Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Photo: Robert Zuill
I grew up on a farm, so I had the opportunity to observe different kinds of animals and learn about how nature intended them to live. A horse, for example, is a herd animal, happiest when he’s with other horses. Horses who live alone are prone to ulcers and other stress-related illnesses—that’s why you often hear about racehorses or show horses which share their stalls with a goat or two. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than being alone. Other animals are more solitary. Cats, for example, are happy to hunt and live alone and while some cats have formed good relationships with other cats in their households (not to mention the humans), they don’t need them and they generally let us know that!
What about humans? If we look back at human history, it seems pretty clear that we are meant to live in small groups sharing our lives and working together. Without that community—often called a tribe—we are like a horse living alone in a stall, prone to depression, anxiety and stress-related physical illnesses. In today’s busy society, many of us live in large cities but despite all the people around us we are still lonely.
In a ten-year longevity study of people aged 70 and older, researchers at the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia concluded in 2010 that a network of good friends increases longevity more than any other factor. The researchers also cite other studies on the importance of frequent contact with friends and family.
I remember the difficult time I had when my first son was born. I had a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Breastfeeding was going well. My husband had a good job and I was able to stay home with my much-loved baby. So why did I so often feel lonely and isolated? I found my baby endlessly fascinating, yet I also longed for adult company. When I confessed to my best friend how I felt, I discovered she was going through the same thing.
Many new mothers are. Often we’ve tried to create a substitute tribe out of our colleagues at work, but it’s when we stop work, at least for a while, to take care of our new babies that we realize what a poor substitute it is. Those early weeks and months with a new baby are the times when we most need our tribe to support and encourage us.
Breastfeeding was going well. My husband had a good job and I was able to stay home with my much-loved baby. So why did I so often feel lonely and isolated?
A recent British survey of women asked about their experiences with feeling lonely, and a majority of the women said that the time in their lives when they felt the most lonely was the first year after giving birth. That’s not surprising, really. It can be a difficult transition from spending your days in a workplace with other adults to being on your own with a baby every day. I think that the high percentage of women who experience some level of postpartum depression may also be connected to this isolation.
My friend and I built our own little tribe. My husband would drop me off at her house one day, and we’d spend the day doing housework, caring for our babies, and preparing a meal that both families would share at the end of the day. Then the next day her husband would drop her off at my house, and we’d do my household chores and finish up the day with another shared meal.
We often try to solve this problem by attending groups for mothers or by inviting other mothers over to visit, but these get-togethers tend to be superficial and ultimately not very satisfying. As my children grew and I continued to seek out ways to be “tribal” I developed this list of the elements I think are important:
1. Spend plenty of time together. When you visit someone for an hour or go to a “Mother’s Morning Out” group for part of the morning once a month, everyone tends to be on their best behavior and not revealing their real feelings, worries or concerns. It takes time to develop trust, to be able to be your real self with someone, to stop “just visiting.”
2. Work together. For one thing, if you don’t work, you’ll still be “visiting” and you won’t want to take up too much time just visiting—you’ll want to get back to your real life. More importantly, work is what adults do. By working together, you get to share the sense of accomplishment. Your work is more enjoyable because you do it with someone you care about. Caring for kids is work. So is cleaning the house. Planning a La Leche League meeting is work. Supporting people you love and care about is work.
3. Develop rituals. We need to have rituals in our tribe that help us grieve and that help us celebrate. Many of the rituals that worked for us in the past—funerals, weddings—often don’t seem to fit our new lives, so maybe it is time to find something new. We need rituals that support us through the varied things we deal with in our lives today—families going through a divorce, maybe one for when our computer hard drive crashes…
4. Commit to your shared values and to each other. People in tribes know that when they are attacked, their tribe will be there to support and defend them. Many of us feel under attack quite frequently—from people who disagree with our parenting, from family members who don’t like other choices we’ve made, from medical caregivers who give us unhelpful advice, from our employers who complain if we want time off to be with our families. Your tribe is there for you, just as you are there for your tribe.
5. Seek diversity. You want shared values, but a tribe with more diversity gives you more depth. It is good to have grandparents, teens, men, and women, people from different backgrounds in your tribe. When you are all living similar lives, you all have similar needs. With diversity, you have a better chance of being able to help each other.
For me, La Leche League has been the foundation of my tribe. While the women I have come to know through LLL have all been different in many ways, we do have a shared commitment to mothering and to a caring way of life that links us together. If you attend meetings you’ll find there are many of the components of a tribe: the ritual of greeting people and doing introductions, the work of helping each other with mothering and breastfeeding and sharing refreshments at the end of the meeting, the commitment of time together each month. It’s one of the reasons I encourage mothers I help over the phone to attend meetings—without them, they may be missing the opportunity to connect with a community that can enrich their lives in many ways beyond breastfeeding support.
Building supportive, tribal-type relationships isn’t always easy, but there are some easy ways to start. Consider trying these approaches with people you feel some kinship with:
• Prepare meals together. Invite some families over for dinner, but instead of doing all the cooking and preparation yourself, plan that you’ll all cook together, and then enjoy the fruits of your labor once it’s done. Or set aside an afternoon to bake bread together.
• Take a vacation together. (Sharing expenses can save you money as well.) The more relaxed setting of a vacation can make it easier to get to know each other.
• Learn something new as a group. Perhaps one of you has a skill to share with the others, or perhaps you’d like to explore something that’s new to everyone, whether it’s painting, geocaching or horseback riding.
• Begin an email conversation on something that matters. I once would have said that email isn’t a good way to build connections, but I’ve learned that you can develop a real closeness through those words typed on the screen. For some of us, it’s easier to open up and be ourselves in emails, and caring relationships can develop this way.
Finally, remember that tribes are not perfect. There will be conflicts, disagreements and disappointments, just as in any other relationship. The important thing is the shared commitment to support each other. It’s worth the effort it takes.
Teresa Pitman has been a La Leche League Leader in Canada for over 30 years. She is the mother of four and a grandmother. With Diana West and Diane Wiessinger she wrote the new eighth edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and is the author or co-author of many published books and magazine articles.