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‘Lonely within the mother’: An exploratory study of first-time mothers’ experiences of loneliness

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Abstract

Loneliness is associated with life transitions such as new motherhood, yet there are few studies investigating the issue in this population. Using data from semi-structured interviews and an interpretative phenomenological analysis, this exploratory study sought to understand seven new mothers’ experiences of loneliness. Experiences were organised around three themes, reflecting loneliness arising from making unfavourable self-comparisons with perceived mothering ‘norms’, from reduced social contact and relationships lacking in empathy. Accounts were homogeneous and point to potential solutions to ameliorate loneliness in new mothers; encouraging empathy in new mothers’ partners and countering prevalent unrealistic representations of motherhood with more pragmatic accounts.
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Lonely within the mother", an exploratory study of first-time mothers' experiences of
loneliness
Katherine Lee, Konstantina Vasileiou, Julie Barnett
In Press, Journal of Health Psychology
Abstract
Loneliness is associated with life transitions such as new motherhood, yet there are few
studies investigating the issue in this population. Using data from semi-structured
interviews and an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, this exploratory study
sought to understand seven new mothers’ experiences of loneliness. Experiences were
organised around three themes, reflecting loneliness arising making unfavourable self-
comparisons with perceived mothering ‘norms’, from reduced social contact and
relationships lacking in empathy. Accounts were homogeneous and point to potential
solutions to ameliorate loneliness in new mothers; encouraging empathy in new
mothers’ partners and countering prevalent unrealistic representations of motherhood
with more pragmatic accounts.
Keywords
Loneliness; Health Psychology; Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis; Qualitative
Methods, Women’s Health, Breastfeeding
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Introduction
Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a pervasive and detrimental social problem.
Although it is commonly associated with an ageing population, it affects all age groups
(Victor and Yang, 2012; Qualter et al., 2015). Loneliness poses a serious risk to health
and well-being, and is linked to an array of aversive psychological and physical
outcomes, including depression (Cacioppo et al., 2010), and an increased mortality rate
(Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015).
Young (1982) differentiated between three types of loneliness, transient; occasional and
passing lonely moods, situational; triggered by a developmental or unexpected
disruption and chronic; lacking adequate social relations for two or more years. The
population in this study first-time mothers are one group at risk of experiencing
situational loneliness (Jopling and Sserwanja, 2016; Kantar Public, 2016), as the arrival
of their baby is likely to disrupt their social relationships.
A recent survey indicated that 28% of new mothers experience loneliness after giving
birth to their first child (AXA Healthcare, 2015). Given that becoming a mother is
typically characterised as a time of positive emotions, it is perhaps surprising that this
figure is in line with the highest estimates for the percentage of adults of childbearing
age experiencing more than occasional loneliness (Qualter et al., 2015). However, all
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factors identified by Rokach (1989) as most common antecedents of loneliness: loss,
inadequate social support, crisis and personal shortcomings may be pertinent to a new
mothers’ appraisal of her situation. Indeed, the scale of the problem may be larger than
reported if, in the context of popular representations of motherhood in Western culture,
the idealised glowing and content mother or the sad, non-coping wreck (Lee, 1997),
new mothers feel pressure not to admit to negative emotions (Rokach, 2004).
A new mother experiencing loneliness does so in the context of a changing and
developing identity. Social Role Theory (Wood and Eagly, 2000), describes how a
woman becomes a mother amidst deeply rooted societal expectations about what
motherhood means, these expectations conferring pressure to conform. A first-time
mother is likely to feel this pressure intensely as the need to focus on her baby and the
contrast to her prior daily duties render her parental identity particularly salient (Katz-
Wise et al., 2010). Further still, because parental identity salience is far greater for
mothers than fathers and for primigravida than multigravida (Simon, 1992).
Simultaneously, the other identities of the new mother are challenged, in particular, that
of a valued member of the workforce (Bailey, 2000). Ribbens (1994) found that new
motherhood engulfed women and left them feeling despondent because it overwhelmed
rather than augmented their sense of womanhood. Laney et al., (2015) described a
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short-term ‘fracturing of the self’ following the birth of a first child, as a developing
mother identity is incorporated into a woman’s existing identity. This reconstruction of
the self occurs at a time of increased and often unanticipated physical demands (Cronin
and McCarthy, 2003), and when facing the heightened surveillance of others (Jackson
and Mannix, 2004).
In these circumstances, a first-time mother’s early experiences in her new identity will
inevitably become the focus for self-evaluation (Simon, 1992). Her self-evaluations
may be negative if she feels she is not managing as she should be. A relationship
between negative self-evaluation and loneliness has been shown in a number of studies
(Heinrich and Gullone, 2006; Rokach, 2007). The relationship appears to be reciprocal,
as loneliness may increase the tendency for individuals to develop distorted standards
about the self and others (Peplau et al., 1982). Lonely people may conceal their feelings
and avoid discussing them with others, thus missing out on opportunities to learn about
similar experiences of peers.
Furthermore, a negative appraisal of an emotion such as loneliness may perpetuate it.
Feeling lonely amongst prevalent and culturally-driven ideals about the value of happy
emotions and the cost of sad ones (Bastian et al., 2015) can reinforce negative, self-
focused thinking (Moberly and Watkins, 2008). A new mother who experiences
loneliness but perceives a social pressure to feel positive emotions will likely appraise
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her loneliness as inconsistent with expectation. This appraisal may compound her
feeling that others will not accept her and further heighten her loneliness (De
Leersnyder et al., 2014).
