Why Is Social Support Crucial During Pregnancy & Beyond?
October 9, 2023
Disclaimer: we understand that the role of “mother” can be assumed through many contexts, including but not limited to adoption, surrogacy, and birth-giving of a partner in a same-sex relationship. Please note that in this article, we chose to refer to the birth mother as “mother” to fulfill its educational purposes.
We, as human beings, are inherently social. From the beginning of our development, we have relied on each other's communication and cooperation in order to survive and achieve. With this in mind, it is no wonder how a lack of social support can significantly impact our mental and physical health; our day-to-day life becomes much more fatiguing when we’re unable to receive the necessary support and validation from our partners, family, or friends. This is especially relevant when a life-changing event like pregnancy comes along: in those 40 weeks and beyond, social support is more than necessary, and as you can probably guess, quite beneficial. In this article, we will discuss the importance of social support for mothers, and how it can impact their sense of self, their relationship with their partner, and even their child.
How can a lack of social support affect my sense of self?
The transition into parenthood, whether it's your first, third, or fifth child, can be a time when mothers are most vulnerable to mental health conditions. While 9-21% of women will be diagnosed with anxiety or depression before, during, or after pregnancy, countless other women will experience nuanced symptoms of major mental health disorders such as stress, low self-esteem, and a loss of confidence.
In addition, varying levels of social support in life’s major moments can either harm or boost your mental health. According to BioMed Central, if women perceive themselves as having low social support, feel socially isolated, or are considered as young, poor, or a single parent, they are more likely to encounter symptoms of anxiety or depression. Simply put, when a mother is not able to receive enough social support to cope with her psychological stress and physical challenges, she experiences a lack of crucial psychosocial resources, such as social stability and emotional reassurance.
At this point, you might be wondering why women don’t just ask for help. Sounds simple enough, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, studies show that while women are advised to openly share their struggles with their support system, most who do so face backlash and thus learn to conceal their feelings. In a qualitative study by BioMed Central, many mothers expressed their frustrations:
“I pretend to be happy…I do that with my family as well ‘cause I haven’t told them [about my depression]…They don’t react nicely.”
“[People say,] I don’t understand how she can be depressed when she’s just had a baby, one of the most beautifullest things in the world…That makes you go even more into your shell and feel more embarrassed and distraught…so ashamed.”
Thus, it’s clear that it not only matters that you have a support system, but that you have a support system that cares about, understands and acknowledges the intense and debilitating challenges of mothers. As challenges come, positive social relationships can act as a buffer, and also be a direct avenue to lower the probability of debilitating mental health; it is crucial that you surround yourself with an educated support system who is willing to listen and be the resource that you need them to be.
TLDR: Because mother's undergo significant mental and physical challenges, it’s crucial that they’re provided with the appropriate social support from partners, family members, and friends in order to lessen their risk of developing physical and mental health complications.
If you’re the support system (especially a partner): providing social support means listening actively, acknowledging that they’re struggling, and being helpful in ways that they need you to be, whether it be by taking on the duties that don’t require the mother (i.e. diaper changes, burping the baby after feeding, holding or putting them to sleep), or removing stressors (i.e. taking over household chores, managing all outside communication in the first few weeks). The key is to actively observe and help in ways that will allow the mother to have time for herself, and feel validated that she’s not in it alone.
If you’re the mother: the best way to secure proper support is to be clear with your support system from the get go, so that you can have a detailed discussion and help them understand that you will need their help for the entirety of pregnancy and beyond. And when the little one arrives, find ways to express your emotions during pregnancy – don’t keep them in. Key is to seek out at least one person who you trust, that will listen and care for you during this time. If you feel unheard or experience push back, ask your healthcare provider to involve your support system into the conversation so they can understand what you’re going through.
How can a lack of social support affect my relationship?
While pregnant individuals are on the brink of significant change, so are the partners involved with the pregnancy. However, because only one person experiences the development and childbirth, it’s pivotal that the other remains actively involved throughout pregnancy and beyond; in fact, active support from the partner not only positively impacts the mother’s mental health during the four trimesters, but also promotes a healthy relationship in the long-term. Studies support this fact: in a study by Eddy and Fife on heterosexual couples, results showed that active husband involvement led to a strengthening of the relationship during and after the birth of their child.
Then, what exactly does “active support” mean? While there are many ways for partners to participate in the motherhood journey, the research found four main things that contribute to quality, active partner involvement:
Helping with a positive attitude, such as attending appointments without considering them a chore that they have to do.
Instrumental or tangible support, such as making a nutritious meal for their partner or taking on more household tasks.
Emotional support, such as providing a shoulder to cry on, and fully listening to their partner’s concerns and worries.
Responding in significant moments, such as celebrating, rather than dismissing, each sonogram picture and stage of all four trimesters.
