The loneliness of new motherhood left me feeling like a failure

Alone in a new city: Karen with first son Harrison in 2013.
Alone in a new city: Karen with first son Harrison in 2013. Photo: Supplied

Yesterday, I gave my phone number to a random stranger I met at my local library. She was a mum, like me, and had recently moved to Canberra. She knew no-one but the real estate agent who handed her the keys to their home.

So I did what I desperately wished someone could have done for me when I was new to Canberra and new to being a mum. I reached out and offered the opportunity for a friendship.

I moved with my husband to Canberra eight years ago. We knew no-one and found the warnings that Canberra was hard to crack socially fairly true. I met plenty of people through work, sport and church, but didn't develop the kind of deep friendships I had back home in Sydney.

When my first son was born in 2012, I found myself in that fabulous haze of sleep deprivation and absolute confusion on how this motherhood thing worked. My fledgling social life took a back seat as we learned about the tiny person that had become the centre of our world.

The joy that my son gave me would sometimes be eclipsed by a feeling that something was missing. Each day, my husband would head off to work around 8am. The door would close and I would feel a rising panic as I contemplated how long it would be before he would be home and I wouldn't be alone with my thoughts. I love my son, but at 3 months old his conversational skills were somewhat lacking.

Through the hospital appointed mothers group, I was able to meet up for coffee or playdates. But when one child gets sick, or your child decides to sleep for three hours instead of the regular 40 minutes (!), those chances to connect get pushed aside. I once realised that a whole month of postponed playdates had gone by. And with it, the opportunity to build meaningful friendships.

Eventually I started questioning and doubting myself. Was this disconnection and isolation a normal part of being a new mum? Was it because I had moved to a new city and didn't have a 'village'? Or was there something wrong with me that I couldn't reach out and strike up those friendships I felt I was missing.

It took a long time to identify how I was feeling. I was blessed with an amazingly supportive husband. I had wonderful parents, in-laws and friends (interstate) that would call or visit. At no point in the first year of motherhood did I put two and two together and label myself as lonely.

To me, loneliness was failure. Failure to be likeable. Failure to fit in. Failure to make positive connections. It certainly wasn't a word to describe a happily married woman and new mum.

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And yet...I was lonely.

I didn't feel it every day. Many days I would delight in being with just my son and husband. Other days I would cherish visits from family and friends from Sydney. The loneliness would come in waves, triggered by seeing interstate friends posting about their fabulous weekend on social media or feeling awkward at a kids' birthday party where I didn't know any of the other guests.

Following the birth of my second son, however, something changed.

I found myself volunteering as one of the administrators of a new Facebook group designed to help mums in Canberra connect. What started as a small group, established to coordinate a dinner date for a few lonely mums, grew to several hundred women. We were from all walks of life: Canberra born and recent arrivals, mothers of newborns and mums with several teenage children. The one thing we had in common? We were all seeking friendship.

While I didn't click with every person I met through the group, I developed beautiful friendships with incredible women.

And as I chatted with these amazing mums, I repeatedly heard stories of isolation and loneliness. Maybe it is because Canberra is a city with a transient population. Maybe social media has us hunched over our phones more and looking people in the eyes less. Or maybe our homes and suburbs create islands, that disconnect us from creating community. Who knows? All I understand is that my experience is not a unique one. And I wish someone had told me that when I first became a mum.

Recently I realised that being lonely doesn't make you a failure. It can just be a product of circumstance. And my circumstance finally led me to find my village and the courage to reach out to others and say, 'Hey, I realise you are new in town / new to being a mum. If you are looking for someone to hang out with, I'd love to grab a coffee with you.'

Karen is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which talks to people about loneliness and how to overcome it. #InsightSBS