Despite evidence that the transition to motherhood may be imbued with loneliness
(Coates et al., 2014), there is little academic research focusing specifically on loneliness
in new mothers (for an exception see Rokach, 2004). A greater understanding of new
mothers’ loneliness could inform the design of interventions to ameliorate loneliness in
this group, important because new mothers who experience loneliness may be at
increased risk of developing depression (Robertson et al., 2004). This study aims to add
to the literature about loneliness in new mothers by providing an in-depth understanding
of their experiences. Specifically, the study has two research objectives:
1. To understand the nature and context of first-time mothers’ experiences of
loneliness
2. To understand whether their accounts highlight discrepancies between expected
and actual motherhood (e.g. in relation to their experiences and emotions), and if
so whether these gave rise to feelings of loneliness
Method
Study design
A qualitative cross-sectional study employing semi-structured interviews was designed.
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An interpretative phenomenological analytic (IPA) approach fit the aim of
understanding participants’ experiences. IPA is an idiographic approach that seeks to
understand in-depth individual experiences rather than demonstrate universal truths
(Pietkiewicz and Smith, 2012). This approach is particularly relevant to areas of study
that are contextual, subjective and under-studied (Smith, 2004). The study received
ethical approval from the Department of Psychology at (city) University.
Participants
A small, homogeneous sample is recommended for IPA studies (Smith, 2004). With
permission from forum moderators, seven participants were purposively sampled from
(mumsnet.com/(city)) and (city)mums.com). Participants with a medical diagnosis of
post-natal depression were excluded to avoid causing undue distress and maintain a
focus on experiences of loneliness. The participants were interviewed when their babies
were between four and nine months old. All were professional, currently on maternity
leave and intending to return to full or part-time work.
Data collection
Participants responded to the advertisement for the study by contacting KL. They were
provided with a Participant Information Sheet giving further details about the study and
invited to arrange a time for an interview if they wished to participate. Interviews were
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conducted at a location of the participants’ choice. Prior to the interview, participants
signed an Informed Consent Form that outlined the nature and purpose of the study. The
semi-structured interview schedule explored three areas: (a) imagined and actual mother
identities, (b) experiences of loneliness and (c) coping strategies. Questions were
deliberately broad and open to avoid limiting potential responses. For example, ‘could
you tell me about the times when you feel or have felt lonely?’ followed where
necessary with prompts such as ‘what were your thoughts and feelings during these
moments?’. Interviews, conducted in June and July 2016, lasted between 28 and 58
minutes and were recorded. After the interview, participants were given a Debrief
Sheet with support contacts and a £20 shopping voucher to thank them for taking part.
Data analysis
The data were analysed by KL in accordance with the guidelines laid out in Smith et al.
(1999). All interviews were transcribed verbatim, then the first interview read and
reread and initial observations noted in one margin. Emerging themes were noted in the
other margin. This procedure was followed with the subsequent six cases, with
emerging themes collated in a table and interviews re-examined for any newly-
occurring themes. In order to maintain a ‘critical mindset’ (Smith and Eatough, 2006),
the authors met regularly throughout the process to review the fit of the developing
analysis to the data. All interview transcripts were read in full by KV. JB was not
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directly involved in the analysis of the transcripts and assumed a more interrogative role
in these meetings, challenging the fit of the data to interpretations. Any minor
disagreements were resolved at this stage and the analysis was refined accordingly.
Further, in line with a commitment to methodological rigour in qualitative research, KL
kept a diary throughout the process in order to reflect on ways in which her own
experiences may have impacted her interpretations (Yardley, 2000).
Results
Three themes were identified capturing participants’ experiences of loneliness: a.
unexpected difficulty and vulnerability, b. fewer opportunities for social interaction, and
c. relationships lacking in desired qualities. Analytic themes are presented below with
illustrative quotes.
“It feels like you can’t win, whatever you do”: Unexpected difficulty and
vulnerability
Becoming a mother for the first time elicited positive and valued new experiences: an
unparalleled love for their baby, the development of a closer bond with and a greater
appreciation for their own mother and the opportunity to re-evaluate priorities.
However, all participants experienced the transition to motherhood as a challenging
reality out of step with expectation. Unanticipated difficulty (Cronin and McCarthy,
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2003) and increased vulnerability gave rise to feelings of loneliness. Many of the
participants’ spontaneous comments about the early weeks of motherhood: a complete
shock’, or ‘like being hit by a bus’, highlighted the way they felt prepared for childbirth
but not for what followed:
“It’s funny that you go on NCT courses and stuff and they kind of prepare you
for labour and it’s ALL about the labour and you know actually that was the
really straightforward bit. And the bit afterwards was just, just I had no idea!
People are actually a bit like you know ‘the lack of sleep’ and all that sort of
thing. I kind of thought ‘oh yeah, the lack of sleep’ whereas it’s a completely
different ballgame (laughs).” Emma
The participants were particularly unprepared for the difficulties and anxieties
associated with feeding their babies and the feelings of loneliness arising from these.
The five participants who breastfed discovered that feeding entailed spending long
periods of time alone, day and night, often feeling uncomfortable and concerned about
whether their babies were getting enough nourishment:
“I felt alone a lot. In the beginning in the middle of the night you definitely feel
very alone then. Because especially if you’re doing breastfeeding yourself and
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you don’t… I don’t know why but I didn’t want to give him any kind of bottle at
all… So when you’re doing that on your own and it’s just you and you are solely
responsible for this baby’s welfare, for them getting food and nourishment and
growing and thriving. When you know that it’s painful, but the only way you’re
going to get through it is by them getting bigger and stronger. And the only way
that is to go through the pain of breastfeeding. Well that’s my experience, not
everyone has that. That is really lonely.” Jane
The physical reality of breastfeeding and the irreplaceable role of mother augmented the
participants’ sense of feeling solely responsible for their baby and of needing to resolve
associated issues alone. This resonates with Moustakas’ (1990) description of loneliness
arising from unwanted individuation of responsibility:
“Well, at the start I felt very alone. I have a very supportive husband and a very
supportive family and friends and even within that I still felt like it’s particularly
in the middle of the night, like it was all on me and that it was, the feeding was a
problem and so I’d be awake a lot at night and so, just even if I woke my
husband up I still felt quite alone in it because there was nothing he could do to
help me. I felt like I had to find a solution on my own, to the problems.” Vanessa
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The two participants who tried but were unable to establish breastfeeding found that
bottle feeding also produced feelings of loneliness. Bottle feeding in the context of what
they viewed as the prevalent cultural narrative of ‘breast is best’ made them feel that
they were failing to enact ‘good’ motherhood, and left them feeling vulnerable to and in
fear of the judgement and rejection of others. This fear led one participant to actively
avoid social contact:
“If I’m honest the breastfeeding thing for me, it was, it felt huge at the time
because everyone else was just breastfeeding and (participant cries). And I just
felt very inadequate at that time I think and so, I just felt it was easier you know,
to just, go for walks and things like that rather than, put myself through that.”
