CARE-study into maternity and midwifery

Symbolically, for 9 months a group of committed researchers cooperated closely to write a grant proposal for a research project into ethical controversies in the mother-midwife relation during childbirth. This CARE-study (Controversies surrounding Autonomy and Responsibility: a care-Ethical study into the mother-midwife relation) is now granted, which means that a young and gifted researcher, philosopher and midwife Rodante van der Waal, is funded to perform her four year PhD study. Next to an empirical research into the advancements of respectful maternity care, the project involves a philosophical study into the ontology and history of pregnancy, childbirth and midwifery care. The project will be performed at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht, The Netherlands) under the supervision of prof dr Carlo Leget. I am proud to be involved in this as co-supervisor.

Maternity demands ambivalent ethics

In preparing my lecture for next week’s conference ‘Concerning Maternity’ I will draw upon Sarah LaChance Adams’ book Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, & What a ‘Good’ Mother Would Do. The book’s main point, that mothering (as well as parenting) is always full of conflicting values and ambivalent being, remains important and deserving of more attention. The way in which society, but also researchers and ethicists, often seem to have a clearcut idea on how mothers should behave, dividing them quickly into ‘bad’, mad’, or ‘good’, ignores how deeply conflicted mothers (and parents in general) might be on what a ‘good’ mother (parent) might do. LaChance Adams’ approach of bringing mothers’ voices that express their own experiences in a dialogue with care ethics and (phenomenological) philosophers, is fruitful in understanding the depth of the internal and external conflicts of mothers (and parents).

The point of departure is a wonderful presentation of the mothers’ own expressions of their experiences, for which LaChance Adams draws upon a vast amount of empirical research. This is an excellent overview of the key problem of ambivalence. It is not often the case that researchers in the field of maternity draw upon care ethics and phenomenology. LaChance Adams presents a broad range of care ethicists next to the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone de Beauvoir. These sources are helpful for a multilayered analysis of maternal ambivalence. LaChance Adams is loyal to phenomenology by aiming for a deep understanding of this phenomenon, instead of seeing it as a problem that needs to be solved.

A less strong point is how Lachance Adams quite closely connects her own search for understanding maternal ambivalence to the philosophers’ views, by paying (too) little attention to their own key problem. Thereby she risks the incorrect suggestion that their philosophical undertaking was about maternal ambivalence as well. Nevertheless the book is an important and good read on a most relevant and undertheorized topic.

Matrescence: changes in the mother and father brains

Matrescence is the term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973 for the fundamental changes women go through when becoming mothers. She compares it to the other, common, and well described transition to adulthood: adolescence. In this Ted talk reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks reinvigorates this term for her own practice. She tells that postpartum women are calling her, saying that motherhood ‘isn’t supposed to feel like this’. They feel discomfort and wonder whether they have a disease. ‘Matrescence’ to her is helpful to describe the transition to motherhood, e.g. the normality of it. It is amazing how little we know about it in common life as well as in academia.

The same amazement is expressed in this Dutch TV-show by brain researcher Elseline Hoekzema, neuro endocrinologist Peter Bos and pedagogue Marian Bakermans, who researched both mothers’ and fathers’ reaction to becoming a parent. At delivery women do have a head start to fathers because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Their brains show substantial differences that remain for two years, and never disappear completely. However, if fathers are (substantially) involved in babycare, they can easily catch up in becoming attentive, responsive parents. This is not what a few days of father’s leave can help accomplish, I think.

Interesting: women who are mothers are still quite ‘terra incognita’ for research, and what traditionally has been reduced to a gender or hormonal difference can now be refuted: it is an involvement in practices of care that makes the difference.

Women’s traumatic childbirth experiences

New research concerning maternity. Women’s traumatic childbirth experiences in the Netherlands shows that maternity care needs improvement. Women are too often neglected, not asked for consent, etc. Even when care is given with the best intentions, professionals may harm women during childbirth and cause trauma. Women-centred care is one of the options to improve care, according to the authors.