As an early years practitioner and lecturer in early childhood, I transitioned into motherhood with a naïve belief that I would be well equipped for the challenges that lay ahead of me. I was surprised therefore, to find that despite my theoretical and practical experience of looking after young children, the reality of becoming a mother myself was different to the natural and instinctive experience that I had expected. Although I certainly felt excitement about what lay ahead, I also recall an overwhelming sense that I was losing control of myself and the world around me and that I was not going to be able to cope with the demands of this role and that the responsibility of looking after another human lay entirely at my feet, particularly as my partner prepared to return to work. I remember believing that I must be the only person that had ever felt this way, new motherhood had always been portrayed as something beautiful and natural and although I expected to feel exhausted and in some physical pain, the immediate impact on my mental health was not something that I had been able to prepare for and I found this difficult to discuss.
During these early days I desperately sought advice from the plethora of different platforms designed to support new parents. This included various baby manuals (Hogg, 2001; Ford, 2002; Frost, 2007), which were helpful at times but also seemed to heavily contradict each other, adding to an overwhelming feeling of confusion and a difficulty in making decisions. I was also directed to parenting websites such as Mumsnet (Mumsnet, 2000) and Netmums (Netmums, 2000) where I read forum conversations about sensitive aspects of contemporary parenting decisions such as co-sleeping, breastfeeding and sleep routines which were met with explosive and highly emotive responses. It seemed that there were strong opinions about every aspect of child-rearing which made it increasingly difficult to find agency and confidence in those early days. Health visitors and midwives talked about the ‘baby blues’ as something that was to be expected in the early days of motherhood, but I began to wonder whether other new mothers had experienced the same rollercoaster of emotions that I felt totally unprepared for.
Through the support of family, friends and health visitors I began to attend the local Sure Start Children’s Centre, which quickly became a lifeline for me. It was there that the interest in the experiences of new mothers developed further as I could see my own experiences reflected in the women I would meet there. Through meeting mothers and attending different parenting courses (including baby massage, ‘weigh, stay and play’ and baby weaning groups), the conversations that I had with them made it evident to me that I was certainly not alone in this overwhelming experience.
Mothers reported concerns and a feeling of huge pressure regarding many different aspects of this new role including breastfeeding, with leaflets given out regularly, posters on all of the walls citing ‘breast is best’ and reflections of feeling constantly surveyed and judged by professionals, intrusive social media and political intervention campaigns, there was a deep feeling of failure in the air for mothers that were not able to breastfeed or who chose not to. A loss of identity was also evident during conversations with new mothers who were no longer called by their name, instead, referred to by doctors and health visitors as ‘Mum’, at a time long before their child would be able to form this word. During this first year, mothers were encouraged to attend parenting courses and develop networks, some of which were extremely helpful and positive, some of which seemed to promote a homogenous ‘recipe’ for parenting practice and for meeting the developmental needs of children. It also became apparent that the practical support and guidance that mothers sought, they were not always getting from health professionals but often from other mothers. Mothers’ shared practical tips about sleep training, often borne out of a desperate need for rest themselves, they also shared real experiences regarding routines, play opportunities, feeding and every other aspect of child-rearing. It became quickly apparent to me that these networks, grounded in humour, honesty and support would lay the foundations for new mothers to develop confidence and resilience as they navigated this transition into motherhood.
As I developed my interest further through beginning my professional doctorate in 2013 at the University of Derby, I explored post-structuralist concepts (Foucault, 1977; Rose, 1999) in relation to motherhood. I was able to deconstruct my own experiences and those of the mothers I had met in the first year of becoming a mother. I could see the way that levels of surveillance (Henderson, Harmon and Houser, 2010) had impacted on the expectations I had on myself and on those around me came as a result of structural surveillance; government initiatives, political intervention, parenting education programmes and representations in the media.
This structural attention on parenting has arguably developed further since the Allen (2011, p. xiv) report highlighted the ‘right kind of parenting’ and the importance of early intervention. More recently, the ’Helping Parents to Parent’ report (Clarke et al., 2017) called for the normalization of parenting programmes and explored ‘universal interventions that aims to influence parenting behaviours and approaches’ (Clarke et al., 2017, p. 6). Whilst it is certainly heartening to see reports that shine a spotlight on the development of our youngest children, I found myself questioning some of the messages embedded within these reports and whether they bring with them an unhelpful judgement and added pressure for new parents.