Sarah
Although the participants asserted that mothers should be free to feed their babies in the
way that they chose, all were acutely aware that in their social world breastfeeding was
seen as superior to bottle feeding. This was evident when Sarah began to cry when
describing how she felt inadequate for being unable to breastfeed. It was also visible in
Emma’s feelings of vulnerability and anxiety about the risk of strangers in a café
believing that she was bottle feeding:
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At the beginning I was having to bottle-feed and I felt like I had to tell people
‘she’s tiny I know and I’m having to bottle-feed but this is breast milk and it’s
gold dust, you know, you have no idea how many hours I’ve been hooked up to a
machine to get this!’ And you feel like you’ve got to explain yourself somehow. It
makes me quite emotional. It feels like you can’t win, whatever you do.” Emma
Feelings of loneliness seemed born of participants comparing their own performance as
a mother with a diametrically opposing narrative about how mothers ‘should’ be. For all
but one participant, this entailed comparing themselves to a narrative of ‘effortless
motherhood’, where motherhood is a natural and instinctive phenomenon (Miller,
2007). As their own experiences felt effortful and they lacked or mistrusted their
instincts, they felt isolated in an experience not aligned to the norm. They felt
vulnerable to others’ judgement for failing to meet this ideal. This vulnerability acted as
a barrier to relating to others and compounded their sense of being alone within their
own particular experience, what Sarah described as ‘being lonely within the mother’:
“I think you perceive other people to have this sort of perfect life, and their baby
is brilliant and sleeps through the night and you’re afraid to say ‘well mine
wakes up every hour’, or she did, cos, you think somehow it’s a reflection on you
as a bad mother. I think everybody has this perception about how things should
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be and how everything should be perfect and you can be a perfect mum and it’s
just not the reality.” Vanessa
One participant suffered from a serious health condition and made the decision early on
to bottle feed and let her baby ‘cry it out’ at night. Thereafter she experienced few
practical problems with her baby’s feeding and sleeping. However, she experienced
loneliness as a result of comparing her maternal performance to what she saw as the
dominant narrative of good motherhood, that of the ‘suffering mother’. She perceived
that mothers were expected to endure hardship around sleeping and feeding and that her
lack of suffering meant she was failing:
“I think some women, it just makes them feel a bit better to think I’ve done it the
way it should be done. You know, ’I’m breastfeeding exclusively and I’m only
sleeping twenty minutes a day’ and you know, things like that. [] And it’s
supported by, not necessarily the NHS but by this culture of you know, how a
mother should be.” Ellie
“No one’s messaging me today, no one is calling me, no one is checking in on me”:
Fewer opportunities for social interaction
This theme related to the way that participants experienced loneliness because of their
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negative evaluation of a difference in the amount of desired compared to actual social
contact (Peplau and Perlman, 1982), because friends and family were less available than
they wanted. This, combined with being more physically restricted, meant that their
opportunities to interact with others were more limited.
Dissatisfaction with social interactions was sometimes brought into focus by comparing
past with present. Gemma felt an acute sense of loss because prior to going on maternity
leave, her work friends had been her social network. After having her baby, many of the
people she had considered her closest friends had not kept in contact with her. This
clear distinction between past and present and her perception that some friends had
abandoned her left her feeling lonely:
“The line of communication is really strong, it’s really open and you’re involved
in multiple peoples’ lives and all of a sudden that just wasn’t the case and my
communication went from, like a thousand to just one. No one’s messaging me
today, no one is calling me, no one is checking in on me. So I don’t know if that
heightened the loneliness, because people didn’t make the effort to come.”
Gemma
As well as reduced contact with work friends, participants reorganised hierarchies
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within their social networks post-birth, placing greater-than-before importance on
family ties, in line with Wellman et al., (1997). Participants’ mothers were seen as most
able to provide valued practical and emotional support. However, in most cases their
mothers did not live locally, so frequent contact was not possible:
“I wanted my mum and I wanted my family around me a lot more so I felt lonely
for them. I still miss that sort of community feel around that I thought
motherhood would be about and that I was bought up in, you know, having
relatives around.” Sarah
Participants also felt physically restricted during early motherhood, referring frequently
to feeling ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ in the house, due to extended periods of breastfeeding and
birth-related health complications. The particular language used to describe their
enforced containment seemed to reflect as strong a sense of frustration at having
reduced control over contact with others as at an actual lack of contact with others:
“I didn’t actually go out of the house for another four weeks. So it was only
other people coming into me and I couldn’t get out and I couldn’t engage with
the world and I just felt very trapped, I was just stuck in there. I was stuck trying
to feed her. I felt very isolated, very lonely.” Ellie
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Even in social settings, the participants sometimes felt dissatisfied with their reduced
opportunities to interact with others. Breastfeeding meant that they occasionally had to
remove themselves, leaving them feeling cut off from a world going on around but
without them:
“I felt very socially isolated right at the beginning, the loneliness of
breastfeeding and I’d be meeting people, you know, friends, and needing to
breastfeed and you know, (baby) would be needing to breastfeed and so I would
end up being in another room. They would all be in one room socialising and
chatting and (husband) would be having a beer with them, socialising and
chatting and enjoying life as normal talking about all kinds of stuff and I would
be stuck in a room on the sofa feeding and would have no stimulation.” Kate
“There’s something about being lonely that isn’t just about being with someone
else. It’s a depth of understanding of your situation”: Relationships lacking in
desired qualities
This theme describes how participants experienced loneliness in the company and
presence of others, as a result of a perceived lack of empathy or meaningful connection
with them. Overwhelmingly, the lack of empathy and connectedness the participants
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narrated concerned their relationships with their partner but also extended to other new
mothers.
