By Ranjana Das
29th April marks the start of the 2019 Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. This is a “week-long campaign dedicated to talking about mental illness during pregnancy or after having a baby and signposting to support for all mums. The focus is on advocating for mums affected by maternal mental health and helping them to access the information and help they need to enable recovery”, say the Perinatal Mental Health Partnership. It is making its presence felt on Twitter with useful hashtags for the week – #maternalmhmatters; #mumsmatter #maternalmentalhealthweek2019. An array of resources and activities are listed here for anyone interested in the week.
I have spent the last few years researching the role of social media in mothers’ experiences of the perinatal (early motherhood very roughly speaking) and I take the opportunity of this important week to distil some key conclusions from this work. My broadest conclusions are that –
“Digital societies are shaping maternal mental health in myriad, uneven, mixed ways, interacting with pre-existing social structures and pressures, inviting us to consider carefully, how we might involve digital technologies in supporting early motherhood”.
A few key conclusions from my (online and offline) research with mothers lead me to argue that –
Contexts of engaging with the digital are uneven
- My data clearly showed that not all mothers were online although we see high levels of engagement from those that do participate actively online.
- I found that those mothers who were online were enormously diverse in terms of degrees and nature of access, the expectations they held of online spaces and the practices which were displayed.
- This relates to work I am doing with Paul Hodkinson on fathers where there is an entire spectrum of digital engagement from complete disconnection to activism online, which much lying in between.
- Simply being online, or getting mothers online is not enough – there is wide-ranging unevenness in the content available and discourses circulating and being accessed in formal as well as informal arenas.
- The role of offline support networks, often female support networks – is far less straightforward than is expected. Their existence might be a resource – and might sometimes mean surveillance, monitoring and restraints.
- What goes on in mothers’ communities online, does not stay online, and seeps into mothers’ childcare practices, self-perceptions, sense of feeling well, and coping with the demands of perinatality. This can good, bad, or mixed.
- Migrant mothers, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, showed many accounts of isolation throughout the perinatal period, despite being surrounded by a larger extended family (and often, precisely, due to being surrounded by a larger, extended family by whom many felt surveiled and monitored).
- Amongst this group of mothers, who had an information-only, rather than connection-based approach to, and expectations of online spaces, apps emerge to be significant.
- A heavy use of internet telephony to connect with families, a larger reliance on in-person services (themselves under pressure in the UK) at children’s centers, and low use of online fora for information or support seeking came up frequently in conversations with mothers from migrant backgrounds who were also socio-economically disadvantaged.
There is much to be optimistic about
- There is often great vitality, camaraderie and agency in the support or peers at all hours of struggle, in the perinatal period.
- Many pressure-creating discourses are resisted through peer support fighting back against dominant discourses of intensive mothering and pressures to tie mother to child.
- In natural birthing and infant feeding contexts the camaraderie extended to mothers to reject and oppose perceived-to-be oppressive advice and technocratic labour cultures is significant (although this has another side as I argue below).
- Mothers value information and emotional support on well-being related issues in the perinatal period, from accessible, even lay experts online, bypassing or complementing formal sources of information.
- The online appeared to the most easily accessed realm of information, often even sought as a reflex action, on the go, from smartphones. In each case where a woman spoke of finding information online, these became the most pronounced for questions around infant feeding, infant sleep, baby weaning, and postnatal anxiety.
- Bridging roles of the online are significant for pressured NHS services – filling gaps between waiting for appointments, asking intimate queries anonymously, accessibility of night-time support when helplines close – are all significant.
- Online bonds seem to become particularly reinforced when they move offline – something evidenced also in women’s accounts of using breastfeeding support groups which have a simultaneous online and offline presence.
There is much to be cautious about
- Commercial intrusions are key here. Algorithmic targeting of adverts on social networking spaces, for instance, increasingly invite women to chart their fertility data throughout the month, aiming, seemingly, to put women ‘in control’ of their bodies – maintaining conditions for anxiety and transferring maternal bodily data into the hands of companies. Note the recent Bounty controversy.
- Over-reliance on the notion of peer support creates further burden on already burdened mothers.
- Discourses within mothers’ groups can be widely exclusive, cliquey and difficult for many mothers.
- None of these can, or should be reduced to individual mothers warring with each other – but wider, gendered pressure structures.
- Maternal mental health and anxiety is often reduced to an individual, pathological, clinical condition, when it is socially shaped, and operating within digitally mediated social structures.
- All topics about the perinatal – from pregnancy through birth to feeding – have been deeply moralised, and the digital often replays over and again these divisions and debates, exacerbating pressures on struggling mothers, warning us to be cautious about treating these spaces as utopian, solely supportive arenas.
- What’s really changed for the perinatal and for maternal wellbeing in digital societies? Three things, I suggest.
- Representations are fast changing with the abilities to curate, narrate and position perinatality visually, for instance on YouTube and Instagram feeding out of, and feeding into wider discourses and structures of (intensive) mothering.
- Connections are changing with rapidity, with the uptake of hashtags, communities, short-lived but emotionally powerful social ties, and myriad practices of exclusion and inclusion on perinatal communities online.
- Intrusions by a range of datafied structures are on the rise, seeking mothers’ bodily data and maintaining conditions of anxiety potentially
- Digital solutions seem easy to adopt – but must be approached with caution and care. The online is not a replacement for the offline, and cuts to offline care are justifiably of concern.
- A balanced, context-sensitive approach to digital spaces might lead us usefully to adopt a critically-optimistic position with regard to the use of digital spaces to support maternal wellbeing. To this end, I have listed some initial recommendations here.
My broader findings on the topic can be found here, here, here and here. A full list of my informal writing on the subject is here. My book on the topic – Early Motherhood in Digital Societies is forthcoming with Routledge.
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.