Sunday 13 July 2014

Gender and the Transition to Parenthood

Parenting has been highly gendered through the breadwinner model of the family - male breadwinner, female carer - and yet the single most significant development in the second part of the twentieth century has been changes to gendered roles. Large numbers of women have entered the workforce, this is evident all round. The vast majority of couples aspire to a form of equal or egalitarian family while there are significant trends towards gendered roles after the birth of an infant.

The Gottman Institute in the United States have contributed much to this area. This research has been brought together in a join project by VicHealth and Whitehorse Community Health Services. The report is titled: Baby Makes 3 - Respect, Responsibility and Equality (a google search on the title will find a pdf copy). The project emphasises the importance of promoting respectful relationships particularly in the early years after the birth of an infant, during the Transition to Parenthood. This is work that is also critical to the prevention of violence against women; an objective that is set out in the above mentioned report.

The Gottman Institute have also set up a Relationship Blog in which they canvas related issues. You can see this at:

For now, Joan

Sunday 22 June 2014

Book Review - And then I peed my pants ... my misadventures in new motherhood, Megan Phillipson

My two offspring are now young adults but over many years I’ve been interested in all things maternal and have made an occupation of reading related texts. My interest spans both the academic and the popular and though I’ve made a concerted effort I can’t keep pace with the output.

Women across the western world are having their first child later in life. They often have both academic and workplace achievements. They’ve travelled, they’ve shared houses, they’ve often lived with their partner for some years beforehand and know each other well.  The vast majority of couples today aspire to a form of gender equal or egalitarian family and yet after the birth there are trends towards gendered roles. The evidence shows that the birth of an infant is a critical life stage and there is often a gap between expectations and experience.

Though there is little reference to these wider trends, assertions such as these underlie Philippson’s book. She writes in the first person and thus leads her reader through her innermost thoughts and reactions up to her child’s first birthday. We quickly learn that the birth was traumatic and even after an event filled year Megan cast back a dissonant eye. I was a mature aged mum. I had my first child in my early 40s and second a couple of years later. And though my partner and I were amazed by the unrelenting requirements for the care of an infant and then a toddler, I can see we had it relatively easy.

I understand that the experience of birth and beyond are as individual as there are people but Megan and her husband faced challenges. There were continuing problems with breastfeeding. I don’t think this is uncommon. A good friend of mine had to give up trying very early on but Megan was heroically persistent. Likewise, I’ve heard of these ‘night games’ with lengthy and unrelenting crying but thankfully this wasn’t the case for us. Statistics on these kinds of issues would make for interesting reading, though it is well known that maternal fatigue is universal and difficult. Across the research there is recognition of the need to improve support services for young families while the trend seems to be in the other direction, dependent on location.

I’m glad I’ve read Megan’s book. This is a year-in-the-life of a new young family. The book isn’t simply easy to read, it leads you through, wanting to know and experience what comes next. I imagine that Megan may be met with hugs and kisses from her readership. I know I want to thank her for her honesty, but I also want to congratulate her for her cleverness. It’s no mean feat to get through a tough first year with a baby but it’s great to have done so while eloquently sharing your story. Megan’s book will now be shelved among favourites such as The Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre and Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich but these are another story. 

Monday 5 May 2014

The Pleasures of Reading

There is a dance that appears out of nowhere, steps we don’t know we know until using them to calm our baby. This dance is something we learn in our sleep, from our own hearts, from our parents, going back and back through all of our ancestors. Men and women do the same dance and acquire it without a thought. Graceful, eccentric, this wavelike sway is a skilled graciousness of the entire body. Parents possess and lose it after the first fleeting months but that’s all right because already it has been passed on – the knowledge lodged deep within the comforted baby.
(from: The Blue Jay’s Dance, L. Edrich)

Well-being for me has been about connecting with others through the written word and this has been amply demonstrated in my experience of being a mother. I was a first time mum after having completed a Master of Arts in Gender and Human Geography. I was a child of the '60s. I had traveled, studied, and found interesting work and even at the age of 40 could well have filled another ten years. The options were many, the prospects unknown, and yet we took the plunge. I say we because it was, and still is, important to me that if I were to have children it would have to be a shared experience and commitment, otherwise no way. I loved being pregnant, the birth was an incredible experience, both good and bad, and here we were with a baby. I had entered Motherland and was 'rapt. 