The participants had expected new parenthood to be a joint enterprise and were
therefore surprised that they felt almost exclusively responsible for caring for their
babies. The short duration of paternity leave meant that partners were perceived as more
distanced from the day to day care of their babies. Participants described their partners
as mostly willing but often unable to provide what they wanted empathetic support
born from a genuine and in-depth understanding of their circumstances instead
offering practical support that sometimes felt superficial:
“It’s weird to think about what exactly you’d, what else you’d want, what would
prevent you from feeling lonely. I’m not sure there is really an answer. I dunno,
there’s something about being lonely that isn’t just about being with someone
else. It’s a depth of understanding or something of your situation. No one knows
exactly how you are feeling.” Emma
A key factor in creating distance between participants and their partners was
breastfeeding, which placed a physical barrier between the partners and babies. Partners
could neither feed the baby themselves, nor offer quite the right support because they
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were unable to appreciate what breastfeeding a baby was like. This seemed to be
interpreted by participants as reflecting a lack of understanding:
“Especially when your husband turns around and says ‘oh, I’m really tired’ and
you lose it. Or they come and bring you a cup of tea, and they’re trying to be
nice, but they put it out of arm’s reach. Or they come and bring you some toast,
but they haven’t cut it up into small enough squares so you can eat it with one
hand. There’s just that lack of understanding what it’s like to be a new mum,
especially a breastfeeding mum. I think that can make you feel very, very
alone.” Jane
On occasion, participants vocalised their frustration at their partner’s lack of intuition
and adequate support:
“I’m like, it’s been an hour since I asked for that glass of water and I’m not
asking for that glass of water because I’m a prima donna, it’s because well, I’m
thirsty from feeding YOUR daughter. Kate
In the main, they did not explicitly blame their partners although the outcome, feeling
lonely, was the same:
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“That is really lonely. Especially when the closest person to you is a man, your
husband and he can’t empathise because he just can’t, they can’t do it. Different
women will say different things but that’s the loneliness bit I think. Knowing that
the person that you’ve married, you’re spending the rest of your life with and
you love dearly, just doesn’t understand.” Jane
Most participants felt that although their own experience was unique, the group most
likely to understand what they were going through were mothers of similar-aged babies.
For some, relationships with other mothers alleviated their loneliness and gave them
‘reassurance of worth’ (Weiss, 1973), via a sense of camaraderie born from shared
understanding. This might take the form of knowing, via a middle of the night whatsapp
message, that other mothers were awake too. Or on other occasions, face-to-face
discussions about the difficulties associated with having a young baby helped
participants to normalise their own experiences in a genuinely helpful way:
“I've talked about all the pressure you felt, but actually the solidarity between
women and mothers is phenomenal, even in those early days, the amount of help
and support you can get from just meeting local mums or keeping in touch with
your NCT group and social media can be really valuable.” Jane
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However, where actual or feared judgement from other mothers made participants feel
reticent about relating to others, feelings of loneliness were amplified. Two participants
found that other mothers did not offer them comfort and reassurance but, in a state of
increased vulnerability, perceived hostility and judgement. These participants did not
breastfeed and whether the others’ judgment was imagined or actual, they seemed
acutely sensitive to this issue as marking them out as different to others. Interactions
with other women that made them feel that the other women did not want to engage
with them, left them feeling ostracised:
“Mother and baby groups, I think sort of within that NCT sort of fraternity I was
feeling perhaps, I wasn’t in a place where I could sort of, I, it was quite hard, I
was feeling very vulnerable so it was quite hard to be in a place, with people
when I didn’t really trust them as such.” Sarah
Thus, new motherhood facilitated the development of supportive social ties with similar
others but could also engender difficulties that affected the new mother’s ability to
connect with others.
Discussion
The first aim of the study was to understand the nature and context of first-time
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mothers’ experiences of loneliness. All participants experienced a passing but
sometimes acute loneliness in the transition to motherhood. Feelings of loneliness were
related to their dissatisfaction with the quantity and quality of their relationships and
interactions (Peplau and Perlman, 1982) and to experiencing increased difficulty and
vulnerability exacerbated by perceived deviations from ‘norms’ of motherhood. The
fact that participants experienced reduced contact with others as a result of becoming a
mother is perhaps unsurprising, given the physical and temporal constraints allied to
early motherhood. Feelings of loneliness arising from the quality of their interactions
with their partners was a more unexpected finding, feelings of loneliness deriving from
partners’ perceived lack of empathy were discussed at length, although relationships
with partners was not covered in the interview schedule. This finding chimes with
Miller (2007), who reported that many new mothers felt they were shouldering the
burden of caring for their child and were dissatisfied with the dynamics in their
household post-birth.
The second aim was to understand whether discrepancies between expected and
actual motherhood gave rise to feelings of loneliness. These participants’ accounts
suggested that their loneliness did in part arise from discrepancies between
anticipated or idealised and actual mother identities. Awareness of perceived social
norms, around breastfeeding in particular, but also relating to other issues such as
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sleeping, shaped the subjectivities of these participants and led to loneliness. One
mother discussed her experiences and ensuing feelings of isolation in relation to a norm
of the ‘suffering mother’, though the prevailing norm in this group was the ideal of the
‘serene, instinctive and natural (breastfeeding) mother’, as found by Weaver et al.,
(1997). Where the participants felt inadequate and vulnerable as a result of a negative
comparison of their experiences with perceived norms, relating to other mothers became
challenging.
