I was contacted recently by the charity Action For Children who have been working with the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness to highlight the devastating effect that loneliness can have on parents and children. I learned from them that more than half of UK parents suffer from loneliness and that at least 2/3rds have felt “cut off” from friends and family. Further nearly 2/3rds worry that their children might be lonely. Heartbreakingly, 1/3 of children polled reported feeling lonely. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work done by Action for Children and any small thing I can do to carry on the work incredible Jo Cox is a true honour. (True story: I just wept tears of admiration as I typed that.) Before her death Jo devised a plan to create a commission that highlighted how loneliness affects all aspects of our society and how loneliness can be easily addressed by simply starting a conversation. Action for Children have launched a brilliant campaign with the Jo Cox Comission on Loneliness called #startswithhello and it is my absolute pleasure to lend my voice and platform to this campaign.
As a mother with 2 children, a step-child, a partner, an au pair and a (new) furry cat I am almost never alone. I am so not alone that I actually once wrote a blog post about how excited I was to have an ensuite bathroom so that there were 2 doors to lock my family out while I shower. I’m a confident, out-going Canadian with easy social graces, lots of friends and a good sense of humour. What is not so obvious (unless you read this blog a lot) is that I have low self-esteem, that I suffered years of childhood abuse, that I used to be bulimic and anorexic, and that I have a lesser known form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that left me paralysed with anxiety before it was diagnosed. Don’t get me wrong I have an absolutely wonderful life. I am so, SO lucky. But honestly, some days are much better than others. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the room when you are struggling with something in your mind or heart. Loneliness can strike anywhere and to anybody. I have felt tremendously lonely many times in my life.
I found myself massively adrift in the months following Wilde’s birth. With Violet it was easy she was like my little sidekick and after her dad and I divorced it was me and her against the world. She just sort of tagged along wherever I wanted to go, visiting my fun, single friends. I moved to London 10 years ago at the age of 28 and a lot of the friends I met are much younger than me and at totally different phases in life. My partner and stepdaughter were around of course but we didn’t feel like a family yet. After Wilde was born suddenly V and Poppy had common identity as big sisters. We became a family and I went from being a cool mum with a mini-me to a tired, stressed mum of 3. I remember thinking “Oh shit. I think I’m really a grown up now.” Suddenly my young, cool friends and I had a lot less in common. I also felt time poor and strapped financially, and even if I had the time or cash to hang out I was too exhausted or (and this is a big one) I felt too guilty leaving my kids. You see in addition to all that life had heaped on me in terms of responsibilities I kept adding to the pile. I went back to producing shoots when Wilde was 6 weeks old. I beat myself up for being a bad friend and letting myself grow apart from friends, obsessing over relationships that were flagging. I started this blog and decided it was time to push myself creatively (this was a good decision but it was still more stress), I became panicked and obsessive over cleanliness when we discovered a mice infestation the same week as Wilde was diagnosed with life-threatening allergies to milk, eggs and nuts. At this stage, I was the nut. The poor child wasn’t allowed to be put down on the floor for 3 months because I convinced myself that the poison in the traps would get on the mice’s paws and that they’d track it everywhere and poison her. I was drowning in anxiety but most of all I was desperately, horribly lonely. Worse, I was ashamed of how I felt and I was convinced it was all my fault. I felt loved by my family but unlikeable to the world at large. Who would like someone as messed up me?
For me the shift started when I began to participate in a Facebook group that was an offshoot of a Mumsnet thread for women trying to conceive that I had been really active on while pregnant. While not many of the mums had as many children as me at least they had babies around the same age and lots like me were still breastfeeding and experiencing the hormonal ups and downs that go with it. When I finally had a breakdown that led me to get diagnosed with OCD I posted on our thread first and then called my IRL BFF to come with me to the hospital. I couldn’t have done without either support system. Things began to shift for me slowly. I met a couple of my online friends for playdates and made an effort to get to know some mums in Violet’s year better. I also reached out to some of my childless friends and made more of an effort to reconnect. I know that a lot of studies have shown that social media can increase feelings of insecurity and loneliness but in my case it was a lifeline to the rest of humanity. In my darkest hours there was a whole community at my fingertips. It didn’t matter what we were chatting about. Certainly at its worst my loneliness was the last thing I wanted to discuss, instead we shared memes with each other and laughed at the ridiculousness that is life with a toddler. They couldn’t see that I was wearing the same PJs I’d been in for 3 days and that my kitchen was like a bomb site.
It was around this time that I began to re-evaluate the messaging and content of my blog. In my professional life I am an expert at creating the illusion of flawlessness, wealth, health and perfect style. The reality is that nothing is ever really perfect, but life can be so very, very beautiful even when it’s flawed. I have spent my whole life cultivating a beautiful existence, a beautiful family, beautiful work as a counter measure against the gnawing loneliness I felt as a child. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you try, how perfect your life may look that loneliness can still find you. I want the message of my work here on the blog to be a beacon of hope for those who are lonely, sad and afraid. The good news is that loneliness can be treated if you can find the strength to reach out, even just online… it starts with hello.
*The image for this post is courtesy of the legendary Davide Cossu who shot Wilde and I for an ongoing body project using expired peel back Fuji film. You can see more of his beautiful work here.