The experience of being a mother, however, wasn't quite what I had thought it would be. To be honest I felt my life was a whole new ball game and I needed to reset the boundaries, learn the terrain and do a whole lot of adapting. As it turned out, more by circumstance than design, I discovered numerous books that talked about so many others who had gone before me. I was totally engaged and if you asked anyone who knows me the topic of motherhood became a recurring reference point in conversation.

The 1970s spawned some excellent texts on being a mother, many of which hold up today and Adrienne Rich’s, Of Woman Born is one such example. As Rich is a poet this is beautifully written and spans philosophy, history, sociology and poetry – drawing these threads together while reflecting on her life and experience with her own children. This book is political and it sets a steep agenda for change that was necessarily a part of 1970s movements, and going back to it reminds me of an idealism that was a characterising feature. Nevertheless, a central contribution is a distinction that Rich made between the experience of being a mother and an institutionalization of motherhood that is perpetuated through social policy and practice.

Another by Jane Lazarre The Mother Knot was important to me when my children were small. This became a chance meeting with a friend, someone I could understand and who, in turn, seemed to understand me. Lazarre talked about her everyday experiences of being a mum, the good and the bad, while leaving room for ambivalence and uncertainty. I discovered that Michael Leunig has a talented sister Mary Leunig who published a series of insightful drawings reflecting on mums, dads and the domestic in There’s no place like home; Black and White and Grey; A Piece of Cake and One Big Happy Family. You can see more on these on her internet site. Another that I enjoyed when my kids were little was The mother trip. Ariel Gore says, now is the time to develop a serious relationship with your couch; a prospect that had already become a part of my everyday life.

A friend bought me a copy of the Myths of Motherhood by Shari Thurer. I loved reading this jaunt through history from cave woman to modern day mums. The incidence of infanticide up until the early 20th century was a shock but also the effect of current insights into the subconscious that challenge parents to come up with new ways of discipline so as not to scar our children’s sense of self. We don’t want to give our children destructive messages that can become self-perpetuating, so we strive to communicate the positive while providing behavioural boundaries.

Over recent years I have completed a doctorate asking why is it that many women grapple with issues related to identity when they become first time mothers. Why is it that a substantial proportion of couples who set out to achieve equal, or egalitarian, caring routines have been unable to do so. These questions have led me to explore maternal subjectivity and the social structuring of women within families. It seems to me that modern women and men, are pioneering new ways of being, and new ways of bringing up children, if only the social system could catch up and accommodate, rather than hamper our efforts. I have set up an internet site at www.maternalhealthandwellbeing and launched online professional development courses. I commend to you the power of reading and who knows you too may be bitten by the bug and become one of the many who have taken to the pen to tap into the very deep well that can be unearthed by parenthood. 

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Comparative charts on family make-up, dynamics and policies for the OECD (including Australia)

Here is a link to an interesting site that provides comparative figures from OECD countries (including Australia) on family make-up, dynamics and policies. 

Among the charts on the site is one that compares OECD country payments and services to families.

Australia is high on cash payments and low on services.

In order to access these sites you can hold the mouse over the link and press control - if this doesn't work you can highlight the link press control c (copy) and then put the mouse on the address site (at the top) and press control v (paste).

Monday 3 March 2014

Mothers and the Transition to Parenthood

The early years for infants and children are widely recognised as critical for brain development. An important contributing factor to the wellbeing of these infants and children is necessarily the health and their mums and their dads. How can we talk about children without reference to these wider support networks? We can't, as a society, provide for those all important social connections that are a necessary part of the developing kin relationships. If we are to take those early years seriously we need to support these young families. These are significant social and cultural events that have been highly medicalized.

