The year is rapidly zooming pass. It’s astonishing that we are already in the middle of it. And amazing how time can fly. How fleeting time is often becomes more pronounced when one becomes a parent. Children appear to grow so fast. Being a parent can be simultaneously rewarding and challenging. In this quarterly, WCHM takes a look at motherhood and the role it can play in impacting a woman’s mental health for better and for worse. This is an area of research that we hope to explore further in the coming year.
Motherhood and Mental Health
By Jane Yang, Health Promotion Officer
Becoming a mother is a life changing experience. Human babies are remarkably helpless, more so than any other animal out there. It may take up to six to nine months before they can crawl and 12 months or so before they are walking. And approximately 18 years before they might be independently living on their own. Yes, becoming a mother is absolutely a life changing experience. It can be exciting! It can be terrifying! It can be a lot of things! The feelings can be overwhelming. How women make sense of this experience, transition into and incorporate this new identity into their sense of self varies from woman to woman. For many women, becoming a mother is a marvellous experience, one that just keeps on paying out dividends as time progresses, but this is certainly not always the case.
In general, research suggests that motherhood can act as a protective factor against poor mental health. There are different reasons for this. One reason is that motherhood changes a woman allowing them to mature in positive ways, taking care of another person and helping to guide them towards successes produces a strong sense of accomplishment and happiness in a mother. Another reason is that being a mother opens up different levels of social integration leading towards higher levels of social support, social cohesion and social capital.
However, it would be false to claim that motherhood is always a protective factor. The transition to motherhood isn’t a simple process that occurs in a silo. There are various factors that influence and impact on a mother’s mental wellbeing. Of these factors, most notably: age, social support systems and partner relationships are prominent causes.
There are many conflicting studies and advice on when is the optimal time to become a mother. These choices should be contextualised based on the individual and unique circumstances of each woman and this article makes no value-judgements about what the right age is. With that said, the recommended ages appear to range from around twenty to late thirties and studies suggest that becoming a first-time mother outside of this range appears to put a woman at higher risk of poor mental health.
Teenage mothers have double the risk of developing postpartum depression than their older counterparts according to some research. There are different factors influencing this, including the stress of parenting and the stigma of being a teen mother.
Older mothers are also at a higher risk for mental illness. A study conducted in Canada saw higher rates of depression in women over 40. As with younger mothers, there are different factors that influence this, one of which may be due to different societal expectations of older mums making it more difficult to find peer support.
Good intimate partner and social support is linked to better mental health. Mothers who lack social support and have poor intimate partner relationships are more likely to be depressed. Research conducted in Melbourne saw higher rates of depression in mothers with their first child reached four years old. Although, many of these women had a second or third child by then, the women that had the highest rates of depression only had 1 child suggesting that it wasn’t the addition of more children that caused depression. The women with only one child had higher rates of emotional and physical abuse from their intimate partners, as well as faced other social hardships including, finances or divorce. Healthy social supports and intimate partner relationships play a key role in the mental health and wellbeing of mothers.
Ensuring that mothers have optimal mental health is not just important for their own wellbeing but also for the wellbeing of their children. Research has shown that a mother’s mental health can impact her children. For example, there has been some correlation between children’s literacy skills and their mother’s mental health wellbeing. Some studies have also suggested that children who have had mothers with mental health are also more likely to experience mental health themselves.
Becoming a mother is a life changing experience. Understanding all the different factors that could contribute or cause poor mental health is crucial in ensuring that this life changing experience is a positive one for all women.
This article has mentioned depression repeatedly. Much of the research around motherhood and mental illness has concentrated on depression. Depression is an important area that does warrant research; however, it should be noted that it is not the only mental health affliction that mothers may face. Anxiety and stress are examples of other mental health issues that mothers may struggle with.
WCHM will be seeking to explore further the relationship between motherhood and mental health and contextualise it within the ACT. Stay tuned as we scope and plan out how this research will look.
WCHM Women and Work
Welcome to the June edition of Women and Work. We’ve been busy over the last couple of months working across lots of different areas which impact on women’s health and wellbeing. Here’s an update of some of our highlights.
First up, the Women’s Centre for Health Matters is pleased to announce that we won the community sector category in the Violence Prevention Awards presented on Wednesday 29th June by the ACT Government.
