Loneliness can strike parents in surprising ways and at different stages, from a sense of isolation when it’s just you and your newborn to the feeling that your kids no longer need you when they become independent teenagers.
I’ve been through it all, and luckily found ways to cope. Like childhood, every stage of parenthood seems designed to prepare you for the next, even if you don’t realize it.
When my kids were young, I was often the only dad at the playground and found it hard to make friends. Part of that was my fault: I was wary of being overly solicitous.
I knew only one other stay-at-home dad back then. And, like many men, I was probably too proud to seek out a support group (nor was I likely to join one if I’d found it).
Instead of joining a group, I started to get out more with the kids. We would visit different playgrounds and often go to the zoo. When we couldn’t get out, we had fun inventing worlds and the characters inhabiting these places. At night, I made up bedtime stories with them.
These moments got me through whatever sense of isolation I might have felt.
When he told stories at the dining room table, I was grateful for the connections he made between his past and our present.
Parents can feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by people. When my father-in-law came to live with our family, my kids were 5 and 3. Having him live with us offered so many positives that it’s hard to complain, but he suffered from dementia and diabetes and eventually required the kind of attention that made me feel like the parent of four instead of two.
Still, these years gave me a newfound appreciation for extended family. When my father-in-law watched cartoons with the kids, I could spend time writing fiction, even if just for an hour. When he told stories at the dining room table, I was grateful for the connections he made between his past and our present. It’s hard to think of a better solution to loneliness than the communal act of telling stories.
After my father-in-law moved into an assisted-living facility and my kids grew older, I discovered another kind of loneliness, one not associated with crowds or chaos but with a fear of not being needed anymore.
My oldest now has her driver’s license. My youngest is learning to drive. For many years, I was their chauffeur, taking them to all their appointments and play dates. I became good friends with some of the parents, chatting in the doorway or hanging out while the kids finished a movie.
But even that dynamic changed after my kids got their own phones. Parents, myself included, often sit in the driveway now and text their kids instead of coming to the door.
My oldest goes off to college next year. My youngest has two more years of high school. They still need me, of course. They still need my counsel and my signature on school forms. But I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic for a time when I was their chef, nursemaid, social director and janitor (well, some of these titles still apply).
The experiences I’ve had as a parent have fostered different coping mechanisms for handling absence and stress. I’ve found an antidote to loneliness through my creative work, which makes me forget about the passage of time and connects me with other like-minded people.
Others may find theirs through therapy, support groups, church involvement, volunteer work, new hobbies or a new job.
Whatever the case, parental loneliness is a real thing. Learning to cope with it is, of course, a part of growing up.
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