The WRISK project regularly asks contributors to share their perspectives on a range of issues related to risk communication in pregnancy to further understanding of the challenges faced by scientists, clinicians, policy makers and of course women themselves when trying to navigate risk messaging. These represent individual and personal viewpoints, and are aimed at encouraging reflection and discussion, rather than reaching conclusions. In our latest blog, Dr Dawn Mannay explores the experiences of pregnant women and new mothers living in marginalised areas in Wales.
Dawn Mannay is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Cardiff University, Wales, and she employs participatory, visual, creative and narrative methods in her research with diverse communities. She tweets at @dawnmannay.
Pregnancy and new motherhood are key transitional phases for women where they need to feel listened to and supported. However, in our research with mothers in Wales many discussed instances of watching, judgement, and being silenced. These experiences were related to interactions with friends, family, health professionals and even strangers in public places.
Creativity as a research method
We worked with women living in marginalised areas in Wales to explore their everyday experiences of pregnancy in four linked studies. The research drew on creative methods and women engaged in a number of activities including sharing objects important to them in pregnancy and new motherhood, making timelines of their lives, creating collages and building a picture of how they felt using miniature figures in a sandbox.
These methods helped women to reflect on their pregnancies and how they were viewed and treated by other people. One of the mothers, Tanya, talked about going to a restaurant when she was pregnant and how the waiter dictated what she was allowed to eat:
‘Yeah, he said: “You can’t have this”, “You can’t have that.” He didn’t ask us what we wanted. He said: “The only things you can have are, um, cheese and pickle.” He brought things [he decided] we could have, but he didn’t ask if we liked ‘em, he didn’t, he didn’t ask if we wanted them … he even went to the chef about what I can have instead of asking me: “What has your health visitor said you can have?”…’
Tanya explained how she felt as though she, or at least her bump, was “everyone’s property”, and how the surveillance of her visible pregnancy by strangers was unlike any situation she had encountered before her pregnancy. Another mother, Erica also reported interference from strangers, saying that “they think that when you’re pregnant they can ask you anything”. The studies illustrated how challenging it was for mothers to manage intrusions from strangers in public places where they felt less in control of situations and dynamics between individuals, and how these encounters impacted on their confidence.
Other mothers in the studies, particularly younger mothers, talked about unsupportive relationships with health professionals, for example, Anne said;
“It does my head in cos they always … you do find like there’s always people that speak down to you like you’re a little kid even though you’re a parent like … or it’s like at the doctors when there’s something wrong and you’re like there’s something wrong with my child and you’re telling me there’s not … and they don’t listen because you’re young”.
Escaping the gaze
When mothers feel that they are being watched and judged in this way and that no one is interested in listening to their views and opinions, they are less likely to seek support. This may mean that they are at more at risk of continuing with unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, doing these things in secret as they do not feel that they can get the right kind of help and support.
As Sarah explained; “My car is still my independence, and being pregnant, I know later on obviously that might become a problem, but to me driving is my independence. It’s my bubble, I can cry, I can smoke, I can have a McDonalds in the car, you know, I can listen to music, I can do everything in the car”.
Sarah escapes in her car to eat take-away food, to smoke cigarettes and to cry. However, if mothers like Sarah felt less judged and more supported they may be more motivated to try and stop smoking, discuss healthy eating options and talk about their emotions.
Criticism and judgement can mean that mothers may escape from the gaze of others to engage with unhealthy behaviours. This does not help to address the barriers they face but instead just pushes them away from the systems that should be acting to listen, support, advise and help them to have healthier pregnancies and look after their own physical and mental health.
Want to read more?
You can find out more about this work and the experiences that mothers shared in the studies in the open access publications listed below:
Grant, A., Mannay, D. and Marzella, R. People try and police your behaviour’: the impact of surveillance on mothers and grandmothers’ perceptions and experiences of infant feeding. Families, Relationships and Society. 7(3), pp. 431-447. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/frs/2018/00000007/00000003/art00006;jsessionid=20a610h83eh8s.x-ic-live-01
Grant, A., Morgan, M., Gallagher, D. and Mannay, D. 2018. Smoking during pregnancy, stigma and secrets: Visual methods exploration in the UK. Women and Birth. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wombi.2018.11.012
Mannay, D., Creaghan, J., Gallagher, D., Marzella, R., Mason, S., Morgan, M. and Grant, A. 2017. Negotiating closed doors and constraining deadlines: The potential of visual ethnography to effectually explore private and public spaces of motherhood and parenting. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0891241617744858