Social media and maternal perinatal wellbeing: Findings from fieldwork with new mothers

By Ranjana Das

I write this post exactly 3 years on from the long and arduous birth of my son, and my subsequent post-natal emotional adventures with the shattering, and then, reworking of my own identity. I use the word ‘adventures’ not because adventures often have heroes (and who doesn’t think of themselves as one?!), but because, true to the best of adventures, on the one hand, parts of me got to explore uncharted, difficult depths, but then, parts of me scaled unprecedented new heights, kicking off the most productive period of my work life yet. Both of these facets will possibly always lie intertwined in part-harmony and part-chaos – we are, after all, works in progress. The easiest bits of my adventures led to two funded projects on maternal mental health – one on the role of social media in perinatal wellbeing, funded by the British Academy, and the other on migrant mothers mental health communication funded by the Wellcome Trust. I have published parts of the work from the first project (see here, here and here) and this blog presents some key findings from a paper in progress.

In the current context of austerity in the UK, National Health Service (NHS) support for meeting mothers’ needs in this regard has come under significant pressure, resulting in unmet needs. As digital interfaces and sites have burgeoned, mothers have been seeking advice, support and camaraderie online particularly to cope with postnatal difficulties.

“Information” online is not just information – it comes with its own moral weight

 My findings show a complex picture in terms of what is often considered ‘just’ information women seek and provide online – information takes on a morally weighted texture and particularly so in the perinatal period.

As women increasingly go online to find information on both health issues and parenting, one of the key findings from sociological scholarship on the internet and interpersonal connections has been a now-classical duality between information (and its seeking and provision) and communication (for emotional support, for instance). Reality emerges to be somewhat more nuanced.

Runia, a second generation migrant mother from Leicester, was under cultural pressures to exclusively breastfeed on the one hand and on the other hand to move to formula to increase baby’s weight.

Well it’s alright. I mean it’s not overly scientific but it’s just people’s worries and then the information given is probably what everybody think is all different. You’re like, so is that right or is that right or you look for another source to try and figure it out.

As she struggled to establish breastfeeding she also struggled to commit to formula feeding. She said she finally found the right information, which turned out to be a version of combination feeding. Information gathered felt restrictive, and ‘wrong’ to her, something she described as ‘not scientific’ – information had its own culturally weighted tone and texture and was never quite just information.

As Glenda’s quote below reveals, rather than these discussions presenting as outright disagreements online, or even offline, mothers revealed, through talk, that they left online encounters of reading official as well as unofficial information, even when factually correct, feeling overwhelmed and burdened.

“Everywhere I looked, the literature said breast is best. I felt so insecure and   powerless.”

It seems the burden of intensive motherhood and the moral weight of motherhood rendered particularly visible in specificities of the perinatal period (especially to do with ‘contentious’ issues such as birthing, breastfeeding, weaning and infant sleep), complicates these boundaries between information and communication

Newly forged online ties reshape pre-existing offline ties in the perinatal period

I found that challenges to pre-existing offline relationships during the perinatal period, led to the increased seeking out of short-lived, but none the less emotionally impactful connections online, some of which moved offline, and some of which shaped the ways in which women dealt with offline relationships and decision-making.

When one mother, struggling perinatally, but worried about the outcomes of being honest with healthcare providers, asks for advice online, the ensuing online discussions then reshape her approach to the healthcare support system for mothers, and direct her to offline, face-to-face care. An instance of this mediating influence is captured below in one mother speaking to another online:

Be honest with your health visitor. She is trained to deal with parents who have the feelings you describe and can help you get the help and support you need. She will not take your baby away.

In the context of perinatality, there seems to be a nostalgic and idealized value added to large networks of women around women. But, as data demonstrated, particularly, although not solely, for migrant mothers, large support networks on the ground might, in many cases, perinatally, emerge to be constraining, with many of them seeking out VOIP-based calling services or cheap international calling plans to escape these constraints. Shamima, who arrived in the UK to stay with her new husband and immediately found herself having two children, both born with significant special needs and born through complex and traumatic labours, found it difficult to speak to me, in a house full of relatives offering her support with material aspects of the day to day, but from whom she says she had to hide her perinatal emotional difficulties. She relied on her husband’s income to buy phone scratch cards to call distant relatives instead, while she managed a household and looked after a tube-fed baby at home.

Summing up

My findings consistently reveal how digitally mediated maternal relationships or online platforms for mothers are emancipatory and restraining at the same time

There is no dramatic either/or picture here. Online interpersonal connections in maternal wellbeing are complex. My aim was not to promise dramatic or necessarily straightforward tools with which to make sense of perinatal interpersonal relationships on digital sites, but to suggest, instead, that the findings presented take forward the conversation, both on interpersonal relationships in the context of digital sites and maternity, and on perinatal wellbeing that has largely, until now, been studied in its offline contexts.

I acknowledge the British Academy for funding this work, the many women who shared their stories with me, Sanjukta Das for her comments, and Paul Hodkinson for critique and commentary on various aspects of this research.


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