We were also pleased to see the ACT Government’s Budget response to family and domestic violence and its recent response which addressed the following reports:
- Report of the Inquiry: Review into the system level responses to family violence in the ACT by Laurie Glanfield AM (April 2016;
- Review of Domestic and Family Violence Deaths in the ACT by the Domestic Violence Prevention Council (May 2016); and
- ACT Domestic Violence Service System Gap Analysis Project Final Report by the Community Services Directorate (May 2016).
WCHM has also released three major reports. Hear Me Out: Women’s Experiences of Seeking Help for Domestic Violence In the ACT research report, Women and Maternal Care in the ACT Consultation Report and finally, Not a Label. More than a Diagnosis – Borderline Personality Disorder research report. These reports are important because they add depth of understanding about ACT women and their lived experiences, and provide data and evidence that reflect women’s views to and to assist services and policy to better meet ACT women’s needs. You can access these reports on our website.
We’ve been excited by the great conversations, ideas and enthusiasm generated by our Beyond Crisis forums. The forums are engaging business and industry leaders in the ACT to help find solutions to the barriers women in Canberra told us they faced when making the decision to leave domestic violence. We’re working with Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT and Canberra’s Professional Services firms alongside business, industry and sector leaders to develop solutions to help women in the ACT rebuild their lives post-crisis. Forums on housing, childcare, and legal services have been conducted so far. Coming up next we’ll be hosting forums on the topics of finance, transport, pets and insurance.
Image: Legal services forum
In other news we’ve completed our focus groups for young women with autoimmune disease in the ACT. We’d like to say a big thank you to all the women and service providers who contributed their voices to this research. The project has been incredibly popular and we’re looking forward to compiling our findings in the coming months.
Have you got 10-15 minutes to spare? We are conducting a Women’s Health Utilisation survey and would love to hear from you. This survey is available online through our website and our Facebook if you haven’t filled it out already. We’d also love if you could send it to your mum, sister, daughter, colleagues and your friends – really anyone who identifies as a woman and lives in the ACT.
Wonderful news! Our Women of Canberra exhibition has been extended due to popularity. It’s at Westfield Woden to the left of Harry Hartog and will run until August 2016. We hope you can get down there and enjoy it.
Image: Women of Canberra at Westfield Woden
It is also time to remind our members that it is time to renew membership, and to encourage others to become a member. WCHM membership is free and remains current until the 30th June each year, and you can find out more on WCHM’s website at https://www.wchm.org.au/get-involved/become-a-member/ .
And last but not least, we’ve recently said goodbye to two incredible colleagues: Project Worker, Jill Scanlon and Health Promotion Officer, Melanie Greenhalgh. They have contributed their skills and expertise to the work they undertook our Centre and their insights, wisdom and laughter are certainly very missed. Angela Carnovale, our wonderful research officer, is on leave from WCHM until September on study leave, and Jane Yang is also currently on a month long study leave.
I hope you enjoy our June Quarterly and you’re keeping warm and keeping well.
Worth Checking Out
The Heart is an audio art project and podcast about intimacy and humanity. The show was founded in 2008 in Montreal and is now an independent podcast produced in New York City. Each episode traverses deeply personal terrain of individual women’s lives, with insight, humour, solidarity and beauty. It also has an achingly beautiful website.
The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) is a longitudinal population-based survey examining the health of over 58,000 Australian women. The factsheet Miscarriage: Why women need more time to grieve provides a very brief overview of the findings from the ALSWH into women’s needs post-miscarriage. The main finding is that women may experience grief, guilt and anger for even years after the loss.
PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) provides a vital service across Australia by offering the only specialist national perinatal mental health telephone counselling service, as well as reducing stigma around perinatal anxiety and depression, and providing education services to health professionals and the wider community. PANDSI is the local provider of services, information and education for ACT families on perinatal depression and anxiety.
Are you looking for a place where women from different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs come together to support one another judgement free? Then you will want to check out the Imperfect Mum blog. It is full of frank, uncomfortable, uplifting, consoling, revealing and emotional posts from mums around the world about the triumphs and challenges of mothering. Kristy Vallely is the founder and Creator of the Imperfect Mum. After the tragic loss of her first baby Titan, Kristy then went onto to have two more children in which she suffered from postnatal depression. These stressful times in her life made her look beyond her personal journey and she started to wonder about what other women experienced.
Depression, anxiety, stress, poor body image, grief, loss, a major change in your life such as becoming a new parent can all affect your mental and emotional health and day to day living. This webpage from Jean Hailes for Women’s Health on mental and emotional health features a webinar from psychologist Dr Many Deeks on mental health and confidence building, as well as links to a range of important and useful information about women’s mental health and the intersections with our physical health.