Why we need to support each other through parenting in a second language
When my son was about 5 months old, I remember waiting for a bus with him in his enormous buggy. I had already missed one bus because I couldn’t remember if I had turned off the oven, so I had to run back to my flat to check (it was off, of course). It was starting to drizzle a bit, and it must have been around 11 o’clock or so. I hadn’t spoken to anyone that day yet.
The bus finally arrived, and I manoeuvred myself and the buggy into position to get on. The driver opened the door and told them there were already two buggies on board, so I’d have to wait for the next one. As the bus doors closed, I burst into tears. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The first year of being a mother was incredibly lonely.
And I lived in my hometown, had my mother near me, had friends with small children, had money for activities, and had a supportive partner. And perhaps most importantly of all – English was my first language. No one talks about how lonely it is being the main parent in the first year of your child’s life. Even when you have a support network, a stable home environment, a good relationship, it is incredibly isolating.
Now imagine that you are far from your family.
Perhaps the friends you have aren’t parents, so they are not available during the day, and they just don’t get the kind of support you need. Maybe you have recently arrived in a new city, so you don’t have any kind of network to help you. And now consider that you have to navigate all of this in a second language. If becoming a parent for L1 speakers is hard, being an L2 speaker is an even greater challenge.
I’m not just talking about accessing services that you need, although that is of course a major issue. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to advocate for yourself during your birth in a second language. It’s difficult enough doing it in your first language, with women often pressured into taking medical decisions they don’t want or having interventions they are not comfortable with.
Aftercare for mothers is absolutely pathetic as well.
It took me over a year to be able to process my son’s birth, struggling to find the words to be able to explain my feelings of loss at the holistic birth I never got to have. After an emergency cesarean, I had practically zero follow-up care. All my health care worker did was go through generic checklists and offered me almost no support. My GP didn’t even look at my scar when I mentioned feeling a bit uncomfortable 3 months after the operation.
There is no space for us to process the trauma that comes with birth (let’s be clear – every birth, even a textbook one, is a trauma to the body), and to mourn our old lives and welcome our new. There is no language for us to talk about it. Finding your voice to express how you feel in your new reality is incredibly difficult – translating it must be nearly impossible.
And the lack of sleep – prepare for cognitive disintegration.
There’s a reason that the most popular form of torture for those accused of witchcraft in Scotland was keeping them awake. Sleep deprivation is horrific. And it has been scientifically proven to affect your brain. If you aren’t sleeping enough, you will see your memory, concentration and decision-making suffer.
These abilities are all key in speaking a foreign language.
I was often incapable of stringing a sentence together in my L1. I can’t begin to understand how L2 speakers are able to communicate when they have a newborn. I find it astounding how little lack of sleep is taken into consideration with new parents, and new mothers in particular.
Due to most health boards advocating for on demand breastfeeding, it’s normally the mother who becomes the night parent, and once you have that role you’re pretty much stuck with it for life. My son is now 4, and I am still the one who gets up at night if he wakes up. So we are talking about potentially a decade of sleep deprivation (if you have more than one child) and trying to work and live and survive in an L2 while your brain is going through the wars.
And this affects L2 speakers of all levels.
It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or proficient speaker. Your cognitive abilities are under attack, your vocabulary range is suddenly reduced to nappies, nursery rhymes and different colours of poo, and your fluency is affected because you may spend an entire day without speaking to anyone. And it is BORING.
I love my son more than anything in the world, and now we get to have amazing conversations. But when he was a baby, it was mind-numbingly dull. I remember endless hours in playparks, listening to the radio on my headphones as I pushed him on the swings because I needed to use my brain!
All the mum and baby groups were only about the baby. I found it difficult to connect with the other parents that went to these groups because all they talked about was their kids. I remember being gutted that the mum and baby yoga class I had signed up to didn’t actually let me do yoga. I just ended up singing Incy Wincy Spider (AGAIN) while stretching my arms.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do stuff for babies – the problem is that EVERYTHING is about the baby. And again, I was dealing with all of this in my FIRST LANGUAGE. How are you supposed to make connections and friendships when you are exhausted, depressed, very probably processing trauma, and in an L2?!
Not feeling like you can properly express yourself has a huge impact on your confidence, creating fear and anxiety.
Remember that another effect of sleep deprivation is depression. And while all of this is going on, society is telling you you are failing. Because we are meant to be perfect at being parents, while getting absolutely zero support. So how do we start to solve these problems?
The first step is sharing our stories, because when you talk to other parents, you realise that everyone is going through the same thing. We are so often isolated in parenthood that we think we are the only ones struggling, and this stops us from reaching out. So we need to create safe and supportive environments where we can feel comfortable enough to trust and share.
And let me take a moment to emphasize that this is for dads too! It can sometimes be even lonelier for dads who are the main parent, as a lot of these spaces are seen as being only for women. I can completely understand why women feel they need a space, however we should be able to welcome dads into these communities too. My husband and I took shared parental leave during our son’s first year, and he felt incredibly isolated in those first months as the mums just wouldn’t speak to him. Society makes it harder for men to connect emotionally anyway – this is yet another barrier to that.
I remember madly googling my postnatal emotions at 4am while I sat alone in my living room with a breast pump attached to me. It was the loneliest I have ever felt, and I had my newborn son and husband in the room next to me. I don’t want that to happen to others. Let’s create a language and space where we can find the words to tell our stories, and to lift each other up.