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



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.
Lonely within the mother", an exploratory study of first-time mothers' experiences of
Katherine Lee, Konstantina Vasileiou, Julie Barnett
In Press, Journal of Health Psychology
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.
Loneliness; Health Psychology; Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis; Qualitative
Methods, Women’s Health, Breastfeeding
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
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
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
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
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
Study design
A qualitative cross-sectional study employing semi-structured interviews was designed.
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.
A small, homogeneous sample is recommended for IPA studies (Smith, 2004). With
permission from forum moderators, seven participants were purposively sampled from
( and (city) 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
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
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).
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
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,
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
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
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.”
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:
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
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
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.”
As well as reduced contact with work friends, participants reorganised hierarchies
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
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
narrated concerned their relationships with their partner but also extended to other new
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
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:
“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
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.
The first aim of the study was to understand the nature and context of first-time
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
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
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-
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,
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
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.
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’
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
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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... Additionally, loneliness included boredom, as well as fear, emptiness, anxious feelings, hopelessness, and a feeling of loss (Cela & Fokkema, 2017, Dahlberg, 2007, Firmin et al., 2014, Graneheim & Lundman, 2010, Hemberg et al., 2021, Heravi-Karimooi et al., 2010, Karnick, 2008, Kirova-Petrova, 2000, Kristensen, 1995, McInnis & White, 2001, McKenna-Plumley et al., 2021, Ojembe & Ebe Kalu, 2018, Park et al., 2019, Rew, 2000, Rokach, 1988, Rönkä et al., 2018, Smith, 2012, Tiilikainen & Seppänen, 2017. Anger and frustration regarding the experience of loneliness were sometimes reported (Hemberg et al., 2021, Karnick, 2008, Kristensen, 1995, Lee et al., 2019, McKenna-Plumley et al., 2021, Rokach, 1988. In some cases, guilt and jealousy were also expressed (Firmin et al., 2014, McKenna-Plumley et al., 2021. ...
... Self-perception could also be impacted by loneliness, making people feel inferior (Herz & Lalander, 2017, Karnick, 2008, Kirova-Petrova, 2000, McInnis & White, 2001, Morgan & Burholt, 2020, Rokach, 1988. Loneliness could damage self-esteem, which was also a causal factor for loneliness, and bring about selfcontempt (Dahlberg, 2007, Davidson, 1995, Graneheim & Lundman, 2010, Hemberg et al., 2021, Karnick, 2008, Kirova-Petrova, 2000, Lee et al., 2019, Morgan & Burholt, 2020, Park et al., 2019, Rokach, 1988, Rönkä et al., 2018, Sawir et al., 2008, Smith, 2012. Perceptions of incompleteness and lack of meaning in life were also salient (Graneheim & Lundman, 2010, Hemberg et al., 2021, Smith, 2012, Sullivan et al., 2016, Tiilikainen & Seppänen, 2017. ...
... Lonely individuals, particularly older ones, suggested that coping with loneliness was one's own responsibility (Barke, 2017, Davidson, 1995, McInnis & White, 2001, Morgan & Burholt, 2020, Rönkä et al., 2018, Sullivan et al., 2016, Wright-St Clair & Nayar, 2020. However, loneliness could create a passive or negative attitude towards socializing, which could reinforce loneliness by reducing the inclination or ability to connect or otherwise manage the feeling (Berguno et al., 2004, Cela & Fokkema, 2017, Dahlberg, 2007, Davidson, 1995, Kirova-Petrova, 2000, Kristensen, 1995, Lee et al., 2019, Martin et al., 2014, McInnis & White, 2001, Morgan & Burholt, 2020, Rokach, 1988, Smith, 2012. ...
Purpose: Loneliness is a fundamentally subjective experience that is common at various life stages. Studies have qualitatively explored loneliness, but a comprehensive overview is lacking. This research therefore provides a fine-grained review of studies on loneliness experiences across the lifespan. Methods: A systematic review and thematic synthesis were performed on studies that qualitatively investigated experiences of loneliness in people of any age from non-clinical populations. Sensitivity analysis assessed the impact of lower-quality studies and specific age groups on the findings. Results: Twenty-nine studies of 1,321 participants aged between 7 and 103 were included. Fifteen descriptive themes and three overarching analytical themes were developed: (1) Loneliness is both psychological and contextual, (2) Loneliness centres on feelings of meaningful connection and painful disconnection, and (3) Loneliness can exist in a general, pervasive sense or can relate to specific other people or relationship types. Some features were particularly pertinent to children, younger adults, and older adults, respectively. Conclusions: Loneliness involves a primarily aversive psychological experience of perceived disconnection which is linked to physical, personal, and socio-political contexts and can be pervasive or relate to specific relationships or relationship types. An awareness of context, life stage, and personal experiences is essential to understand loneliness.
