A heartfelt plea on Instagram by the Duchess of Cambridge resulted in more than half a million responses to her Early Years survey. And with many parents experiencing loneliness and isolation like never before, its impact has been groundbreaking, as Jo Macfarlane discovers.
It was on Halloween that Sarah Holdway’s strength finally crumbled. Standing on her doorstep, tears rolled down her face as she clutched several pumpkins which a kind friend had brought over for her five children to carve.
‘I realised she was the first adult I’d spoken to, face-to-face, for weeks,’ single mother Sarah, 38, recalls. ‘I stood holding these pumpkins, which she’d gone out especially to buy, and the kindness of it all – seeing her face and the touch of her hand – just made me sob.
‘I am strong and my life is busy. But I’m so incredibly lonely. And there’s only so long I can hold on before the cracks appear.’
It’s a heartbreaking story, and yet one which will no doubt resonate with thousands of families up and down the country. Because while society may feel more connected than ever, we are living through a profound loneliness epidemic – which was spreading even before coronavirus transformed our lives.
The latest crisis has only brought it into sharper focus, and families with young children are bearing the brunt as lockdowns and social-distancing measures effectively cut off their support networks. But an extensive body of much-needed research by the Royal Foundation, the charity of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has now provided a startling insight into just how bad things have become.
In January this year, mother-of-three Kate launched a project close to her heart: her 5 Big Questions survey to explore the importance of early childhood in shaping the rest of our lives. It struck an extraordinary chord. More than half a million people responded – thanks in part to the heartfelt plea posted by Kate herself on Instagram – which is thought to be the biggest-ever response to a public survey in the UK.
Alongside that poll, further work by Ipsos MORI, commissioned by the Royal Foundation, has contributed to an even greater understanding of what is most important during the first five years of a child’s life.
The ‘5 Big Insights’ from this game-changing research – which, Kensington Palace hopes, could create ‘lasting change for generations to come’ – were officially revealed this week by Kate, 38, during an emotional speech at a virtual forum run by the Royal Foundation. Speaking on Friday, she said: ‘I never expected the incredible response to the 5 Big Questions. I was humbled that over half a million people gave their time to contribute their views and experiences, showing just how much people want to talk about the early years. These collective insights are critical. And the questions they pose will help guide our work in the years to come.’
Insights include the startling fact that parental loneliness has rocketed during the pandemic, from 38 per cent beforehand to 63 per cent today, as families are forced to battle through the crisis largely by themselves. Parents in deprived areas are worst affected, and twice as likely as those in more affluent regions to say they feel lonely often or always.
Some mothers, like Sarah, are single parents who lost their support networks overnight; others have underlying medical conditions which make them extremely vulnerable to the virus. But physical connections are part of what make us human, and loneliness can affect anyone – even those in supportive relationships who are not technically alone.
Kate herself understands that. As the mother to George, seven, Charlotte, five, and Louis, two, the Duchess has often spoken of the early days of being a mother, noting, in 2017, that ‘it is lonely at times and you do feel quite isolated’. She has also spoken movingly about her experience living in Anglesey with ‘tiny, tiny baby’ George, while Prince William spent long shifts flying a Sea King helicopter for the RAF Search and Rescue unit. ‘It was so isolated, so cut off,’ she told other parents during a visit to the Ely and Caerau Children’s Centre in Cardiff in January.
Peter Grigg, chief executive of Home-Start UK, a volunteer charity which provides support to families with young children and whose work has been supported by the Duchess, said that the pandemic would ‘cast a shadow on everyone, particularly those already struggling.
‘The pandemic has created new networks as communities have come together, so there are some silver linings,’ he said. ‘But because so much is behind closed doors, loneliness is being exacerbated. We all put on a brave face for Zoom. Couple that with social media images of people apparently coping, it’s confusing – what is real-life parenting meant to look like?’ He added that the Duchess of Cambridge had done a ‘great job’ in this area to ‘try to shine a light on these things.
‘You imagine a duchess would be the perfect parent with no worries at all – but when talking about parenting, she understands the challenges parents face. To hear it is a real reassurance to people that we all, as parents, have pressures. We all think we could do a better job. We’re all reluctant to raise our hands and say we’re struggling.
‘But the honest human truth of parenting is that it’s not unusual to feel lonely as a parent.’
Rachel Gardner, from Bristol, is one of those putting on a brave face. She has a heart condition, postural tachycardia syndrome, which causes her heart to beat excessively fast when standing up and leads to fainting episodes. As a single parent to her son Neo-Rae, six, she is determined to avoid contracting the virus – but it has been a lonely struggle. ‘I was lonely from the start of my pregnancy, as I was a victim of domestic violence,’ Rachel, 37, says. ‘I had the strength to leave and I’ve brought Neo up by myself, but the pandemic has been a really difficult time. Friends have had the virus or been isolating, and the adult conversation I got in a day on the walk to school ended.
‘The second lockdown has been worse as I don’t even have Neo at home. I feel more alone now than in March.’
And it’s not just parents with one child who are struggling. Sarah, who lives in a village outside Hull, East Yorkshire, is rarely alone in her busy house, where she has spent the past year raising her five children – aged 18 to five – after her partner left. ‘My situation doesn’t typically represent loneliness,’ she explains. ‘But I don’t get any time to be a human being. I’m not Sarah, I’m not a person. There’s a huge emotional weight in putting everyone else’s needs first.’ Sarah has lost both of her parents, and says she ‘fears an emergency’ because there are few people she can rely on for childcare. ‘That’s what this current situation is compounding, and the worst thing is not knowing when it will end.’
