Social support in early parenthood

Most parents talked about their experiences of support from their personal social networks (partners, family members or friends) as well as community networks such as mothers groups, fathers groups, playgroups, or groups and/or people they met on-line.

For parents who were in a relationship, partners were usually the primary source of support. Even when a new baby put stress on the relationship, many parents – particularly mothers – were still appreciative for the help their partners provided – whether practical, emotional, or both. Deb, a full-time student, described how her partner responded when he arrived home and saw she’d had a bad day: ‘… without asking, he’ll just do little things. Like, he’ll take the kids for their bath, or [just] try and make it a bit easier’. Susanne who had a difficult start to parenthood said of her partner: ‘She was amazing and just had this never-ending patience for our baby … she really taught me so much about patience and about love and about perfection not needing to be what I thought it was’.

Zara talked about support her husband provided in ‘pulling her up’ when he felt she was not ‘managing’ her emotions. Although it angered her in the moment, she was able to see his advice was for her and the family’s ‘benefit’.

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Not all parents had the level of support they desired from their partner. Some, including Tina and Melanie, felt that having a baby created a ‘gap’ between them and their partner, and that ‘narrowing’ this took time. A few parents experienced the breakdown of their relationship with their partner and needed to ‘reach out’ to others for help. One parent, Beth, a mother of two, felt her partner became too ‘involved’ and as a result she felt ‘dislocated’ from some aspects of parenting.

Josie had no family in Australia and an elderly mother-in-law, so she felt reliant on her husband for emotional support which made her feel like ‘the loneliest mother in the world’ during their challenges.

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Chandrika’s husband was busy doing a postgraduate degree and unable to help her with their baby when they first moved to Australia from Sri Lanka.

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Family members were an important source of support for many parents, especially during periods of crisis (for example a relationship breakdown) or if parents or babies were experiencing health problems. Mothers or mothers-in-law were often mentioned as particularly helpful, providing practical and / or emotional support. Rumer and her husband, parents of two children, stayed with Rumer’s parents for six weeks following the birth of each of their children. She said, ‘Basically it just meant we didn’t have to do any housework. All we had to do was look after the baby. In the evenings there were other people to hold the baby and I didn’t have to worry about cooking and all that sort of thing. It was amazing’.

Erin described her mother as ‘what a grandma should be’, but she passed away from cancer while Erin was trying for her third child.

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Loretta described the ‘huge difference’ having her mum around made when her second child was a baby and her marriage was ending.

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A number of parents missed having family support (or that of friends) because they either had migrated from overseas or interstate, or because of various tensions within their family. Some were able to plan visits home or arrange for their relatives to come to Australia, while others had to rely on support via phone or the internet. Joanne, a migrant mother, described preparing her son’s dinner while: ‘… he’s sitting on Skype as if he’s phoned [my parents] and they’re playing peekaboo with him’. Matthew’s mother initially didn’t provide much ‘practical support’ with his daughter due to Matthew’s father’s opposition to him having a child as a single gay man. However over time she became more involved and began regularly caring for her granddaughter.

Rose, a migrant mother from Nigeria, reflected on having her second child in Australia without any family support apart from her husband.

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Friends were mentioned by several parents as providing important support. Some mothers and fathers talked about the importance of ‘lifelong’ friends while others described making valued new friendships after having children or finding they no longer had much in common with ‘old’ friends who did not have children. Many parents found that having children was a strong point of connection with fellow parents with children of a similar age, while others found this did not guarantee a ‘natural affinity’, particularly over the longer term.

Kate said her efforts to build friendships with other parents locally meant the world around her felt ‘vaguely familiar’.

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Rumer reflected on the importance of her friendships with her child-free girlfriends.

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A few parents talked about the difference between the nature of support they received compared with what they felt they needed. Louise said she had appreciated ‘meals not presents’ from friends after her second baby, and a few other mothers talked about the difference between ‘visitors’ who needed to be entertained and could be a source of stress, and people who could offer practical help with a new baby.

Several mothers commented that they found it challenging to ‘ask for help’, even from family or friends. This was for various reasons, including a perception of themselves as ‘independent’, a desire not to ‘burden’ or ‘bother’ others, and a fear of being seen as ‘not coping’. Elizabeth, a mother of two, who described herself as ‘high achieving’ said: ‘I felt in some ways that I was letting [my parents] down or that I wasn’t this perfect, wonderful child because I was having these problems and couldn’t cope’.

Sarah M described how she tried to protect her husband, parents and friends while her pre-term baby son was in special care.

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Jane had learned to ask for help, however she found accepting it challenging as was ‘particular’ about how she wanted things to be done.

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Parents had mixed experiences of mothers’ or new parents’ groups. For some, these were a very important source of support, while others found them disappointing or did not attend at all. Josie described her mothers’ group: ‘it was a room of women who gave birth around the same time and had very little in common … It’s also the different demographics … and I think the other mums in the room I wouldn’t necessarily befriend naturally’.

Several women commented on what they saw as the ‘tendency’ for mothers’ groups to become ‘competitive’. Kirsty, a full-time stay-at-home mum, explained this was part of why she chose not to go to one: ‘my perception of mothers groups is comparing sleeping and eating and pooping and I just didn’t really want to get into that’. Louise felt this could be partly addressed by the MCH nurses that ran the first few nurse-facilitated sessions for new mothers groups: ‘the nurses could do a bit more to set up a [mothers’] group as a non-judgmental group, because a lot of people might be struggling with their experience of being a mother’.

Chelsea described how her mothers’ group was ‘very beneficial’ for her as a support network.

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A few people described having to try different groups before finding one that was ‘right’ for them. A mother of twins, Jane liked her mothers’ group but felt more comfortable at her ‘multiples’ playgroup: ‘that white blinding shock and fear, stunned mullet that I know I have on my face every day – I see it reflected in every other mum. And you hear, “Congratulations for getting out of the house with two babies. Would you like a coffee?”‘.

Other community-based forums that parents found support from included a gay fathers’ social group, ‘natural parenting’ playgroups, postnatal depression support groups or mothers’ groups, and Facebook forums. Some parents set up organisations or initiatives on their own, including Maree, a mother of two children, who described setting up a Mama Bake group in her town.

Matthew found it helpful to attend a mothers’ group, a gay fathers’ social group, and to set up a ‘gay dads’ play group.

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