Despite its indisputable benefits to both baby and mother, breastfeeding was implicated
in the loneliness produced in each of the three themes. First because it impacted their
physical ability to interact with others. Second because their partners could neither
understand nor replace them in their role. Finally, because their lived experiences of
breastfeeding did not correspond with its construction as natural and easy (Palmer et al.,
2014), making them feel vulnerable and inadequate. This disparity between actual and
expected breastfeeding was also found by Razurel et al., (2011), who identified
breastfeeding as a major stressor in early motherhood. However, for the two participants
in this study, bottle feeding also appeared to be a stressor in that a negative appraisal of
it impacted relationships with others.
Aligned against the types of loneliness outlined by Young (1982), the loneliness of first-
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time mothers was a priori characterised as ‘situational’ (Young, 1982) in that new
motherhood presents a developmental transition causing significant disruption to social
and intimate relationships. However, accounts of loneliness were narrated entirely in
the past tense, suggesting that the experience was also transient. These participants’
loneliness was not ‘chronic’ in that it had not lasted, but was nonetheless experienced
acutely in ways that implicated and threatened identity. Arguably the classification of
loneliness on the basis of temporal dimensions, without also accounting for the intensity
of the experience is inadequate, especially given that situational, like chronic loneliness,
has been suggested to present a significant risk to mortality (Shiovitz-Ezra and Ayalon,
2010).
Implications for policy and practice
Despite the exploratory nature of this study, the participants’ accounts imply potential
solutions that may alleviate new mothers’ loneliness. Participants spoke of the feelings
of loneliness, distress and disappointment arising from a lack of empathy from their
partner. Greater empathy from partners might be encouraged by helping expectant
partners to better understand what new mothers’ experiences are like and what help
might most usefully be offered, perhaps most specifically in relation to breast and bottle
feeding practices. Arguably, helping to lessen the sense of separation between the new
mother and her partner could go some way to compensate for other sources of maternal
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loneliness (Hawkley et al., 2005). Furthermore, making early parenting a more
genuinely shared experience may help to tackle the notion that the responsibility for
resolving loneliness rests with the person experiencing it.
These participants felt relatively prepared for the labour and birth but were unprepared
for the weeks that followed, experiencing new motherhood as a shocking reality. Their
ideas of what was ‘normal’ were guided by perceived norms, often gleaned from the
media or the outward appearance of other mothers. Juxtaposing these models of
normality with feeling that they were not coping as they should made relating to other
mothers more difficult. Making more representative and diverse accounts of new
motherhood available to new mothers, and to society at large, might help first-time
mothers to avoid comparing themselves to narrow, prescriptive, and often unattainable
ideals. This could help to reduce the feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy and assist
new mothers to relate to one another.
Limitations
This analysis cannot, nor is intended to be generalised to all first-time mothers.
Although a homogeneous sample is desirable in IPA studies, it also means that the
experiences of only a small sub-group of first-time mothers have been captured.
Future studies could expand our understanding of the breadth of new mothers’
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experiences by investigating the issue amongst different demographic, ethnic and
cultural groups. The three authors concurred that the themes were reflective of the data,
increasing the trustworthiness of the study. However, as IPA is an interpretative
methodology, it is feasible that other researchers would identify different themes in the
data.
Conclusion
The seven participants in this study experienced a passing but acute loneliness during
the transition to motherhood. These findings suggest that highlighting more realistic
representations of motherhood and supporting more empathetic emotional relationships
may enhance the well-being of women during the challenging transition to motherhood.
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Bailey, L. (2000). Bridging home and work in the transition to motherhood. European
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... A second challenge of first-time motherhood that may be amplified by COVID-19 is that of loneliness. Becoming a mother is associated with experiences of loneliness owing to scarcer opportunities for social interaction, difficulties in making meaningful connections where peers or partners may lack understanding, alongside feeling exclusively responsible for caring for the baby (Lee, Vasileiou, & Barnett, 2019). Social support plays an important role in buffering the effects of stressful life events such as pregnancy (Collins, Dunkel-Schetter, Lobel, & Scrimshaw, 1993); however, COVID-19 social distancing and self-isolation strictures have meant that social support outside of the immediate household is, if anywhere, located in the virtual space. ...
... The focus of women's accounts of this experience focused on the absence of strongly desired interactions in the context of acclaiming and sharing the new arrival. Previous research has indicated that new motherhood can be associated with feelings of loneliness, expressed by feelings of missing out, or friends and family not being as present (Lee et al., 2019), yet the experiences of these new mothers in the context of COVID-19 were rather linked to a sharper focus around missing out on the long established, anticipated, and previously taken for granted rituals of friends and relatives coming to celebrate and welcome the arrival of the baby. The removal of this significant marker of the transition to motherhood was a key regret. ...
... Participants also described the increased presence of the partner as being an unexpected positive to arise from the pandemic. Limited paternity leave in the UK is a one factor that may contribute to new mothers feeling exclusively responsible for caring for the baby (Lee et al., 2019). These findings suggest that COVID-19 was felt to be beneficial for women in allowing both parents to have increased involvement in the first months of their baby's life. ...
Article
Objectives: This study aimed to explore how first-time mothers in the UK experienced new parenthood during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Design: This study used a cross-sectional exploratory, qualitative interview design. Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with ten first-time mothers who had given birth since COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic. Verbatim transcripts were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. Result: Experiences of new, first-time mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic were organized around two themes. First, new mothers felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their baby which was heightened by the pandemic. The challenge of meeting this responsibility was heightened in the context of societal expectations to do the 'right' thing and uncertainty and distrust around official guidance about COVID-19. Secondly, the expected transition into motherhood was altered by the pandemic. Disruption to the birthing experience, an inability to connect with close friends and family, and limited healthcare support was perceived to be detrimental. However, altered social expectations and the increased presence of the partner were perceived as positives. Conclusion: Many of the common challenges experienced by new, first-time mothers have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public policy and scientific research must target this group in order to protect this population from the negative impact of the remaining COVID-19 pandemic and any future pandemics.
