“There is a ‘good mother’ stereotype within every culture. The criteria for this ideal will vary, but no matter what a woman does as a mother, she strives to reach the ‘good mother’ standard and feels judged for not achieving it,” says Virginia Schmied, a professor of midwifery at Western Sydney University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.
Anxiety about falling short of this standard can have serious effects on both the mother and child. As well as experiencing an increased risk of postnatal depression, womenwho are anxious during pregnancy are more likely to give birth prematurely, or have a baby with low birth weight, which can influence long-term health and social outcomes.
Research led by Schmied and the Reconceptualising Mothering Narratives team, including other researchers in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and Western believe that changing the way we talk about motherhood and mothering may reduce anxiety levels.
Schmied and colleagues wondered if warm and positive messages from experienced mothers could change the high expectations many hold about mothering and reduce anxiety levels in new mothers. This led them to launch the Mother’s Day Letter Project in May 2018.
More than 150 letters were received from Australian mothers, aged between 28 and 69 years, sharing generous words of encouragement and support, some of which were hand-delivered to new mothers at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital on Mother’s Day. The researchers found that when new mothers understood that it’s normal to have concerns about parenting, it was a first step in transforming the damaging ‘good mother’ stereotype into one that promotes and enacts social valuing of diverse mothering and parenting practices. Recipients said the letters made them feel valued.
Need to know
- Maternal anxiety can have a serious impact on both mother and child.
- Letting new mothers know that it’s normal to have parenting concerns can alleviate anxiety.
- More than 250 letters were received in 2018 and 2019. Letters were delivered to new mothers in four Sydney Hospitals on Mother’s Day May 2018 and 2019.
Schmied and her team also believe continuity of care is essential for early identification of maternal anxiety. “Over time, midwives are able to build a relationship with a woman so they can more easily detect any changes in mood and behaviour and take steps to help her.”
However, Australia’s fragmented maternity care system, where mothers end up seeing a number of midwives and other health professionals before, during and after birth, makes it difficult for women’s worries to be addressed and for anxiety to be identified in a timely manner.
Parenting services such as Karitane have partnered with Schmied, her colleagues Professor Hannah Dahlen, Distinguished Professor Lynn Kemp, and others, to conduct two Australian government-funded studies investigating screening and referral for women who need support before and after birth.
Grainne O’Loughlin, CEO of Karitane says “Virginia and her team’s work has helped us to understand the importance of early screening for anxiety.”
Some 20% of new mothers report feeling anxious, however this number could be significantly higher as many women don’t seek help, while others can slip through the healthcare system.
Schmied and the team hope these initiatives develop into new ways of talking about mothers. Their ultimate goal is that all new mothers in Australia have access to continuity of midwifery care and receive a letter of welcome, encouragement and support from another mother. The initiative is growing. In 2019, Schmied and her colleagues are partnering with Stockland to gather letters and deliver them to hospitals in Western Sydney.
Hey gorgeous Mama!
You did it! Your baby is here! You are amazing! My little tip for you as you embark on this glorious journey, is to trust yourself. You have been growing this beautiful baby in your womb for so many months, and although you couldn’t see that cute face and those little toes, you were feeling your baby in a way no one else has been or ever will! So who knows your baby best Mama? You do. Trust what you know and what you feel. Don’t let anyone plant any seeds of doubt in your heart or mind! You can do this. Yes, you need information and tips and ideas, and these will be shared with you in abundance I’m sure. Trust yourself to learn. Trust yourself during trial and error. We’ve all been there.
Meet the Academic | Professor Virginia Schmied
Virginia Schmied is Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Family and Community Health (FaCH) research group. She is a registered midwife and a registered nurse with experience extends across clinical practice, education, research and consultancy. Professor Schmied has worked in other tertiary institutions and as a senior manager in the public sector. She holds a Visiting Professorship at University of Central Lancashire (UK) and an Adjunct Professorship at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Professor Schmied is a leading Australian researcher in midwifery and child and family health. Her program of scholarship, teaching and research is grounded in social science theory and methods and focuses on transition to motherhood, perinatal mental health, breastfeeding and infant feeding decisions, postnatal care, effective models to support vulnerable families, family centered care in NICU, strengthening the universal health services for families and children and the role of the child and family health nurse.
She has published over 80 refereed journal articles, book chapters and published reports and regularly presents (including as a key note speaker) at national and international conferences. She is particularly skilled in building collaborative teams and has used opportunities for seed funding to grow teams/networks, to publish findings and reports and then to apply for competitive funding.
Higher Degree Research at Western
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Future-Care is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.