... Women are vulnerable to loneliness during their transition to motherhood [12,13]. A recent poll in the UK found more than half of parents had experienced loneliness since becoming a parent and a fifth had felt lonely in the last week [14]. ...
... Recent cross-national online research emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic has found that 53.5% of perinatal women have experienced high levels of loneliness during the pandemic [17]. Qualitative evidence shows new mothers link their loneliness to a lack of social contact, a change in their sense of identity, a lack of empathy and support from peers and family and critical self-comparisons with perceived mothering norms [12,18]. ...
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Background Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby is a time of great transition and upheaval. Women often experience social isolation and loneliness at this time and may develop depression, particularly in the postnatal period. Qualitative studies have reported that loneliness is also a feature of perinatal depression. However, until now there has been no attempt to synthesise research exploring the links between loneliness and perinatal depression. This study’s aim was to explore existing qualitative evidence to answer two research questions: What are the experiences of loneliness for women with perinatal depression? What helps and what makes loneliness worse for women with perinatal depression? Methods A qualitative meta-synthesis retrieved primary qualitative studies relevant to the research questions. Four electronic databases were systematically searched (Ovid MEDLINE®; PsycINFO; Embase; Web of Science). Papers were screened according to pre-defined inclusion criteria and assigned a quality score. Thematic analysis was used to identify major overarching themes in the literature. Results Twenty-seven relevant qualitative studies were included. Themes relating to the interaction between perinatal depression and loneliness included self-isolation and hiding symptoms due to stigma of perinatal depression and fear of judgement as a ‘bad mother’; a sudden sense of emotional disconnection after birth; and a mismatch between expected and actual support provided by partner, family and community. There was also a double burden of loneliness for women from disadvantaged communities, due to increased stigma and decreased social support. Validation and understanding from healthcare professionals, peer support from other mothers with experience of perinatal depression, and practical and emotional family support were all important factors that could ameliorate loneliness. Conclusions Loneliness appears to play a central role in the experience of perinatal depression based on the frequency with which it emerged in women’s accounts. The findings provide a foundation for the development of further theories about the role of loneliness in perinatal depression and evidence in which future psychological and social intervention design processes can be rooted. Addressing stigma and offering culturally appropriate professional and peer support are potential targets for interventions that could help women with perinatal depression, particularly in disadvantaged communities, feel less lonely. Trial registration Prospero registration: RecordID = 251,936.
... Second, the theory examines narratives, which Bakhtin (1981Bakhtin ( , 1984 explained are mechanisms used to make sense of difficult events. The postpartum period can be a difficult event filled with challenges (Ali, 2018;Davies et al., 2021;Lee et al., 2019). The narratives one shares, reads, and hears create lasting impacts on our sense of self, including our values, beliefs, and morals (Koenig-Kellas, 2018). ...
... Some mothers lack confidence -even competence at mothering -in living up to perfection set forth by societies' master narratives (Wardrop & Popadiuk, 2013). Other mothers experience profound loneliness but won't socialize due to overwhelming fears of looking like a failure (Lee et al., 2019). New mothers feel alone, isolated, and overwhelmed; some feel misunderstood and betrayed; finally, some feel that they would be judged by others, so they need to carry the burden by themselves (Keefe et al., 2021). ...
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In this study, we examine narratives to discover how new mothers narrate about the postpartum period if the experiences mirror that of the master narrative, and how new mothers make sense of postpartum anxiety. We explored 22 narratives collected between October 2019 and March 2020 for insights into how new mothers’ narratives complemented or refuted the master “good” mother narrative. Data were analyzed based on Tracy’s (2018) iterative process. While the master narrative of “good mother” was alluded to, new mothers’ discourse diverged and refuted the master narrative of how mothers should mother postpartum. New mothers say the lack of warning about the postpartum period impacts themselves, their bond with their babies, and their spousal relationships. As a result, new mothers highlighted how bingos and mom guilt caused their anxiousness. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.
... Moreover, a compelling correlation has been identified between parental anxiety and the incidence of anxiety disorders in their offspring [3,4]. Specifically, mothers of infants appear to be particularly susceptible to feelings of loneliness [5], with these feelings contributing to higher levels of anxiety around child-rearing due to psychological health implications [6]. Therefore, addressing the issue of parenting anxiety, especially in mothers at the heart of this predicament, is of importance. ...
