Exploring the motherhood experience

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The day-to-day experiences of motherhood are strongly related to psychological wellbeing, new research from Flinders University shows.

As part of her clinical PhD, Charlotte Tottman from the School of Psychology surveyed almost 200 first-time mothers during pregnancy and again at six weeks postpartum to determine the link between the participants’ experience of caring for a newborn and their mental and emotional state.

The results showed that the mothers’ psychological wellbeing  was significantly associated with how well they managed the activities and life changes in caring for a baby, with women who felt less able to cope with the challenges of new motherhood at greater risk of emotional problems.

Ms Tottman said that while the findings were “intuitively logical”, they suggest an opportunity to intervene and improve the motherhood experience for new mums, and therefore their psychological wellbeing.

She said psychological wellbeing was usually associated with factors that cannot be modified – such as a family history of mental illness or a stressful life event – whereas day-to-day experiences could possibly be improved.

“One of the key risk factors for postpartum adjustment is a history of depression or anxiety so if you have that history you can’t change it,” Ms Tottman said.

“But we’ve identified an additional risk factor, which is whatever is happening in the current, day-to-day lives of new mothers,” she said.

“While you can’t change a history of psychological problems, you may be able to change what’s going on at the time so if you find having a baby is more difficult than you expected, there may be ways your experience of motherhood can be improved and thus your psychological wellbeing.

“Even though the findings aren’t all that surprising, they’re important because they provide an opportunity for improvement and modifications, potentially through antenatal education and skills development.”

Based on her findings, Ms Tottman is now undertaking a second study to further investigate the impact of the motherhood experience.

She plans to recruit up to 200 women who have just had a baby – including both first-time mums and those with multiple children – to determine whether psychological wellbeing relates to the experience of being a mum for the first time or to the motherhood experience in general.

“This time we are interested in the effects of parity, which is whether having had and cared for a baby before makes a difference to how well women adjust in the early weeks.

“We’ll also investigate the influence of different types and sources of social support on how well women manage and adjust.”

Women who currently have a baby aged between 5 and 10 weeks are invited to participate by completing a 15-minute online survey.

Participation is voluntary and anonymous. Everyone who completes the survey will automatically go into the draw to win one of five supermarket vouchers valued at $100 each.

The survey will be online until January 2014 and can be accessed here or here.

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