Along with attention in the form of political intervention, modern motherhood has also seen a rise in so called ‘online parenting’ forums including Mumsnet (Mumsnet, 2000); Netmums (Netmums, 2000); Babycentre (Babycentre, 1997).These forums along with baby manuals where self-proclaimed experts offer their philosophies of child-rearing and increasingly popular ‘makeover TV’ suggests that the government, psychologists and TV presenters alike believe themselves to hold the secrets to ‘good’ parenting.
Academics within the field of early childhood (Murray, 2017; Musgrave, 2017) recognise and advocate the fundamental importance of valuing children as individuals and as autonomous, researching experts of their own lives. It seems that this message is not extended to the lives of mothers though with policy makers continuously publishing intervention agenda that endorses a standardised formula for parenting. With the plethora of conflicting and contradictory ‘advice’ and representations of motherhood throughout society, there is a risk that pressures on new mothers are heightened and the opportunity to create anxiety increased. According to Gambles (2010, p. 698) ‘parenting is the subject of much contemporary public discussion within the UK as well as other forms of popular culture’. This attention, according to Furedi (2008, p. 182), ties in with the rise in what can be described as a ‘professionalisation of parenting’ whereby parenting has becoming more ‘intensive, literally a full time occupation requiring professional support’ (Furedi, 2008, p. 15) and I worry that this is echoed in the increased government focus and homogenous support strategies for new parents.
Foucault (1977) related the attention on human behaviour as linking to normalized behaviour that is to be promoted as a ‘master-narrative’ (Kerrick and Henry, 2016, p. 1). These narratives are exacerbated through societal structures, surveillance and the use and often misuse of neuroscientific research (Macvarish in Lee et al., 2014; Vandenbroeck et al., 2017) and developmental psychology (Burman, 2008) through interventions by policy makers and those in positions of power.
During those early days, interpersonal surveillance was also evident between mothers who, in my experience, whilst supporting and encouraging each other in many ways, also at times, demonstrated competitive traits and judgement of one another, arguably borne out of the transmission of structural messages regarding the ‘right kind of parenting’ (Allen, 2011, p. xiv). As Priya, one of the mothers that I interviewed in my research reflected ‘you do get the odd ones that just, they just want their child to be a little bit better than yours!’. This feeling of being judged by others on both a structural and a social level, according to Henderson (2010) can be seen as adding to the potential for self-surveillance; the internalisation of the first two levels of surveillance resulting in acceptance, conformity and an ‘internal battle’ (Gemma) relating to the expected behaviours that this role demands.
However, the groups that I attended also highlighted to me the autonomy of women. I could not fully align to a post-structuralist ontological approach within my research because I witnessed different reactions from mothers to both structural and interpersonal surveillance. It is difficult to resist levels of surveillance, particularly at a time in life where hormones, tiredness and the transition into a new identity demands much navigation, but that does not mean that all women will navigate this transition in exactly the same ‘docile’ way. In the responses to advice given to them, I witnessed mothers resist or reshape the dominant discourses within modern motherhood, taking aspects of the advice and ignoring the elements that did not work for them or for their baby, particularly as confidence grew through strong social networks and support systems. It was therefore important for me to acknowledge that autonomy, individuality and resistance was a possibility within the exploration of modern motherhood, to consider the position of mothers as being ‘powerful, powerless or a combination of both’ (Baxter, 2003, p.66).
A feminist post-structuralist (Davis, 1997; Weedon, 1997; Baxter, 2003) ontological, epistemological and theoretical approach to my doctoral research, allowed me to explore the experiences of new mothers in order to:
- Analyse how they are structured, what power relations they produce and reproduce, where there are resistances and where we might look for weak points more open to challenge and transformation (Weedon, 1997, p. 133).
