New Ways of Talking about Mothering

Helping new mothers believe in themselves leads to better outcomes for both mothers and babies.

“There is a ‘good mother’ stereotype within every culture. The criteria for this ideal will vary, but no matter what a woman does as a mother, she strives to reach the ‘good mother’ standard and feels judged for not achieving it,” says Virginia Schmied, a professor of midwifery at Western Sydney University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Anxiety about falling short of this standard can have serious effects on both the mother and child. As well as experiencing an increased risk of postnatal depression, womenwho are anxious during pregnancy are more likely to give  birth prematurely, or have a baby with low birth weight, which can influence long-term health and social outcomes. 

Research led by Schmied and the Reconceptualising Mothering Narratives team, including other researchers in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and Western believe that changing the way we talk about motherhood and mothering may reduce anxiety levels. 

Schmied and colleagues wondered if warm and positive messages from experienced mothers could change the high expectations many hold about mothering and reduce anxiety levels in new mothers. This led them to launch the Mother’s Day Letter Project in May 2018. 

More than 150 letters were received from Australian mothers, aged between 28 and 69 years, sharing generous words of encouragement and support, some of which were hand-delivered to new mothers at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital on Mother’s Day. The researchers found that when new mothers understood that it’s normal to have concerns about parenting, it was a first step in transforming the damaging ‘good mother’ stereotype into one that promotes and enacts social valuing of diverse mothering and parenting practices. Recipients said the letters made them feel valued.

Need to know

  • Maternal anxiety can have a serious impact on both mother and child.
  • Letting new mothers know that it’s normal to have parenting concerns can alleviate anxiety.
  • More than 250 letters were received in 2018 and 2019. Letters were delivered to new mothers in four Sydney Hospitals on Mother’s Day May 2018 and 2019.

Schmied and her team also believe continuity of care is essential for early identification of maternal anxiety. “Over time, midwives are able to build a relationship with a woman so they can more easily detect any changes in mood and behaviour and take steps to help her.”

However, Australia’s fragmented maternity care system, where mothers end up seeing a number of midwives and other health professionals before, during and after birth, makes it difficult for women’s worries to be addressed and for anxiety to be identified in a timely manner.

Parenting services such as Karitane have partnered with Schmied, her colleagues Professor Hannah Dahlen, Distinguished Professor Lynn Kemp, and others, to conduct two Australian government-funded studies investigating screening and referral for women who need support before and after birth.  

Grainne O’Loughlin, CEO of Karitane says “Virginia and her team’s work has helped us to understand the importance of early screening for anxiety.”

Some 20% of new mothers report feeling anxious, however this number could be significantly higher as many women don’t seek help, while others can slip through the healthcare system. 

Schmied and the team hope these initiatives develop into new ways of talking about mothers. Their ultimate goal is that all new mothers in Australia have access to continuity of midwifery care and receive a letter of welcome, encouragement and support from another mother. The initiative is growing. In 2019, Schmied and her colleagues are partnering with Stockland to gather letters and deliver them to hospitals in Western Sydney. 

Published in Future Care, Western Sydney University, March 2020

Photo by Wayne Evans from Pexels

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