Why we need to pay attention to online peer-to-peer support forums for new mothers

Posted by ap507 at Dec 05, 2016 12:23 PM |
Dr Ranjana Das discusses how many women are turning to the internet for pre and post-natal support as cuts continue in healthcare funding

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For my ongoing British Academy funded project Birth Stories, I have been visiting mothers and speaking to them about their experiences of giving birth in the UK, speaking to practitioner organisations dealing with parenting and birth, and spending time analysing a variety of social media forums, some anonymous, which are designed for peer-to-peer parenting support. These prove to be fascinating spaces to study for a few reasons.

First, given recent cuts to funding in the U.K., these forums are emerging to be the space mothers feel able to go to for late nights commiseration, advice and support often instead of waiting to find a quiet, private moment to really discuss worries in detail with a very rushed and pressured Health Visitor. 'Official' channels of advice are often being sought but not found, or at least, not found quickly or consistently enough, and consequently, being bypassed for shared wisdom and handed-down experience of the kind one might find from family or relatives.

There is a real need (if cuts continue the way they are doing) to investigate what kind of potential these platforms might have for pre and post natal support. Paying attention to this also leads to developing a real sense of the kinds of support being sought, which spans a very wide range, including infant feeding, practical advice and help, financial worries, returning to work, not returning to work, financial abuse, domestic violence and special needs. Reports repeatedly find that a sizeable 15% of new mothers experience post-natal depression, with barely 3% of NHS local commissioning groups having a perinatal mental health strategy.

A BBC report recently said about a new mother – “it was the online support which really helped turn her life around. “The women on the PNI forum saved my life, because no-one judged me," she says. If some form of peer-to-peer support is stepping in online, the time is ripe to find out what it is doing for mothers and how these might be used to support women and their families better.

Speaking more specifically about the pre and post natal period, these forums often become the site of two contrasting sets of voices - one empowering if sometimes intimidating, and the other disempowering, with both seeming to represent historical shifts in attitudes to women, women's bodies and childbirth as a biological, social and cultural practice. Crucially, these voices do not belong to two neatly divided camps, but are really best thought of as two sides of one coin, embedding one within the other.

On the one hand these forums witness a welcome assertion of the knowledge that birth isn't something to fear, that obstetricians and surgeons aren't necessarily the best birth attendants, that one should be confident about one's own body to take care of a natural process in the safe environment of the UK. This is evidenced by many mothers sharing enabling, empowering stories with first time mothers, and aligns closely with the feminist revival of women-led, midwife-supported care for birthing women, which made a real statement against the white-coated, clinical obstetrics-led model where many women even a few decades ago were asked (often by male doctors) to lie down, and get on with it.

The other side of this conversation, visible less frequently, and perhaps more dramatically, on these forums is the muting of "horror stories". On a Facebook group on a very specific approach to natural birthing, a woman who has needed significant Physiotherapy after birth trauma, is asked to "shut up" and "stop making up stories". On a more general parenting forum, discussion threads are often created where women who have had struggles with birth are explicitly asked to remain silent.

The first discourse has been historically monumental for women, women's agency and bodily autonomy. It rescued women from being the passive recipients of a clinical and sometimes surgical process towards being active participants in birth. We assume this to be the case everywhere, but in many parts of the world, particularly in urban pockets of developing countries, with a mushrooming and extremely well paid private gynaecological industry, this enforced, or at least, ensured, passivity, and birth being a surgical process is embedded well and truly in society. So the feminist revival of the empowering birth has not yet run its race, it has much yet to contribute.

But the second discourse, as many mothers described to me, mothers whose "horror stories" had been muted collectively, on and offline, represents for them, the pendulum swinging the other way. It must not advance any form of an individually and collectively empowering cause for women if we establish a right and wrong way to give birth, or worse, find it fit to chastise or silence or just ignore those who struggled.

Peer-to-peer support networks online are rapidly becoming popular, 24/7 avenues of wisdom sharing, virtual hand-holding and occasionally  less positive platforms where those responsible for very young children, while feeling frayed, confused and exhausted, seek help. These platforms aren't to be dismissed as the general chatter of the networked world, not just for their potentials and possibilities in the face of public finding cuts, but because of the ways in which these conversations mirror and even shape the ways in which we, as a society, think and speak about children, parents and families. More about this will be found in my book 'Birth Stories' due to be published with Routledge in 2018.

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