... Motherhood was a key element underpinning the women's experiences of social isolation and loneliness. Postpartum and early childhood are known to be periods when mothers may feel isolated and lonely (36)(37)(38)(39)(40). Contributing factors include the burden of care and responsibility related to the mothering role, which can result in women feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and physically, psychologically and socially disconnected from the outside world (2,40). ...
... Postpartum and early childhood are known to be periods when mothers may feel isolated and lonely (36)(37)(38)(39)(40). Contributing factors include the burden of care and responsibility related to the mothering role, which can result in women feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and physically, psychologically and socially disconnected from the outside world (2,40). These emotions are also linked to women's feelings of vulnerability, instability, and alienation that can arise due to the many life changes that are occurring during this time, including shifts in their relationships with their partner, family members and friends (2,17,(38)(39)(40). For migrant women, these experiences are amplified by the resettlement context. ...
... However, for many migrant women, like the women in our study, especially single mothers, refugees and asylumseekers, the protective support system is lost with migration (8,10,41). Migrant parents are also adapting to new cultural and social norms, which can make them doubt their parental ability, and feel anxiety in their role, and/or leave them disappointed due to different expectations and ideals around family life and parenting (17,38). Language barriers, and having a precarious immigration status, further intensify the situation by reducing access to support (8,10,41). ...
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Background Migrant women with young children, including asylum seekers and refugees, have multiple vulnerability factors that put them at increased risk of social isolation and loneliness, which are associated with negative health outcomes. This study explored the experiences of social isolation and loneliness among migrant mothers with children aged 0–5 years as well as their perceptions on possible health impacts. Methods A qualitative descriptive study was conducted at La Maison Bleue, a non-profit organization providing perinatal health and social services to vulnerable women in Montreal, Canada. Recruitment and data collection occurred concurrently during the COVID-19 pandemic, between November and December 2020. Eleven women participated in individual semi-structured interviews and provided socio-demographic information. Interview data were thematically analyzed. Results Migrant women in this study described social isolation as the loss of family support and of their familiar social/cultural networks, and loneliness as the feelings of aloneness that stemmed from being a mother in a new country with limited support. Multiple factors contributed to women's and children's social isolation and loneliness, including migration status, socioeconomic circumstances, language barriers, and being a single mother. Women expressed that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing experiences of social isolation and loneliness. Mothers' experiences affected their emotional and mental health, while for children, it reduced their social opportunities outside the home, especially if not attending childcare. However, the extent to which mothers' experiences of social isolation and loneliness influenced the health and development of their children, was less clear. Conclusion Migrant mothers' experiences of social isolation and loneliness are intricately linked to their status as migrants and mothers. Going forward, it is critical to better document pandemic and post-pandemic consequences of social isolation and loneliness on young children of migrant families. Supportive interventions for migrant mothers and their young children should not only target social isolation but should also consider mothers' feelings of loneliness and foster social connectedness and belongingness. To address social isolation and loneliness, interventions at the individual, community and policy levels are needed.
... Types of loneliness identi ed Lee et al. (2019) qualitatively investigated experiences of loneliness in rst-time, non-depressed mothers [25] where both situational and transient types of loneliness were identi ed. It should be noted that Lee et al. identi ed a discrepancy in Young's (1982) conceptualization of transient loneliness. ...
... Types of loneliness identi ed Lee et al. (2019) qualitatively investigated experiences of loneliness in rst-time, non-depressed mothers [25] where both situational and transient types of loneliness were identi ed. It should be noted that Lee et al. identi ed a discrepancy in Young's (1982) conceptualization of transient loneliness. ...
... [21] While most participants in the Junttila et al. (2015) study seemed to adapt to new parenthood, lonelier parents experienced more problems with their intimate partnerships, social functioning, and mental wellbeing. [20] Factors associated with and protective of loneliness in mothers Also, across the literature, mothers frequently described motherhood as an experience imbued with loneliness, [25,29,71,72] lacking social support, [25,73] and sometimes because mothers were not satis ed with their partners' or families' contributions to parenting. [25,27,74,75] Often-cited root causes of maternal loneliness were: a lack of recognition for the di culties of being a mother; [25,75] a lack of empathy from relations; [25,75] childcare burden; [27,76,77] de cient social networks; [25,27,44,70,76] longing for friendships based on shared experience; [25,71] and discrepancies between expectations and the realities of motherhood. ...
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Background: Despite evidence that loneliness increases during times of transition, and that the incidence of loneliness is highest in young adults, loneliness during pregnancy and new parenthood has not been developed as a program of research. Because loneliness research has primarily focused on older adults and other high-risk populations, the concept of loneliness and its effects on this population are not well understood, leaving a gap in our understanding of the psychosocial needs and health risks of loneliness on pregnant people and new parents. A scoping review has been completed in order to map and synthesize the literature to date on loneliness experienced during pregnancy and the first five years of parenthood. Methods: To address the aim of this review, a wide net was cast in order to detect experiences of perinatal or parental loneliness, and/or instances where loneliness was measured in this population. Among the inclusion criteria were loneliness in people who were pregnant, who were parents in the postpartum period, or who had children aged five years or younger. A search for literature was conducted in December 2020 using nine databases: MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE (embase.com), SCOPUS (scopus.com), Cochrane Library including CENTRAL (Wiley), CINAHL (Ebscohost), PsycINFO (Ebscohost), Dissertations & Theses Global (ProQuest) and Sociological Abstracts (ProQuest) and the Web of Science Core Collection (Clarivate). Discussion: Perinatal and parental loneliness studies are limited and have rarely been targeted and developed through a program of research. Loneliness inquiry in this population has frequently been studied in relation to other concepts of interest (e.g., postpartum depression). Alternatively, the importance of loneliness has emerged from study participants as relevant to the research topic during qualitative inquiry. Across studies, the prevalence of loneliness ranged from 32% to 100%. Loneliness was commonly experienced alongside parenting difficulties, with parents feeling as though they were alone in their struggles. As loneliness has been called a sensitive indicator of wellbeing, we believe screening will help healthcare professionals identify common difficulties and early signs of depression experienced during pregnancy and parenthood. The protocol is available on Open Science Framework at DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/BFVPZ.
