The girl in the corner in her late teens glares over her tea at the family at the large table chatting and laughing together. On the other side of the room, an old man smiles sadly at the same sight. Each of them casts judgement upon the family, wishing themselves into the parents’ shoes.
“That will be me one day.” Thinks the girl. “I’ll meet someone, get married and have children. And this loneliness that hangs over me will be a thing of the past.” She can’t help but feel jealous watching the mum. Sure, she’s got her hands full. The children are covered in cake, one of them needs the toilet and the other has just spilled her drink. But they’re all together, one big happy family.
The old man stares wistfully, remembering those days. He was young and spritely, his late wife was such a beauty and they had amazing times together as a family. Walks on the beach, trips to the park and even exploring the UK and abroad in their van. And now, his grown-up kids call from time to time but the loneliness is crippling.
The family finish their drinks, dab the worst of the cake from the children and the floor and make their way home. Their time together ends abruptly as she goes back to sit in front of a computer on her own, while he makes the most of the last few hours with the children before the daily grind starts again tomorrow.
He’ll drive to work wondering when they’ll all be together again. The next four evenings will pass with him dining alone, before going back to his hotel room to be consumed by loneliness. By the time he gets back, his wife will be days behind with her work and they’ll be back to the same old tag-team routine of passing like ships in the night.
And the same fate befalls mums and dads across the world every day. Single parents with no childcare, consumed by love for their children but desperately missing adult company. Couples working all hours god sends just to make ends meet. Spending so little time together that they feel more lonely than they did when they were single.
Working parents joining in with the banter, talking about the weekend, about the future and the past. And all the while feeling desperately lonely without the little person who makes them complete, the same one without whom they would never have become so isolated.
Nobody expects parenthood to be like this. There are tales of playdates, nights out with mates and even regular dates as a couple. And yet friends have dropped off along the way, some don’t have children but even those that do have their own lives, their own struggles. Contact is irregular, life gets in the way.
And so the reality of parenting hits home. The daily solo dog walks, trudging around the fields watching couples and groups interact. The long evenings with only the television for company. The days at work, surrounded by people and the guilt at enjoying the interaction whilst somebody else looks after your child.
But most of all the realisation that according to society, this is the pinnacle of happiness. These are the days that lonely teens long for and the elderly look back fondly upon. And nobody understands that perception and reality are so far apart.
So to the single parent, the hard working couple, the stay at home dad and the home educating mum. To the father of teens and the mother of a new-born, to the rainbow families, the extended families and the broken families – I understand.
It’s okay to be lonely, it’s fine to feel sad. We keep being told that these are the days, to enjoy their childhood before it’s too late. And we do, every day we do all we can to make the most of now. But that doesn’t make it any easier, loneliness doesn’t discriminate and there is no shame in feeling alone.