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In digital societies, the use of smart devices to solve childcare problems has become commonplace. Mothers are influenced both positively and negatively by smart devices used to resolve childcare concerns. Focusing on parental self-efficacy, this study identified the factors associated with relief and anxiety caused by the use of smart devices to eliminate parenting concerns among mothers with infants. A random sampling cross-sectional survey was administered to 257 Japanese mothers with infants aged 6–11 months. Structural equation modeling was used to explain the relief and anxiety caused by their use of smart devices in terms of maternal demographics, parental self-efficacy, smart-device dependence, and confidence in their ability to discriminate information. Mothers with high parental self-efficacy experienced increased relief and reduced anxiety by using smart devices to address concerns about child-rearing practices. Mothers who were highly dependent on smart devices felt more secure with their use of smart devices. Homemakers and highly educated mothers who used smart devices because of concerns regarding child health and development experienced more anxiety. Parenting professionals need to recognize the effectiveness of smart devices as a tool to relieve anxiety in parenting and provide additional support for parents to improve their parenting self-efficacy.
... Everything took forever because we couldn't leave the room. (P09, multiparous, 3 wk post partum) 21 [My husband] and I would meet outside the elevators and talk about the parking, so whoever was not visiting at that point would go wait in the car, and then one of the nurses had mentioned to us … "I don't know if you realize, but everything that you're seeing in the media is happening right behind here and on this level." … After that, I was just very nervous, I guess, of taking something into the NICU. ...
Background: The social isolation and safety measures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic differentially burdened pregnant and postpartum people, disrupting health care and social support systems. We sought to understand the experiences of people navigating pre- and postnatal care, from pregnancy through to the early postpartum period, during the pandemic. Methods: In this qualitative investigation, we conducted semistructured interviews with people residing in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, during the second half of pregnancy and again at 4-6 weeks' post partum between June 2020 and July 2021. Interviews were conducted remotely (via Zoom or telephone) and focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pre- and postnatal care, birth and labour planning, and the birthing experience. We used content and thematic analysis to analyze the data, and checked patterns using NVivo. Results: We interviewed 19 people during the second half of pregnancy and 18 of these people at 4-6 weeks' post partum. We identified 7 themes/subthemes describing how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their experiences: disrupted support systems, isolation, disrupted health care experiences (pre- and postnatal care, and labour and birth/hospital protocols), violated social norms (including typical rituals such as baby showers), impact on mental health and unexpected benefits (such as a no-visitor policy in hospitals after the birth, which provided a quiet period to bond with baby). Interpretation: Pregnant and postpartum people were uniquely vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic and would have benefited from increased access to support in both health care and social settings. Future work should investigate maternal and infant/child functioning and behaviour to assess the long-term impact of the pandemic on Canadian families and developing children, with an aim to increase support where necessary.
... For years, socially constructed isolation during the postpartum period has been a documented challenge (Nowland et al., 2021). Mothers in particular report feelings of isolation and loneliness when transitioning to parenthood (Lee et al., 2019;McLaren, 2018;Taylor et al., 2021), which can increase the risk of developing moderate to severe mental health challenges including postpartum blues or depression (Boudiaf et al., 2022). Public health measures aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19 have compounded feelings of isolation and loneliness during the postpartum period (Gilbert, 2021;Joy et al., 2020;Kynø et al., 2021;Ollivier et al., 2021). ...
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Virtual spaces that allow parents in the postpartum period to connect, support each other, and exchange information have been increasing in popularity. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents had to rely on virtual platforms as a primary means to connect with others and attend to their postpartum health. This study explored virtual postpartum support sessions through the web-based videoconferencing software, Zoom. Guided by feminist poststructuralism and sociomaterialism, we held seven virtual support sessions for parents caring for a baby 0-12 months in age, in Canada, and interviewed 19 participants about their experiences in the sessions. Our methodological approach allowed us to analyze discourses of (1) parenthood, (2) material realities of virtual environments, and (3) support and information on this virtual platform. The purpose of this research was to understand how technology influences postpartum support and learning through online videoconferencing for parents. Our findings document an overarching discourse of Zoom etiquette by which muting was a discursive practice that all participants used. The consistent use of the mute button while not talking structured conversation in virtual postpartum sessions and resulted in three themes: (1) minimizing disruptions; (2) taking turns; and (3) staying on task. The norm of using the mute button changed how parents received and gave support and information. Based on findings and broader literature, we discuss considerations for facilitation of virtual postpartum support sessions.
... Additionally, the group aspect provides built-in peer support and sharing, which has the potential to decrease isolation that is detrimental to well-being. 5 New mothers are prone to experiences of loneliness and isolation, 6,7 and thus applying the value of peer support services 8 may be considerably beneficial to the postpartum population. Members of gCBT can provide validation and normalization of experiences, and the group can allow for sharing of how participants have found application of CBT skills helpful or applicable. ...
