New mothers and their parents: How past parenting affects new mothers
Research from James Cook University in Singapore explores how past parenting affects new mothers.
Becoming a parent for the first time can be both exciting and daunting. First-time parents frequently grapple with mixed emotions and a changing identity, as they think about what kind of parent they will be and whether they might repeat mistakes made by their own parents.
“We wanted to understand how past parenting affects new mothers, particularly their mental health, in the first year of motherhood. We were interested to consider the impact of specific types of interactions they had with their own parents, both positive and negative,” said Dr Joanna Barlas, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at James Cook University (JCU) in Singapore.
Dr Barlas conducted the study with Ms Davinder Gill, then Associate Lecturer in Psychology at JCU in Singapore, and Masters of Psychology (Clinical) students — Lee Kang Qi, Rachel Leong Wei En, and Laika Jumabhoy Binti Anwar Ali.
The study surveyed participants about their positive and negative experiences of being parented. For example, on the positive side of things, did the new mothers feel as though their own parents were dependable and reliable, and stood up for them when needed? As children, did the new mothers feel able to make their own decisions, and was their individuality respected? On the negative side, were they often put down or made to feel ashamed of themselves? Did their parents place an overly strong emphasis on success and competition?
Additionally, the study asked participants about their mental health, stress levels and sense of competence in the first year of motherhood. 25 of these mothers were then interviewed individually to dive deeper into personal perceptions of being parented.
The results revealed that new mothers’ sense of competence was not directly affected by their interactions with their own parents. However, these early parenting interactions did have an impact on the mental health of new mothers, which then impacted how they viewed their own abilities. Overall, first-time mothers who recalled more negative interactions and fewer positive interactions with either of their parents were more likely to be anxious or depressed, and in turn felt less capable in their mothering.
“On a specific level, we found that mothers who recalled their own mothers being overly-controlling were more inclined to feel anxious about things not being perfect or not being in control themselves, which in turn left them feeling less competent as mothers. This was especially true of mothers who were experiencing higher levels of childcare stress,” explained Dr Barlas.
Furthermore, in the one-to-one interviews, the new mothers shared about the important balance between their parents enabling age-appropriate independence and reasonable boundaries. They explained that feeling overly-controlled as children left them doubting their ability to manage situations independently and make decisions in adulthood. This reduced confidence could then leave them feeling distressed when faced with unfamiliar or difficult situations — such as the first year of motherhood — because they struggled to develop their own adaptive coping strategies and to trust in their ability to cope.
On the other hand, new mothers who recalled their parents giving them more independence talked about growing “stronger and more confident” — allowing them to feel more able to manage challenging situations with their baby and being more confident in their parenting choices.
More importantly, the new mothers emphasised that their past experiences did not define them or their approach to parenting. Those who had experienced more negative interactions with their own parents recognised that thinking about and making sense of these experiences as an adult allowed them to make conscious choices about parenting styles they wanted to emulate, parenting styles they could empathise with and wanted to adapt, and parenting styles they wanted to avoid completely.
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