As a birth coach, she also knows the impact of the pandemic on new mothers. ‘These women need me to be there, by their side, giving them a whole packet of biscuits and telling them the little gremlin in their arms is a delight. They need me to hold their baby while they have a wee. Now I can offer them a Zoom call… It’s hopeless.’
Annabel Stiling gave birth to her first child, Ollie, a week before the lockdown in March, and can testify that the experience of motherhood has been ‘far from what was pitched’. Living in a top-floor flat in Bromley, Southeast London, while her partner was at work all day, she rarely went out and felt ‘cut off from it all. It has affected my mental health,’ the 21-year-old admits. ‘I was at risk of postnatal depression anyway because I have anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder, and while I’ve had continuing care, it’s hard not to let your thoughts overwhelm you.
‘Dealing with that is emotionally tiring and, even with a supportive partner, if I’ve spiralled out of control in my own head there’s not much anyone can do. My friends are all away at university, living a very different life. The loneliness set in pretty quickly.’
For women like Annabel, local baby groups and classes are usually a lifeline, offering support and friendship – but they have been closed during the pandemic. It means many parents are feeling huge guilt over whether their feelings of isolation are affecting their parenting.
‘When you’re on your own, if the baby is upset and nothing’s working to calm them down and you have no support, you blame yourself,’ Annabel says. ‘Everything that doesn’t go smoothly in motherhood is taboo and doesn’t get spoken about. So when it all feels like that, you’re not prepared for it.’
In the summer Home-Start produced a report, Babies in Lockdown, which found that 68 per cent of new parents believed the Covid measures were affecting their baby, while a quarter worried about the relationship they were building with their child.
Separately, in an analysis of loneliness in Britain during the pandemic, released in June, the Office for National Statistics reported that eight per cent of all people feel lonely ‘often or always’, equivalent to 4.2 million. Figures showed that about 2.6 million adults had not left their home for any reason in the past seven days.
Kate noted, while giving a speech at a gala dinner for the charity Action on Addiction last year, that if these feelings affect our parenting, and are passed on to children through emotional neglect or abandonment, it can have a lasting effect. ‘What we experience during our earliest years, even while we’re still in the womb, shapes the developing brain,’ the Duchess said.
Dr Caroline Boyd, perinatal clinical psychologist at the Parent Therapy Hub, says research does show that poor mental health in parents can have a significant impact on children. ‘The relationship between mothers or carers and their children can affect how babies form relationships for the rest of their lives,’ she said. ‘The first three years are especially important, which is why the Duchess’s work is so vital.
‘Social isolation for new mums is a particular worry as we know loneliness can lead to feeling less confident about parenting skills and feelings of failure and self-doubt. And because we believe the myths about being the “supermum” who can do everything, mums often experience huge shame around these “negative” feelings.
‘This means they often suffer in silence and are less likely to reach out and ask for help.’
This is mirrored by the Duchess’s research. Few new parents are prioritising their wellbeing, it found, and more than a third (37 per cent) expected the pandemic to have a negative effect on their mental health in the longer term. Meanwhile, 34 per cent reported feeling uncomfortable seeking help for such issues, compared with just 18 per cent who did so before Covid struck.
Part of the problem, explains Peter Grigg, is context: parents don’t see their loneliness as a significant problem when, on the news, others are losing loved ones to the virus.
Rachel Crisp, 32, who is mother to Poppy, three, and Tilly, 18 months, had to care for her children for two weeks while her husband had an operation, as well as working full-time. Yet she queried whether she felt ‘lonely enough’. Rachel, from Lancashire, who works for furniture upholsterer Plumbs, said: ‘I was quite lonely, but I didn’t have it as bad as many. I was just at home with the girls.’
But Gina Brockwell, director of midwifery at Kingston Hospital NHS Trust, says it is hugely important for women not to dismiss these feelings, and to talk to their GP, midwife or health visitor. The Duchess took a virtual tour of Kingston Hospital’s maternity unit in May to explore the effects of Covid on new and expectant parents, and spent two days shadowing midwives at the unit in November last year. ‘Working through difficult emotions can only have a positive impact on women and their children,’ Gina says. ‘Women are quite stoic in terms of trying to manage – and are probably doing an excellent job – and may shrug off the way they’re feeling, but there are people who can give them extra support if they need it. It’s not a judgment on their ability to cope or their parenting to admit they need help, and psychological support services are available.
‘These feelings do pass, but it’s important to maximise the support early so it doesn’t develop into something harder to manage, like postnatal depression, or affect their ability to bond with their child.’
Dr Boyd adds that women are often fearful of ‘dropping the mask’ and may resist help. But she says: ‘Asking for help is not a sign that you’re a failure or a “bad” mum. It shows you’re committed to improving things for you and your baby.’
As Peter Grigg points out: ‘The best thing that any parent can do for a child is to be well, to look after themselves and their own mental health. The more we can do during those first five years, the less we need to do later in a child’s life as they grow into adults.’
And that, as the Duchess knows, would truly be life-changing.
For more information please visit royalfoundation.com.