... This support group should help women increase their attention to their emotions, sensations and fantasies about themselves as mothers and their children. Providing a network of support from the early stages of pregnancy could increase social recognition of a future mother's role, thus helping women in the transition to motherhood (Lee et al., 2019). ...
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Introduction Psychosocial risks increase the levels of not-integrated/ambivalent and restricted/disengaged representations during pregnancy, but no study has specifically analysed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal representation styles. Objectives (1) to compare maternal representation styles in primiparous women who became pregnant before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and (2) to analyse the content of representation styles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Methods A total of 37 Italian pregnant women were recruited from 2019 to 2021. The sample was divided into two groups: the pre-COVID-19 group (22 women, mean age = 33.14 years; SD = 3.78) and the COVID-19 group (15 women, mean age = 35.9 years; SD = 4.6). Interviews on maternal representations during pregnancy were administered and analysed for style and content. Results: Women during the COVID-19 pandemic reported more restricted/disengaged and less integrated/balanced representation styles than women pre-COVID-19. Content analysis showed that the COVID-19 pandemic led women to focus more on concrete aspects of pregnancy in lieu of emotional aspects, thus leading them to develop more restricted/disengaged representation styles. Conclusions for practice In future pandemics pregnant women should be supported in focusing their attention to emotions, sensations and fantasies about themselves as mothers and their children.
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Introduction There is increasing recognition that raising a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is stressful and challenging, particularly for mothers in resource-constrained countries. The aim of this study was to learn more about the experiences of black African mothers raising children with ASD and to gain a better understanding of the care burden. Methods Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine purposively recruited mothers of children with ASD and analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Results The findings revealed that caring for children with ASD puts a tremendous psychological, emotional, and financial strain on mothers. Mothers commonly faced social judgment and stigma, which manifested as internalized self-blame, isolation, and social exclusion for both themselves and their children. Conclusion The findings highlight the critical need to increase psychosocial support for mothers of children with ASD who live in resource-constrained countries.
It has been known that the factors such as social isolation, restrictions, health concerns, and weakened support networks experienced during the pandemic period has positive and negative effects on new mothers both in the prenatal and postnatal period. Therefore, it is important to comprehensively examine the experiences of mothers in terms of caregiving responsibilities, relationships, and coping with new motherhood during the COVID-19 period. Accordingly, in this study, it was aimed to have information about the experiences of new mothers during the COVID-19 period. In this study, information was obtained through semi-structured interviews with 16 female participants who became mothers for the first time during the pandemic period. The ages of the participants ranged from 26 to 38 (M = 32, SD = 3.48). A total of 14 questions were developed by the researchers in order to have in-depth information about women’s experiences of becoming a mother during the COVID-19 period, the effects of the pandemic period on their family life, coping strategies in the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether they received social support during the baby care process. The interviews were individually conducted on online platforms. The obtained data were evaluated by content analysis. Interrater reliability was found to vary between .81 and .91. The results indicated that being a first-time mother and being a working mother during the COVID-19 period is disadvantageous. It was observed that mothers frequently used active coping strategies and most frequently received social support from family of origin and spouse. Moreover, most of the participants stated that father-infant relationships were positively affected by the pandemic process. Mothers reported financial loss, emotional distress, and difficulties in accessing social support during the pandemic, highlighting the challenges of first-time motherhood during this period.
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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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Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. In this meta-analytic review, our objective is to establish the overall and relative magnitude of social isolation and loneliness and to examine possible moderators. We conducted a literature search of studies (January 1980 to February 2014) using MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Social Work Abstracts, and Google Scholar. The included studies provided quantitative data on mortality as affected by loneliness, social isolation, or living alone. Across studies in which several possible confounds were statistically controlled for, the weighted average effect sizes were as follows: social isolation odds ratio (OR) = 1.29, loneliness OR = 1.26, and living alone OR = 1.32, corresponding to an average of 29%, 26%, and 32% increased likelihood of mortality, respectively. We found no differences between measures of objective and subjective social isolation. Results remain consistent across gender, length of follow-up, and world region, but initial health status has an influence on the findings. Results also differ across participant age, with social deficits being more predictive of death in samples with an average age younger than 65 years. Overall, the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality. © The Author(s) 2015.
