a nudge or the right set of circumstances,” she said. “We have to take a step back and really think positive thoughts and collect ourselves and assume that people mean well.” The friend who appears to be ghosting might be depressed or anxious herself.
Remind yourself that if you’re lonely, you’re especially vulnerable to distorted thinking: a pervasive sense of being left out or the sensation of lopsidedness. Lonely people are more self-critical and tend to anticipate rejection. They also might behave in needy ways that could make other people disengage, such as through too much texting.
“A lot of people have perceptions of reaching out more than other people are reaching out to them. When you’re lonely, you’re prone to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. You’re prone to being really sensitive to criticism and rejection. When you’re needy, it might never be enough — and people may be feeling more needy right now. That’s the loneliness speaking,” Weissbourd said.
So, if you’re not lonely, and if you do have some bandwidth: Please, reach out to your friends. They really need it, and they might feel awkward about saying so. Just like you’d share news about a vaccine appointment opening with a friend, share your time, too.
“For those of us who are in good shape, it’s up to us to put it into action. I make sure to reach out to a friend pretty much every day, someone new. A conscious effort on our parts can make such a difference on a collective level,” Batanova said. Doesn’t need to be fancy: It could just be a link to a funny article or a quick, “Miss you.”
And if you’re feeling lonely? You’re not alone, and you’re not unwanted or deficient.
“We’re recommending not to be ashamed of loneliness. A huge number of people are experiencing it right now. We’re trying to normalize it,” Weissbourd said.