With Public Heath England (2017) stating that ‘perinatal mental health problems affect between 10 to 20% of women during pregnancy and the first year after having a baby’ (Public Health England, 2017) and cost the ‘NHS and social services around £1.2 billion annually’ (Public Health England, 2017), the need to investigate some of the factors that can be attributed to adding to these problems was clear. The importance of capturing the voices of mothers in order to explore the diverse experiences of modern motherhood was the central focus of my doctoral research, which I completed earlier this year. The dominant discourses that emerged from my research were fascinating, insightful and at times, worrying. Themes relating to ‘expert’ advice and support within the early days of motherhood, the impact of political intervention, parenting culture and the silences within modern motherhood all highlighted to me a need to actively listen to the experiences of new mothers.
As I continue to share the narratives of the mothers that were involved in my research, this central aim remains the same. It is essential to listen to the experiences of new mothers and take note of their reflections regarding how they feel they could be best supported. It is through this attention and recognition of mothers as autonomous experts in their own lives that we can move towards individualised, empathetic and pragmatic support. When I reflect back on my own experiences of early motherhood I can see the fundamental importance of the support that came from the people that I was already lucky enough to have in my life, particularly from my own mother. I can also see that the turning point for me in terms of a developing confidence came not only from this support but also from the close friendships that I would forge with other new mothers. Within these networks, once we felt able to trust one another and share the fulfilling but often frustrating and overwhelming experiences of motherhood, the isolation, loneliness and feeling of being the only person that could possibly feel that way, began to slip away. Ruth, one of the mothers that I interviewed described her friendships with other mothers “I think that’s the best kind of support you can get because you’re gonna be honest with each other… about the horrors! (Laughs). If you’ve got friends that are honest it really makes a difference”.
Ultimately myself and all the mothers that I met before and during my research were doing their very best in a world where motherhood brings with it so much pressure, conflicting opinion and judgement. The critical importance of hearing the reality of modern motherhood remains and we need to continue to provide opportunities for mothers to share their experiences and for those in positions of power to listen in order to ensure that any support provided reflects the voices of those who really do know best, the mothers themselves.
- Allen, G. (2011) Early Intervention: The Next Steps, an Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government by Graham Allen MP. The Stationary Office.
- All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) (2015) Conception to Age 2: First 1001 Days. Perinatal Inquiry – evidence sessions on first 1001 days. UK.
- Baxter, J. (2003) Positioning Gender in Discourse. A Feminist Methodology. Hampshire: Palgrave-Macmillan.
- Burman, E. (2008) Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
- Clarke, B., Younas, F., Project Team and Family Kids and Youth. (2017) Helping Parents to Parent, London: Social Mobility Commission.
- Davis, B. (1997) ‘The Subject of Post-Structuralism: a Reply to Alison Jones’, Gender and Education, 9(3), pp. 271-283.
- Furedi, F. (2008) Paranoid Parenting: why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. Wiltshire: Continuum.
- Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.
- Gambles, R. (2010) ‘Supernanny, parenting and a pedagogical state’, Citizenship Studies, 14(6), pp. 697-709.
- Henderson, A., Harmon, S. and Houser, J. (2010) ‘A New State of Surveillance: applying Michael Foucault to Modern Motherhood’, Surveillance and Society, 7(3/4), pp. 231-247.
- Hogg, T. (2001) Secrets of the baby whisperer: how to calm, connect and communicate with your baby. London: Ebury Publishing.
- Kerrick, M. and Henry, R.L. (2016) ‘’Totally in Love’: Evidence of a Master Narrative for how new mothers should feel about their babies’, Sex Roles, 76(1), pp. 1-16.
- Lee, E., Bristow, J. Faircloth, C. and Macvarish, J. (2014) Parenting Culture Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Mumsnet (2000) About Us. Available at: www.mumsnet.com/info/about-us (Accessed 13 April 2018).
- Musgrave, J. (2017) Supporting Children’s Health and Wellbeing. London: Sage.
- Murray, J. (2017) Building Knowledge in Early Childhood Education: Young Children Are Researchers’. London: Routledge.
- Netmums (2000) About Us. Available at: www.netmums.com/info/about-us (Accessed 13 April 2018).
- Public Health England (2017) Perinatal Mental Health. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/better-mental-health-jsna-toolkit/4-perinatal-mental-health (Accessed: 13 April 2018).
- Vandenbroek, M., De Vos, J., Fias, W., Mariett Olsson, L., Penn, H., Wastell, D. and White, S. (2017) Constructions of Neuroscience in Early Childhood Education. London
- Weedon, C. (1997) Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory: Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.