Rural mums: on isolation and autism
The African saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is one we hold dear - but what happens when there aren’t many villagers around? Renee Murphy spoke with Jane*, an amazingly resilient stay-at-home mum living on a farm 30 minutes from her closest town.
Looking back to when I had my first baby seven years ago, I don’t know how I avoided post-natal depression. It was a very tough time. Before I had children, my job as a nurse gave me lots of social contact. It was a huge part of my identity and I gained a lot of fulfillment from it.I’d always wanted children, and I wasn’t idealistic - but you can never really prepare for the changes motherhood brings.
Ben* was born five weeks premature in a hospital two hours from home. After 21 days in the neonatal unit, my husband and I took him home to the rented farmhouse we were living in at the time. It was a 30-minute drive to the closest town, and we were surrounded by hills so there was no cellphone reception.It was the busiest time of year on the farm. My husband went out to work on the farm at dawn and often wasn’t back until after dusk. Most days, I saw no-one.
I didn’t grow up in this community, so I didn’t have any local friends, apart from an old colleague who took me under her wing. She’d pop in for a cuppa and a chat on her way home from work. I will be forever grateful to her.
Ben was a very highly-strung baby and would cry a lot. I tried taking him to music and play group, but the stress of taking him out drained me. Even the weekly visit to the supermarket overstimulated him and would often end with a meltdown. It was a logistical nightmare, so I isolated myself socially – not intentionally.
The first year was a struggle, but I thought it was normal. I thought, you have a young baby and you’re confined to the house. I’d had a friend (who wasn’t a mum) to stay and she must have thought, “Oh my God, is this your life”?
When Ben was one, I got involved with the toy library and it was a godsend. I met a neat bunch of mums. I was conscious of Ben being different, but no-one ever questioned me. They just accepted us. There was no competitiveness about the babies reaching their milestones.
Ben was diagnosed with autism when he was two, but I’d known in my heart that something wasn’t right well before then. If it hadn’t been for the autism, my feelings of isolation in the early years would have been a lot less. Being a small town, there was no support group for parents with autistic children. We travelled to a support group in a larger centre a couple of times, but it was an upheaval. I joined a private group on Facebook which is helpful.
I now have three kids and my eldest two are at school which has made it easier for me to get out and socialise. I’ve met a lovely group of mums through school and kindergarten and it’s been the best thing ever, but it’s taken a while. We have morning tea together occasionally and have a laugh. Several mums are from similar backgrounds to me so we have plenty to talk about. Everyone brings something different to the group and I feel better for the social connection and support.
Now we live only twenty minutes from town. There is (patchy) cellphone reception. I use Facebook messenger to contact friends and family which is helpful. I’m naturally a bit of a homebody and I don’t mind my own company. If I wasn’t, I’d find life on the farm much harder. If we were living in the community where I grew up, the experience might have been completely different because there would have been connections from school. I’d also have grandparents to call on for support.
Life with three kids is a juggling act, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Living in town might have made seeking out social contact and support a lot easier, especially during these early years, but I’m a rural girl at heart and embrace the positives of country life. Things are getting easier as the children get older and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
* names have been changed.
Renee Murphy is a Palmerston North freelance writer and mum to two rambunctious boys.