Academic journal article Family Relations

Staying Connected While Nurturing an Infant: A Challenge of New Motherhood*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Staying Connected While Nurturing an Infant: A Challenge of New Motherhood*

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Fifteen at-risk new mothers participating in a volunteer home-visiting program were interviewed about their experiences with these home-visitors and their relationships with close family and friends after their babies were born. Results of the qualitative analysis, viewed through the lens of Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), detail the social isolation and personal disconnection that they experienced. Their narratives also provide insights about the volunteers' use of techniques-such as validation, affirmation, consistency, and emotional and instrumental aid-to enhance the mothers' self-confidence in caring for their babies, to reduce painful feelings, and to increase interpersonal connections. Recommendations are included for working with couples anticipating a new baby.

Key Words: home-visiting, infancy, motherhood, postpartum depression.

The postpartum period is charged with mixed emotions for most mothers (Blumfield, 1992; Epperson, 2002). Feelings can range from pleasure and joy to anger, loneliness, and depression. In addition, mothers of newborns in many Western cultures report feeling isolated from other adults (Cowan & Cowan, 2000; Graham, Lobel, & Stein Deluca, 2002; Nicolson, 1998). They are at increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Thus, their infants are vulnerable to early developmental deficits because of compromised parenting (Lyons-Ruth, Connell, Grunebaum, & Botein, 1990; Weinberg & Tronick, 1998). However, few studies have closely examined the different ways in which postpartum women feel isolated and lonely.

Not surprisingly, reports show that mothers of newborns benefit from emotional support. (Gomby, Culross, & Behrman, 1999; Heinicke et al., 1999). Home-visiting interventions have been used as a means of support, education, and prevention to address the needs of women and infants during the postpartum period (Gomby et al.; Heinicke et al., 1999; Taggart, Short, & Barclay, 2000), but studies are needed that detail the usefulness of the home-visitor/new mother relationship from the client's perspective. We examined at-risk postpartum women to understand their relational experiences with their babies and families, and the social context within which their new mothering experiences occurred. We also sought information about their perceptions of their relational experiences with their home-visiting volunteers.

Postpartum Experiences and Relational-Cultural Theory

Postpartum "blues" are estimated to occur in 26%-85% of women from all socioeconomic levels in the United States (O'Hara, 1994). Symptoms can include mild to moderate sadness, tearfulness, emotional ups and downs, anxiety, and sleep problems. These feelings can contribute to women's sense of isolation or disconnection. In addition, it is possible that being isolated can add to the feelings that encompass the "blues." New mothers may feel particularly lonely in their new roles because of the difficulty of sharing these unpleasant feelings. They also may be fearful of and unable to care consistently for their new baby and or lack the support of an adult experienced in parenting newborns who can offer guidance and affirmation on the challenging aspects of parenting an infant.

Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT; Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991) offered one perspective on mothers' postpartum moods, positing that women develop and function optimally in relation to others. Understanding, being understood, experiencing empathy from and toward another, and feeling interpersonal connection are all central values in the development of women's sense of self and the skills and values that women bring to relationships of all kinds (Jordan et al., 1991; Miller & Stiver, 1998). In fact, a loss of connection with important relationships can cause feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, and depression, and feelings of being misunderstood. …

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