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Parents are feeling lonely. Here’s why it matters

<i>Lindsay Hutchinson via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Anne Helmes is shown with her son Chase (right) and daughter Millie (left).
Lindsay Hutchinson via CNN Newsource
Anne Helmes is shown with her son Chase (right) and daughter Millie (left).

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

(CNN) — Despite working a full-time job in human relations and caring for her 6-year-old son Chase and 3-year-old daughter Millie, Anne Helms often feels isolated and lonely.

“I work from home, and when I have video meetings or calls with our employees, it’s very focused on the subject at hand. I don’t get a lot of personal interaction such as ‘How are you? How’s your family doing?’” said 36-year-old Helms, who lives in Powell, Ohio.

“There’s obvious benefits to working from home — it allows me to avoid a commute that eats into my time with my children and husband in the evening,” she said. “But there are some days when my most personal conversation is with my dog.”

Many moms and dad today find parenting a challenge to their ability to connect with other adults, according to a new national survey published Wednesday by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

In fact, 66% of 1,005 parents surveyed felt the demands of parenthood sometimes or frequently left them feeling isolated and lonely, while nearly 40% felt as if they have no one to support them in their parenting role.

“I’m a mom of four,” said Kate Gawlik, an associate clinical professor at the Ohio State University College of Nursing in Columbus who conducted the research.

“My life is incredibly busy,” she said.”Keeping busy, however, does not replace the need for friendship and more intimate conversations with others who share your interests.”

Parental burnout is high

About 62% of the participants in the survey — over half the dads and two-thirds of moms — felt burned out by their responsibilities as a parent. That makes sense because isolation and loneliness go hand in hand with burnout, said Kacey Cardwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta and clinical fellow for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

“When parents are feeling lonely and isolated, that tells me their adult needs aren’t being met because they’re pouring what they can into their child. That’s a recipe for burnout,” said Cardwell, who was not involved in the research.

By definition, burnout is an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion, Gawlik said.

“Burnout is not new for parents, but I think the pandemic took it to a totally different level,” she added. “We were expected to be these super humans that were working and homeschooling their kids without a break.”

Helms was pregnant with her daughter when the pandemic hit. It wasn’t long before her husband was furloughed by his job and they lost day care for her son.

“We had to be frugal,” she said. “And because I was pregnant during the pandemic, I had to be very cautious about my exposure and was quite limited in my interactions with others.”

Parents need to connect with other parents

Like many other parents, Helms worked in an office before the pandemic and was used to the social interaction that often came with the territory.

“I would see people in a break room, walking down the hall, in-between meetings, after meetings, and just snag them and start talking about what’s happening in our lives,” she said.

Even that didn’t overcome the isolation that parenting can sometimes bring, Helms said, especially when her children are going through age-appropriate challenges that baffled her and her husband.

“My husband is amazing, but I really needed to hear from another mom,” she said. “My best friend’s children were much older, and I didn’t know anyone with children the same age as mine.

“It’s easy to feel alone as if you’re facing something all by yourself.”

Nearly 4 in 5 parents would value a way to connect with other parents outside of work and home — that was 82% of moms and 74% of dads, according to the survey. Even then, however, many parents may not want to admit to their feelings of isolation and loneliness for fear of sounding like they do not care about their children.

Don’t think that way, Gawlik stressed.

“We’ve all had the experience of being in a room full of people but not connecting with any of them and feeling alone, right?” she said. “It’s the same with parenting. You definitely are connecting with your children, but it’s a parent-child connection, not a friend to friend, family to family or spouse to spouse connection.”

Networking with other parents is a priority for parents who feel isolated and burned out, Cardwell said.

“I always suggest looking for connections in your immediate community, with people who live close to you,” she said. “You might find a walking companion, craft companions, carpooling and babysitting help just in your own neighborhood.

“After that, you can try community organizations, parent organizations, school associations, churches or synagogues,” she added.

Social media groups are not enough, Cardwell said.

“It’s one-dimensional social engagement,” she said. “That doesn’t take the place of talking to a person one on one, such as when you’re with a group of mothers, say with babies and toddlers who are all at a similar age. All the children are experiencing similar things and moms can share and get support.”

Helms joined a positive parenting group run by Gawlik and credits that with giving her renewed energy as a parent.

“It made me feel much less lonely,” she said. “When a parent shared, I would nod my head like ‘Yup, same here, been through that’ or ‘Yes, I’m going through that at this moment.’ And it was just so validating.”

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