Loneliness, maternity leave and COVID-19
My PhD project focuses on millennial loneliness in County Durham, and I explored this by conducting a series of interviews with young adults between February 2019 and September 2019. My data, though not rigorously analysed yet, has thrown out many themes regarding how we define loneliness; how loneliness is experienced and lived through by young adults; and how the particular social geography of an area can play a role in compounding or, indeed, relieving feelings of loneliness.
I stopped collecting my data at the end of September 2019, and then soon interrupted my studies to take maternity leave for a year. In this time, as we know, COVID-19 had (and is having) a devastating affect on people’s lives. Many thousands of lives have been lost; thousands more in mourning over the loss of loved ones and the inability to say their goodbyes; the worrying effects of ‘long Covid’ on people’s health; as well as the detriment to physical and mental health that a shutdown of society has led to. Lockdown, social distancing, no mixing with other households, limitations to gatherings, face coverings, the constant encouragement to “stay home” to “stay safe” and “save lives” are all new rules and guidelines that we as a society have suddenly had to adapt to and accept as our ‘new normal’. Of course, this constant reminder to stay away from others, stay indoors, and stay away from populated public spaces as much as possible, is in complete contradiction to what those of us concerned with loneliness would recommend.
As the country started to lockdown in late March, I was four months into motherhood and maternity leave. Having read and researched so much about loneliness in the two years of my PhD prior to this, and having spoken to women who found maternity leave lonely, I was keen to do all ‘the right things’ while I was on maternity leave. As soon as I felt ready, I took my daughter to as many groups and classes as I could. I got out of the house as much as I could. I sought help and support from family and friends. I did everything it tells you in ‘the books’ and online to ensure my maternity leave was enjoyable and that I didn’t experience feelings of loneliness.
Then we were put under lockdown. I couldn’t go to our classes, I couldn’t see my parents, I couldn’t see friends, I was allowed out once a day for exercise. Like thousands of others, I found this very hard. My mental health suffered, and my anxiety, which I have kept under control for years, started to be felt more acutely again. Though this may have been a result of new parenthood, the limitations and lack of contact with others meant that the usual ‘recommendations’ to help with these feelings, weren’t an option.
I also started to feel very lonely.
My experience – and what I am still experiencing – is not unique, it is not the ‘worst’ story of a life affected by covid, and overall, I am in a very lucky and privileged position. Yet I feel it shows that the usual ways we suggest people ease feelings of loneliness are no longer an option, while we are in lockdown and required to physically distance from each other.
Loneliness in the Pandemic
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we often spoke of a ‘pandemic of loneliness’, and it is of great alarm how feelings of loneliness and isolation are being felt even more acutely and on a larger scale as a result of lockdown measures. Many people who have, thankfully, rarely felt lonely, are being starved of human contact – both in terms of meaningful encounters with their loved ones, but also the fleeting, day-to-day encounters we have in shops, on public transport, in the street, or with our colleagues. For people in my own social circle and wider networks I often hear how this is making life feel meaningless, a grind, that they are existing and not living, and some days are so unbearably lonely that they feel overwhelmed with despair. This will not be news to anyone and it has been the common narrative and experience for most people since March (or as we go in and out of lockdown depending on our geographical location).
However, I feel extremely concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable in our society. Those who are shielding; those whose physical and mental health was already ailing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; those whose homes are not a place of refuge or a place to ‘hunker down’ with Netflix and wait until ‘this’ is all over with. Those who already felt crippling lonely and don’t have the access – or the contacts – to engage in ‘zoom parties’ or ‘facetime catch ups’.
None of these thoughts or concerns are new. Many others have voiced them throughout the pandemic and there are, thankfully, organizations and community volunteers who are still dedicating their time and energy to alleviate some of the strains that the most vulnerable in our society are experiencing.
Returning to my research in a pandemic
Now that I have returned from my maternity leave and I am faced with the research I carried out pre-pandemic, it leaves me wondering how my project fits into all of this.
For a handful of my research participants, their loneliness was articulated as being part of a ‘bigger picture’ of issues they were facing: lack of employment; lack of secure job opportunities; financial instability; difficulty in accessing mental health services as a result of local cuts; poor transport links, which, especially in the more rural areas, made accessing other places and meeting new people difficult; closure of clubs, groups and community spaces where new connections could be made…
Feelings of loneliness therefore seemed to emerge as a result of physical isolation (living in rural areas, lack of finance or transport to meet new people or visit new places), but also in how they started to feel about themselves. Those who weren’t employed not only felt lonely because they missed out on the day-to-day encounters with colleagues, but because they felt they lacked an identity or purpose by being unemployed. An element of self-blame and shame filtered through from ‘scrounger’ discourses and populist narratives about unemployment and started to erode the self worth of the people I spoke to. Their experiences therefore made them feel excluded from society and, as a result, feel isolated and lonely.
Though I am still in the early stages of analysing my research, it is clear to me from the stories shared by some of my participants, that their loneliness was very much bound up in issues that were particular to the social geography of where they lived. My research area, County Durham, has a long history of unemployment and fewer opportunities than other areas. It has also experienced some of the deepest austerity cuts in the UK. It is therefore no coincidence that this economic landscape is having a very real, everyday impact on people’s lives and wellbeing. Geography matters to loneliness.
The Geography of Loneliness, The Geography of COVID-19
With this in mind, I wonder how the geography of loneliness and the geography of COVID-19 will coincide. County Durham is currently considered a ‘high risk’ area, with households unable to mix in either public or private spaces. Of course, this means that people are not able to mix socially and are therefore isolated from one another, perhaps compounding feelings of loneliness for those of us in County Durham. However, there is a broader question of how the economic pressure of the pandemic and the resulting job losses means that more and more people are facing financial instability. This, as well as the ways losing a job makes us feel (unproductive? Lack of identity? A ‘scrounger?’) can affect our wellbeing and, as I have found in my research, result in loneliness and isolation.
It is too early to tell how COVID-19 will impact on the rates of loneliness in County Durham – and whether this isolation will exist ‘only’ during the pandemic, or if it will have a far reaching, lasting impact on the sense of wellbeing and feelings of connection/disconnection in the county. My concern is that some of the issues the county faced prior to the pandemic may be further exacerbated.
In the same way loneliness can be experienced by anyone, the pandemic and the resulting lockdown measures can be distressing for people of all backgrounds. Yet, it is certainly true that various inequalities and vulnerabilities can make loneliness and isolation more likely, and it to be felt more acutely – with the same being said for how easy it is to cope with anxieties about the pandemic and lockdown. Secure employment, a disposable income, and a comfortable home can all make life a little easier both for those people attempting to ward off feelings of loneliness, and to deal with the pandemic.
Where is my research heading?
Returning to my PhD amidst a pandemic is strange. Even stranger that my research topic feels more urgent and critical than ever. While on maternity leave (in my spare moments!) I saw how the concerns for isolation and loneliness become part of popular narrative: everyone was isolated, thousands felt lonely. Now, I wonder how my research carried out pre-pandemic can be useful. I originally set out in my PhD to ‘shine a light’ on millennial loneliness in County Durham, to explore how geography matters to conversations about loneliness. Yet everything is different now. It would be odd to not mention the pandemic in my thesis, but I also don’t want to disregard the important stories my participants shared with me as belonging to a ‘different time’ and therefore less relevant. Only a few days into returning to my PhD, I don’t have the answers to these things yet, but I certainly have a lot to think about.