As a first time mother, Lucie Corcoran wasn’t able to readily take calls from friends, just when she needed them most. But a long, detailed voice note proved the perfect in-between…
Don’t underestimate the power of a good auld WhatsApp voice note – especially when you’ve just had your first baby in a global pandemic. You know that little voice record function we all ignored for the first ten years? Well, it’s actually a godsend. “Oh my God that’s 17 minutes. Sorry ok I’m going” – this is how one friend regularly ends her notes. She now refers to them as podcasts. Apologising for lengthy recordings is a regular occurrence. We all forgive each other easily, but perhaps privately listen on double speed from time to time. I became a mum last May. I came home from the hospital with my little bundle and felt an overwhelming need for female contact; primarily with my mother, but also with other women. It felt like a primordial part of me had been unlocked and I wanted to gather my sorority around. Not really an option when you have a vulnerable baby to protect in these circumstances. Having practically cocooned during pregnancy and emerged into a wary world, I found these voice notes to be a means of connecting with others at a time when mum and baby groups were postponed indefinitely.
This “in between technology” allows more depth and detail than a text but is much less constraining than a phone call, and it can foster a different type of connection. During my maternity leave I have (ab)used this function daily both in individual chats and groups. In the first few months I was exchanging messages in the middle of the night during feeds. Conversations have covered everything from baby sleep, weaning, and post-partum bodies to the Sex and the City reboot (everyone agrees it’s brutal but they’re also adamant they’ll finish the series). Clearly there is an appetite for other mum company. I recently discovered a WhatsApp group called ‘The Nightshift’ where women can chat through the night-time feed. Initially the voice note was just a way to communicate when I didn’t have a hand free to text. But over time it has allowed me to get to know a couple of friends in a different way and sometimes it feels like recording snippets of a diary or memoir. If I listen to some notes from the early days and I can hear my newborn making sounds in the background. Now he’s making shouty noises or bashing a spoon on his high chair and I have to speak over him. As life slowly begins to open up again and I adjust to motherhood, I’ve started to reflect a little.
I spoke with Dublin-based Executive Coach and Psychoanalyst Cathal O’ Keeffe about the phenomenon of the voice note in the context of this ‘pandemic Ireland’. O’Keeffe believes that we, as a society, are living in a changed world. We talk all the time of a return to “normal” but there has been a bereavement of sorts (quite literally for many people). He believes the measures we take to stop the spread of Covid-19 have a different kind of toll on the psyche. The price of masking, isolation, quarantine, absence of physical contact, and lack of physical activity can manifest in various symptoms; expressions of the unconscious or the unsayable. Anxiety, isolation, and insomnia are common manifestations. O’Keeffe believes that women have suffered more during the pandemic with caring for children proving to be a major stressor. As a society we have experienced division, on matters such as Covid-related restrictions, masking, and vaccinations. Furthermore, he suggests that there is an avoidance of discussion of controversial topics, and perhaps we even see this reflected in the voice note technology – which lacks the flow and “back and forth” of conversation. O’Keeffe notes the pros and cons of this preference of communication, suggesting that voice notes allow us talk ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ others but they provide tone which is missing in texts.
So, there seems to be an importance in this finding expression, a putting into words and giving voice to something. Is it a more narcissistic form of communication? We talk at length uninterrupted. Is it like a form of therapy where we take up a position of client and put the receiver in a position of therapist/sounding board/mirror? I must admit I have found it to be therapeutic at times, and even wondered whether I was really talking to myself. O’Keeffe questions whether we even want a response, or if we just want a “Dear Diary” that speaks back to us. What then is the value of the recipient’s role? Are they just a captive audience? He suggests it may be a stepping stone to engaging therapy through the introspection and confidence in what we have to say that does come from using voice notes.
Certainly I have found the mutual sharing to be a comfort at times. Before I gave birth I was aware that the baby blues were to be expected in the first few days postpartum. I wasn’t worried; I generally didn’t get hormonal swings, and anyway “baby blues” almost sounds cute. I imagined shedding a few tears on day three perhaps. So, I was very much taken aback by the emotional overwhelm I experienced for the first week. In one voice note I told a friend how difficult it was to persuade my husband that no, there was “absolutely nothing wrong. I’m in floods of tears multiple times a day and there isn’t a problem you can solve rationally. It’s just hormones“. She told me how she lost it when her partner came to visit the maternity ward and talked about Trump in front of the precious new baby – too perfect for this world. She felt distraught that her little baby boy would be exposed to such grim news. Baby blues for me was like taking a cork out of a bottle and releasing an overflowing joy, terror, guilt cycle. Listening to her describing her own ‘madness’, I was in tears with laughter. I felt less alone in that moment.
There is an intimacy to voice notes that grows when you’re in regular contact – exchanging experiences in confidence and sharing things you might never talk about in person. I now know some friends in a deeper way having been the modern equivalent of pen pals for the second half of 2021. O’Keeffe recognises another value of the technology; the practical element – we can chat hands-free at our convenience. He also sees the voice note as a type of gift or offering; that we can touch one another with our words, and he believes “that is in our marrow as Irish people”. Since we have begun to socialise more freely I have noticed the frequency of voice note exchanges dropping off slightly, but still there are little flurries of contact now and then. I recently went to a baby sensory exploration class. I chatted to other mums as our babies rubbed custard into their hair. And I regularly meet friends who are on maternity leave for walks or coffee It’s good for the soul and it invigorates me. You can’t beat real human contact, of course. But whenever I feel the need, I know I can still open my phone to record a 12-minute message about nappy absorbency and Carrie Bradshaw.