The National Women's Health Policy 2010 emphasised the importance of recognising the 'social determinants of health' and particularly in this period of changing gendered roles we need to recognise and respond to how this is being played out within families. 

A major European study drawing from both quantitative and qualitative findings from eight countries on work–family boundaries concluded that:

 ‘gender shapes parenthood and makes motherhood different from fatherhood both in everyday family life and in workplaces (Lewis and Smithson 2006, 13). 

This is a finding that is echoed in the assertion by McHale et al. (2004, 725) that:

‘mothers, but not fathers, see themselves as ultimately responsible for child care’. 

The ‘transition to parenthood’ was identified by Lewis and Smithson as critical in attempts to achieve gender equal outcomes. A claim substantiated by Australian research by Baxter, Hewitt and Haynes (2008) in relation to the development of a gender wage gap, labelled ‘the motherhood wage penalty’; another proposition that is substantiated by multiple studies. 

Throughout the twentieth century the Maternal and Child Health Services have been primarily concerned with infant and child health and this remains the case today. There are moves to change the name to Child and Family Health. Yet, I ask, how can infants and children prosper if their mothers and fathers are struggling? An international body of research on the Transition to Parenthood finds high levels of depression, high levels of marital dissatisfaction and there are legendary issues related to identity for women as new mothers today. 

In 2010 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare stated that - 1 in 5 - or 20% of mothers with children aged 24 months or less have been diagnosed with depression. More than half of these mothers reported that their depression was perinatal (that is, the depression was diagnosed from pregnancy until the child's first birthday), and the rate of anxiety went much higher. 

The response in Australia to Perinatal Depression has been highly medicalized while the literature on depression most often emphasises the critical role of partner support in the early years after the birth. The related health services are patchy with an emphasis on the health and wellbeing of infants and children. The Post and Antenatal Depression agency in Victoria (among others) needs to fund raise so as to maintain and expand their services see: http: 

A comparison of government spending on the family of OECD countries shows that Australia is high on the list for cash payments while close to 30th for spending on family support. This was a trend that the speaker to the report suggested that we change. You can see comparative OECD data at:

These are issues and topics that I will pursue through this blog. 

AIHW, 2010, Perinatal depression Data from the 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey, Information Paper. AIHW, Canberra

Aust. Gov., Dept., Health and Ageing, 2010, National Women's Health Policy 2010, Canberra 

Lewis Suzan, and Janet Smithson. 2006. Gender parenthood and the changing European workplace: Young adults negotiating the work-family boundary TRANSITIONS Final Report. European Commission.  U.K. (available online)                                  

McHale, J P, C Kazali, T Rotman, J Talbot, M Carleton, and R Lieberson. 2004. The transition to co-parenthood: parents' prebirth expectations and early co-parental adjustment at 3 months postpartum. Development and Psychopathology 16:711-733.          

Tuesday 25 February 2014

'It takes a village to raise a child'

In 1960 Australia most working women were in low paid positions. The relatively few who were professional were required by law to leave their jobs once they were married. This is something that is hard to believe today, our expectations and experience have changed. In fact the single most significant development in the second part of the twentieth century has been changes to gendered roles; though as we all know, once a baby comes along, it's a whole new ball-game. We haven't reached the 'brave new gender equal world' that we might have thought possible.

Indicators of the Transition to Parenthood (TtoP) are changes to relationships (partner, friends and family); changes to life course; changes to sense of self; negotiating more housework and finding a line between self and baby and the research shows high levels of depression, high levels of marital dissatisfaction, a spike in domestic violence and legendary issues related to identity for new mothers. While at the same time we are developing the most amazing and sometimes challenging relationship with our baby or toddler.

Across the research on depression there is a recognition of the need for social support during the early years after the birth and yet the health and welfare services are patchy and remain primarily concerned with infant/child outcomes.

How can the services and we as a community move closer to the village that we know families need to survive and prosper?