Journey to Parenthood: How New Fathers and Mothers Make Sense of Perinatal Emotional Distress
Wendel-Hummell, Carrie L.
University of Kansas
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This dissertation study drew on in-depth interviews with a class diverse sample of 30 mothers and 17 fathers who experienced emotional distress as a new parent. The definitional boundaries of perinatal mental health conditions, such as postpartum depression, are debated and these diagnoses have been criticized for individualizing social problems. Nonetheless, the postpartum depression diagnosis is being extended to fathers and additional conditions are coming to be recognized as perinatal mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, PTSD). In light of the contested nature of these conditions, I drew on social constructionist theories on health and illness to examine how lay parents made sense of and acted on their perinatal mental health symptoms. I found that distressed new parents provided nuanced, complex accounts of perinatal mental health and largely did not individualize their troubles. Further, parents exercised a great deal of agency in addressing their mental health conditions, whether in seeking professional help or implementing non-medical solutions. Their illness narratives were shaped, but not determined, by medicalized discourse. I also drew on feminist theories to explore the social and cultural factors that contributed to their perinatal mental health symptoms, in light of changing gender roles. I found that mothers and fathers largely spoke to the same stressors and concerns as they adjusted to parenthood, including the overwhelming demands of caring for an infant, the difficult-family work balance, and changes to the marital relationship. This speaks to the convergence of gender roles in modern families, as well as growing super-parent pressures. However, nuanced gender differences were also found. Mothers were disappointed by the high expectations of motherhood, whereas fathers were frustrated by the ambiguous nature of modern fatherhood. There was a tendency to fall back on traditional gender roles when parents felt overwhelmed or in the face of structural barriers. Class-based differences were starker than gender differences, with low-income parents citing everyday hardships and problematic relationships over idealized expectations of parenthood. This difference is best understood within the larger contexts of low-income and middle class lives, in which the former may not have expected as much control over parenthood and further that parenthood was relatively more rewarding than their other social roles. The difficulty balancing the demands placed on new mothers and fathers calls for improved family supports and policies.
- Dissertations 
- Sociology Dissertations and Theses 
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