... The arrival of a new baby results in both continuities and changes in women's family systems and social networks [2]. Women's support networks have been found to become smaller and more homogeneous after having a baby [2] and women report feeling lonely during the transition to motherhood [3]. Relationship satisfaction in couples often declines in early parenthood [4]. ...
Article
Full-text available
Purpose Lack of social support is considered a potential risk factor for postnatal depression but limited longitudinal evidence is available. Pregnancy, when women have increased contact with healthcare services, may be an opportune time to intervene and help strengthen women’s social networks to prevent feelings of depression postnatally, particularly for those at greatest risk. Our study examined the longitudinal relationship between social support in pregnancy and postnatal depression, and whether this is moderated by age or relationship status. Methods We analysed data collected from 525 women from a diverse inner-city maternity population in England who were interviewed in pregnancy and again three months postnatally. Women provided sociodemographic information and completed self-report measures of depression (Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) and social support (Social Provisions Scale). Results Less social support in pregnancy was associated with postnatal depression, after adjusting for sociodemographic confounders and antenatal depression (Coef. = − 0.05; 95% CI − 0.10 to − 0.01; p = 0.02). There was weak evidence of a moderating effect of relationship status. Subgroup analysis showed a stronger relationship between social support in pregnancy and postnatal depression for women who were not living with a partner (Coef. = − 0.11; 95% CI − 0.21 to − 0.01; p = 0.03) than for those who were (Coef. = − 0.03; 95% CI − 0.09 to 0.02; p = 0.28). Sensitivity analysis using multiple imputations to account for missing data confirmed the main results. Conclusions Interventions that target social support in pregnancy have the potential to reduce depression postnatally. Future research should explore in greater detail which women would benefit most from which type of social support.
... It has been pointed out that women constitute a greater risk group for loneliness than men [2]. Especially, mothers who stay at home with their small children are recognized as a high-risk group for loneliness [3], it has been reported that the risk of loneliness among mothers with infants is particularly higher in Japan compared to other OECD countries [4]. These feelings of loneliness have many contributors. ...
Article
Full-text available
Background In recent years, feelings of isolation among mothers caring for small children has become a significant social issue in Japan. The purpose of this study is to develop a message to alleviate their loneliness, to evaluate the impact of social networking sites (SNS) for delivering such messages, and to propose means of more effective information transmission to promote health for mothers raising small children. Methods Our study was conducted in two stages, first an interview and then a cross-sectional study of the mothers involving a questionnaire survey. The interview was targeted two public-health nurses caring for mothers. Based on these interviews, we developed six messages intended to alleviate the mothers’ sense of loneliness, which were vetted by seven mothers. The second stage was to conduct a questionnaire survey of mothers both before and after our selected message as advertisement on Instagram and analyzed the effect. The surveys were collected during routine child health check-ups in the City of Takatsuki, Japan. Results From the six draft messages created based on interviews with public health nurses, we selected the message that most relieves the feeling of loneliness of the mothers who are raising small children. The survey questionnaire was taken by 494 mothers prior to our posting of Instagram advertisements (ads), and afterwards by 419 mothers. The percentage of mothers feeling loneliness tended to decrease after reading the messages (before ads.:8.1%, after ads.:5.8%). 8.6% of the mothers (36/419) remembered seeing the Instagram ads. Mothers with financial anxiety were significantly more likely to have remembered seeing the Instagram ads ( p < 0.01). Conclusions Our results indicate that usefulness of SNS messaging for mothers raising small children may reduce their feeling of loneliness. Among the SNS, disseminating child-rearing information on Instagram may be more effective for people with financial instability.
... In addition, this comparison revealed that the life events of the previous year played a role when differentiating between feeling or not feeling lonely in that more challenging life events were associated with more loneliness. The measure of life events included a whole range of life changes, some of which have been the object of previous studies in relation to loneliness (e.g., motherhood [27,28]), others less so (e.g., changes at work, or change of residence). Future research would do well to dedicate more attention to the role that specific life changes might play in loneliness experiences, and whether the same event differentially impacts at different ages/life stages. ...
Article
Full-text available
Almost all measures of loneliness have been developed without discussing how to best conceptualize and assess the severity of loneliness. In the current study, we adapted the four-item UCLA, so that it continued to measure frequency of loneliness, but also assessed intensity and duration, providing a measure of other aspects of loneliness severity. Using data from participants resident in the UK who completed the BBC Loneliness Experiment (N = 36,767; F = 69.6%) and Latent Class Profile Analyses, we identified four groups of people who scored high on loneliness on at least one of the three severity measures. Duration of loneliness often over months or years seemed to be particularly important in distinguishing groups. Further, group membership was predicted by important demographic and psychological variables. We discuss the findings in terms of implications for research and practice. We highlight the need to explore these profiles longitudinally to investigate how membership predicts later mental and physical health, and well-being.
... Loneliness in this population was linked to finding parenthood unexpectedly difficult, feeling vulnerable as a parent, having fewer social interactions after becoming a parent and when first-time parents felt that the support received from their partner was superficial and/or that parenting responsibility rested with them. 58 There were some studies that examined loneliness in low-income parents (n = 4) and mothers with poor health (n = 3) but were not sufficient in number to synthesise. Further studies explored loneliness in parents in relation to housing (e.g. ...