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Most people have experienced loneliness and have been able to overcome it to reconnect with other people. In the current review, we provide a life-span perspective on one component of the evolutionary theory of loneliness-a component we refer to as the reaffiliation motive (RAM). The RAM represents the motivation to reconnect with others that is triggered by perceived social isolation. Loneliness is often a transient experience because the RAM leads to reconnection, but sometimes this motivation can fail, leading to prolonged loneliness. We review evidence of how aspects of the RAM change across development and how these aspects can fail for different reasons across the life span. We conclude with a discussion of age-appropriate interventions that may help to alleviate prolonged loneliness. © The Author(s) 2015. Access to on-line version of the paper at
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Many mothers initiate breastfeeding, but some of these experience difficulties. This study has two aims in order to contribute to the development of optimal care for these mothers: firstly to explain and understand the existential meanings of one mother's severe initial breastfeeding difficulties and how these meanings affected her continued breastfeeding and secondly, to reflect on a method for applying lifeworld hermeneutics to research on complex breastfeeding phenomena. This is an approach that acknowledges and focuses on the concrete and lived existence and what it means for humans. Within this approach, humans are understood as whole human beings interacting in the world. The study was conducted using lifeworld interviews with Anna, focusing on meanings of her difficult lived experience of initial breastfeeding. The existential interpretation suggests that such an experience can evoke existential vulnerability, a vulnerability that becomes evident in shameful feelings, such as dislike of breastfeeding, aversion to the milk-producing body and anger towards the child. Anna continued breastfeeding as a way to rid herself of the shame, hoping to be confirmed as a good mother. Such an experience may have negative consequences for the mother-child relationship and it can create fear for future breastfeeding. This study concludes that carers should be aware of individual existential dimensions for breastfeeding mothers.
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Background: Women can experience a range of psychological problems after birth, including anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders. However, research has predominantly focused on depression. Qualitative work on women’s experiences of postnatal mental health problems has sampled women within particular diagnostic categories so not looked at the range of potential psychological problems. The aims of this study were to explore how women experienced and made sense of the range of emotional distress states in the first postnatal year. Methods: A qualitative study of 17 women who experienced psychological problems in the first year after having a baby. Semi-structured interviews took place in person (n = 15) or on the telephone (n = 2). Topics included women’s experiences of becoming distressed and their recovery. Data were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Themes were developed within each interview before identifying similar themes for multiple participants across interviews, in order to retain an idiographic approach. Results: Psychological processes such as guilt, avoidance and adjustment difficulties were experienced across different types of distress. Women placed these in the context of defining moments of becoming a mother; giving birth and breastfeeding. Four superordinate themes were identified. Two concerned women’s unwanted emotions and difficulties adjusting to their new role. “Living with an unwelcome beginning” describes the way mothers’ new lives with their babies started out with unwelcome emotions, often in the context of birth and breastfeeding difficulties. All women spoke about the importance of their postnatal healthcare experiences in “Relationships in the healthcare system”. “The shock of the new” describes women’s difficulties adjusting to the demands of motherhood and women emphasised the importance of social support in “Meeting new support needs”. Conclusions: These findings emphasise the need for exploration of psychological processes such as distancing, guilt and self-blame across different types of emotional difficulties, as these may be viable target for therapeutic intervention. Breastfeeding and birth trauma were key areas with which women felt they needed support with but which was not easily available.
Book synopsis: Research Methods in Psychology has been substantially revised in its fourth edition. Continuing to offer enviable coverage of the research methods that psychology students at intermediate levels need to cover in their course, the textbook has now been broadened to cover the full suite of beginner level research methods too. The result is extensive coverage of psychological methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and a textbook that will serve students perfectly from day one in their course at university.
Doing interpretative phenomenological analysis This chapter introduces one particular form of qualitative analysis, interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and takes the reader through the stages of conducting studies employing IPA, with illustrations taken from the authors’ own research in health psychology. 1 The main aim is to provide the reader with detailed descriptions of the analytic process, and therefore the theoretical orienting material is kept to a minimum. Readers interested in knowing more about the theoretical underpinning and rationale of IPA are referred to Smith (1996). After a brief introduction, the bulk of the chapter is taken up with two extended examples of IPA in practice. In the first, an idiographic, case-study approach is outlined, where the analysis slowly builds from the reading of individual cases to claims for a group. This procedure is illustrated with material from a project on patients’ perceptions of chronic back pain. In the final The ...
This qualitative analysis investigated women's experiences of identity change in the process of becoming mothers. Thirty semistructured interviews were completed and the analysis was conducted through a grounded theory framework. The analytic process yielded results that grouped into three overarching themes. The first of these relates to the ways in which women lost themselves for a time while incorporating their children into their identities and reforming their identities. The second theme explores the expansion of the self insofar as women incorporated children into their identities and self-boundaries. The third theme explores ways that women felt that mothering and the close relationships with their children intensified their personalities and identities. Implications for future research are explored.