The Parent Trap

07 Apr 2020

The challenges of social isolation for families with newborns

– Sarah Ireland (One Girl CEO currently on parental leave)

Being under self-isolation is definitely not how I thought I would spend my parental leave.

When news sites were still talking about bushfires and a strange new virus that was spreading through China, I was getting into my parental leave groove with my adorable new sidekick, Harper.

Mum and baby yoga, fitness classes, movies and storytime were strategically peppered throughout the week so Harper and I were out of the house and interacting with other parents. Where friends were available, we'd meet for mid-week coffees.

My non-parent job is being the CEO of the not-for-profit organisation One Girl. I managed an international team, was responsible for ensuring girls overseas had access to education, and regularly spoke at schools, businesses and on podcasts about the immense power of educating girls. One Girl does incredible work, and I love my job.

I knew that I would struggle to go from that to a new life of no paid work, caring for a new baby 24/7 and interrupted sleep, so I made sure that I was putting in place the structures I would need to maintain social connections and stimulation. 

Then the first case of coronavirus hit Australia. As the caseload increased, my partner Dave and I made the decision to change our lives to reduce the risk of us catching the virus, and also to contribute to 'flattening the curve'. Dave started to work from home. We stopped seeing friends. We now do our grocery shopping early in the morning or late at night. No more yoga or fitness classes, movies or storytime.

This means that aside from chatting to my partner at home and going on walks with Harper, I am effectively housebound. And for anyone that has spent time with a newborn, they aren't the best conversationalists. 

Harper is my second child, so I know how isolating and lonely being on parental leave can be. Research from the UK's Action for Children found that after the birth of a child, the majority of parents feel cut off from friends, family and colleagues. 

Days can be long and lonely when you are looking after kids. Adding social distancing and self-isolation on top of this can significantly increase that loneliness and add additional anxiety. Right now the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) website says their digital resources for expecting and new parents are being viewed and downloaded more than ever before, and they are experiencing a significant increase in calls to their national hotline.

Entering into new parenthood is tough; in a sense, you're leaving one life behind and shifting into another. Moving from having an incredibly rewarding and stimulating job to being a full-time carer of small children is hard, but to have the added isolation and anxiety of coronavirus on top of that is almost too much to think about. Especially when a lot of the advice on how to keep mentally healthy during parental leave is challenging, or indeed impossible, with social distancing and self-isolation.

And with the high likelihood that childcare will close or Dave and I will voluntarily pull our daughter out, I'm also going be looking after a three-year-old full-time. I love my kids more than anything and I know caring for children is an incredibly important job. But I also know that caring for and entertaining a two-month-old and a three-year-old all day is going to really test my mental health.

So I need to look for new ways to keep myself mentally and physically healthy, as well as provide the same for my kids. To keep mentally active in my tiny amount of free time, I've finally launched a long thought-about Instagram account that showcases kids’ books that feature diverse characters that are representative of the communities in which we live (follow it on @bookslikeus!). To keep physically active, my kids and I do yoga daily and, as long as there is no total lockdown, we're heading out for regular hikes and bike rides.

A few years ago I was working in north-east Syria and because of culture and geography I would go for four months without touching another human being. I'm almost the opposite now with small humans constantly touching me, but it can be the same loneliness; this feeling of isolation and a lack of social connection. 

I know that my situation isn't nearly as bad as others who are currently facing losing their jobs and unable to pay rent. But being on maternity leave is hard. And it has just gotten even harder. All of a sudden, my world has gotten incredibly small. So maybe check-in with any mums and dads you know who are on parental leave, and make sure they have at least a few conversations that aren't about nappy changes, sleep cycles, and how many episodes of Bluey is just too much Bluey.


Sarah Ireland is currently on parental leave, returning late 2020

Photo: Kim Low/One Girl.

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