Article
Full-text available
Aims: Chronic loneliness is experienced by around a third of parents, but there is no comprehensive review into how, why and which parents experience loneliness. This scoping review aimed to provide insight into what is already known about parental loneliness and give directions for further applied and methodological research. Methods: Searches for peer-reviewed articles were undertaken in six databases: PsycINFO, Medline, CINAHL, Embase, Web of Science and Scopus, during May 2019 to February 2020. We searched for English studies which examined loneliness experienced during parenthood, including studies that involved parents with children under 16 years and living at home and excluding studies on pregnancy, childbirth or postbirth hospital care. Results: From 2566 studies retrieved, 133 were included for analysis. Most studies (n = 80) examined the experience of loneliness in specific groups of parents, for example, teenage parents, parents of a disabled child. Other studies examined theoretical issues (n = 6) or health and wellbeing impacts on parents (n = 16) and their offspring (n = 17). There were 14 intervention studies with parents that measured loneliness as an outcome. Insights indicate that parental loneliness may be different to loneliness experienced in other cohorts. There is evidence that parental loneliness has direct and intergenerational impacts on parent and child mental health. Some parents (e.g. with children with chronic illness or disability, immigrant or ethnic minority parents) also appear to be at increased risk of loneliness although evidence is not conclusive. Conclusion: This work has identified key gaps with further international, comparative and conceptual research needed.
... Social connectedness is recognized as a basic human need and reflects the need for making meaningful connections and relationships with individuals, groups and/or institutions in the community, which posit a shared sense of belonging and generate opportunities for social support. Transition into parenthood challenges social connectedness and increases mothers risk becoming more socially isolated, because of feeling and being (physically) restricted due to extended periods of breastfeeding and birth-related health complications and thus have reduced and/or limited opportunities to interact with others [52]. It is well known that a lack of social connectedness and social support could increase the risk for (postnatal) depression and anxiety [53][54][55][56]. ...
Article
Full-text available
Background The first 2 years of a child’s life have been found to be crucial to healthy growth and development. Parent support groups can help parents to promote health-related behaviours during this crucial period. The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of parents who participated in a parent support group (Parent-Child Meetings) which promoted health-related behaviours of their children, and to determine whether and how these meetings supported them in promoting these behaviours. Methods We used a qualitative study design. The parent support group consisted of weekly Parent-Child Meetings organized in a multi-ethnic, relatively low-income neighbourhood in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Data on the experiences of parents was collected through participatory observations, informal conversations ( n = 30 sessions) and semi-structured interviews ( n = 13) between April 2019 and March 2020. The data was analysed using thematic content analysis. Results Parents indicated that they experienced the parent-child meetings as enjoyable and as providing them with socio-emotional support. They reported that the meetings increased their parenting knowledge, skills and practices regarding healthy behaviours of their children and that they used this knowledge in their daily lives. They also appreciated the practical information and advice provided by experts in the meetings. Parents indicated that the positive attitude of the experts was crucial in accepting and adopting their advice. Additionally, parents valued the interactive and hands-on workshops, which integrated health-related behaviours and active play with children, as it enabled them to learn while they played with their children. Conclusion This study indicated that parent-child meetings contributed to enhancing parental knowledge, skills and practices regarding healthy behaviours of their children. This could potentially benefit the health of children during the first 2 years of their lives. In particular, the peer support of other parents, the hands-on workshops, and the concrete advice and information provided in an informal setting were highly valued by parents. Future parent support groups could use these findings to improve their meetings or to start meetings that better suit the needs of parents with young children.
Article
This paper extends debate on the use of social networking sites in social science research, specifically focusing on their role in creating ‘emotionally connected’ research spaces. Drawing on the authors' experiences of using a closed Facebook group as a platform for collecting women's ‘birth stories’, we explore to potential of Facebook to support the transcendence of traditional researcher/participant relations and empower participants through creating something akin to a ‘Community of Practice’. The project also contributed to a process of inter and intra-personal self-care, which, as a research team, we recognise as an important driver of our research agendas. We acknowledge that the virtual cannot be all-inclusive but conclude that this methodological approach has generated both a rich dataset and a series of emotions for researchers and participants that added value to the research process. We also argue that this approach captured a greater depth of experience and diversity of voice than would have been the case if we had chosen to use traditional face-to-face methods. We call for future research to focus on better understanding some of the challenges related to the appropriateness of Facebook as a platform for hearing the voices of particular socio-cultural groups.
Article
Mothers' social integration with other mothers in the same residential area has been shown to be beneficial for their health and well-being. The socio-psychological resources afforded by other mothers aid the transition to motherhood. However, much less is known about the processes whereby mothers integrate with other local mothers. Therefore, we analysed first-time mothers' experiences of social integration with other mothers in the same neighbourhood. Through three waves of semi-structured interviews, we followed eight Finnish first-time mothers' everyday lives for a year. The narrative analysis of these longitudinal interviews revealed three story types – social integration, social exclusion and social disconnection – that depicted mothers' different experiences of integration with other local mothers. The perceived similarity of experiences, goals and interests related to motherhood enhanced the development of a shared sense of identity and supported integration with other local mothers. We discuss our findings in relation to the social identity model of identity change (SIMIC).
Article
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Western culture has become obsessed with happiness, while treating negative emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety as pathological and nonnormative. These salient cultural norms communicate social expectations that people should feel “happy” and not “sad.” Previous research has shown that these “social expectancies” can increase feelings of sadness and reduce well-being. In this study, we examined whether these perceived social pressures might also lead people to feel socially disconnected—lonely—when they do experience negative emotions? Drawing on a large stratified sample prescreened for depressive symptoms and utilizing both trait measures and moment-to-moment “experience sampling” over a 7-day period, we found that people who felt more negative emotions and also believe that others in society disapprove of these emotions reported more loneliness. Our data suggest that social pressures to be happy and not sad can make people feel more socially isolated when they do feel sad.
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