Parents

How New Parents Make Friends On Parental Leave

Those Facebook friendships don't always work out IRL, or are just a starting point.
Michelle Osbourne and her daughter. Osbourne needed a support group but wasn't sure where to look.
Michelle Osbourne and her daughter. Osbourne needed a support group but wasn't sure where to look.

When Michelle Osbourne became a mother at age 42, it was a shock. Having lived four decades unfettered by anything other than her dreams, motherhood was grounding, to say the least. She was tired like most new moms, but she also had other challenges to overcome.

Maternity leave for me not only was a challenge because I was an ‘old’ new mom. It was a challenge because I was a lesbian [living] in a place where being black, anglophone and queer is looked down upon,” Osbourne told HuffPost Canada.

Osbourne and her then-partner were living in Quebec City at the time of her daughter’s birth. The prospect of being home for a year with her child, while exciting, was also daunting. She needed a support group but wasn’t sure where to turn.

“I think the biggest challenge for me was meeting other queer/lesbian parents that I could relate to,” she said.

“(But) it didn’t matter if the moms I met were straight or gay. I just wanted to have a connection with whoever I met.”

Maternity leave can be isolating

According to Statistics Canada, in 2017, nearly two-thirds of Canadian mothers took or planned to take nine to 12 months maternity leave. The same survey found that one in five respondents planned to take more than one year away from work.

And it’s common for new mothers to feel isolated and alone during this time. A 2018 U.K. study commissioned by BBC Radio 5 found that 47 per cent of women feel lonely on maternity leave.

WATCH: When mat leave is lonely. Story continues below.

Jen Mallia, a 40-year-old mother of two based in Edmonton, knew that feeling firsthand.

“I’d been home for six weeks by the time my son was born and I was sick and I was lonely,” Mallia told HuffPost Canada. Her extreme morning sickness in her final weeks of pregnancy required her to leave work early and stay on doctor-ordered bedrest until the birth of her son.

At her six-week “well-baby checkup,” it was clear to the nurse who met with her that Mallia was suffering from borderline postpartum depression. “How are you doing, really?” the nurse asked Mallia. She burst into tears. “I’m so lonely,” she recalls responding.

The nurse saw the need for connection that Mallia was missing and got her registered with a neighbourhood new moms group right away.

“I would have gone further into postpartum depression if not for the group. Having those friends really anchored me,” she said.

It’s a problem for dads, too

With more dads taking parental leave, finding those parenting connections isn’t just a mom problem.

“I always knew I wanted to be a father,” Bobby Umar, 48, who has an 11-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, told HuffPost Canada.

When Umar’s wife became pregnant with their first child, the answer to the question of whether or not he’d take paternity leave was a foregone conclusion. The Toronto dad gladly shared parenting duties with his wife during that first year while they both took leave of their jobs. He had looked forward to meeting other like-minded parents who were on a similar journey with their babies.

Bobby Umar and his family. On paternity leave, Umar found parenting groups weren't what he expected.
Bobby Umar and his family. On paternity leave, Umar found parenting groups weren't what he expected.

As someone who was fully engaged in social media, Umar went to Twitter and Facebook to find other parents to socialize with. He’d get immediate responses from many of his mom friends about groups, but when he attended some of them “in real life,” they weren’t what he expected.

What Umar wasn’t prepared for were the cliques that he often experienced being one of the few or only men who attended local parenting groups. While half of the mothers in the groups would be friendly and engaging with him, there was a definite disinterest in his input and experience as a new dad from the remaining attendees, he said.

“Some [women] would just want to talk to other moms. They didn’t ask me about being a dad,” Umar said.

WATCH: Stay-at-home dad life. Story continues below.

Amy Dickson is a 43-year-old mother of two – a girl, seven, and a boy, two. While her first maternity leave was filled with social activities that came through a local mother’s group coordinated by the Toronto hospital where she gave birth, her next one was more challenging.

So she tentatively posted a call-out on her local Facebook classifieds page.

“I was reluctant at first because it felt pretty vulnerable to make such an appeal to strangers,” Dickson told HuffPost Canada. “But I knew that what I really wanted were moms within spitting distance that I could call up or text last minute and say, ‘I’m losing it, can we go for a walk?’”

Approximately 20 moms messaged her within 24 hours. While Dickson admits that Facebook was the catalyst, for her it was only a starting point. After meeting the women from the social media platform at a coffee shop, the real work began.

“Social media is too limited. Mat leave connections, for me anyway, absolutely have to be an in-person experience,” Dickson said. “It was a matter of finding those natural, organic connections that could then grow and evolve through our time, in person, together.”

However parents find connections, the support is key

Osbourne also found her support group through social media, and she continues to engage on Facebook as well as meeting group members in real life.

“Their support was amazing and I knew that if I needed help with something that I would have experienced moms ready to offer advice. I appreciate this group so much. With the in-person relationships that I made and this group, motherhood has become magic,” Osbourne said.

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