When husbands supported their wives in the above ways, the couples felt that their relationship had more trust, love, communication, and support. In line with these findings, the Journal of Women’s Health completed a study that explored the opposite, and found that low partner support resulted in the pregnant women experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, and cigarette usage. The summary of these discoveries suggests that partner support is an important factor of the mental and physical health of women amidst the four trimesters, and that it can also result in more positive relationships.
With that said, we must recognize that sometimes, non-birthing partners do not have the ability to participate in the processes of pregnancy at the same level as the mother due to barriers in our healthcare and societal systems; namely, the idea that women are the sole caretakers of children. Despite these societal norms and their limitations of proper participation however, we must advocate for active partner involvement to promote the well-being of mothers and healthy progression of the relationship.
TLDR: when mothers felt supported by their partners in their motherhood journey, couples felt that their relationship had more trust, love, communication, and support, resulting in more positive relationships.
If you’re the mother: Having a baby is a huge change for everyone involved. This change in life requires many to adapt to a new way of life and routine–and because change is not always easy, it is likely that it will impact your relationship with your partner, if you have one. Clearly communicate to your partner that their support can greatly benefit you and your relationship as you both are transitioning into your new roles, but also to recognize that they may also need time to adjust. Remember that in the long run, having a positive relationship during this transition period will aid in both your mental and physical health, and result in a more healthy and validating relationship in the long run.
If you are the support system: because you’re not the one carrying the child and giving birth, it may take a bit for reality to set in. Regardless of when it does, it’s important that you stay positively engaged in your pregnant partner’s daily life, to celebrate and commiserate with her. Not only will it be important for her, but for you as well! Transitions in life can be daunting, but you’re in this journey together, and providing positive support when she needs it the most will likely result in a reciprocation of that support to you in the context of a healthy, loving relationship.
How can a lack of social support affect my baby?
Many of us know that the physical health of a pregnant woman affects the health of the child she carries - but what isn’t discussed as often is that her mental health plays a role as well. BioMed Central recognizes that poor mental health of a mother can negatively affect her baby’s physical, psychological, mental, emotional and behavioral development.
According to Diana Divecha, Ph.D, a newborn born to a mother who was depressed during pregnancy is four times more likely to be born at a lower birth weight than with those born to mothers who were not depressed. A study in the Human Reproduction Journal outlines similar findings, pointing out that with the exclusion of preterm deliveries, babies born to mothers with low social support had lower birth weights, by roughly 200 grams on average. Furthermore, additional evidence shows that if a woman is depressed during pregnancy, there is a greater chance they will also suffer from postpartum depression. In this case, not only does the mother’s quality of life suffer, but also the relationship with their partner as well as the development of their child. All of these studies highlight that a lack of social support should be discussed as an important risk factor for pregnancies, impacting not only the health of the mother, but also that of the baby and the encompassing relationship.
TLDR:low social support that affects the health of the mother can leave negative impacts on the health of the baby as well, resulting in complications such as lower birth weights.
If you are the support system:your actions and emotions can have a great impact on your pregnant partner, and thus, the baby developing within. With this in mind, recognize the circular motion of support and live by the “put good in, get good out” motto. If you are positively supportive, present, and willing to help your partner, not only will those actions be likely requited, but also will ultimately fortify the relationship and the developing family as a whole.
If you are the mother: some mothers try to cope with little support, without realizing that lack of proper attention can affect not only their health, but also the health of their child. Alongside seeking out strong social support and following through with routine check ups with your healthcare provider, don’t be afraid to make appointments with a therapist - they are experts in helping you navigate new emotions you might be struggling with.
If I feel like I don’t have enough social support, how do I ask for it?
If you feel that you do not have sufficient social support, you are not alone. There are many factors that may cause a lack of necessary support, but with effective communication and sincere effort from all sides, this gap can be filled.
If you’re the mother: the surefire way to secure support is to discuss in detail what type of support you need. You may feel frustrated at first, especially if this is your first child - but it’s important to recognize that your innermost circle is experiencing this for the first time as well and they may not know how they can be helpful. Again, communication is key, and if you feel that you’re unsure how to ask for the right help, you can share informational resources (like our article) with them so that they can also learn on their own.
If you are the support system: it’s important for you to understand that the mother will be experiencing hormonal, emotional and physical challenges, potentially hindering her ability to clearly communicate what she needs. In these cases, you can be helpful by actively observing and anticipating what the mother will need, rather than simply waiting to be told what to do.
For both moms and support systems:what would also be helpful for both sides is being involved in the conversation with the healthcare provider. At checkups, you can ask the health professional to provide information on how to be supportive. As a trusted individual, your doctor may be a necessary catalyst in improving familial support through their expertise and convincing jurisdiction.
I’d also love some outside help. How do I seek out the right community?
Support from outside of your intimate social circle can be an additional avenue to clear your mind and claim a space just for you. If you prefer support from those in a similar stage of life as you, there are a variety of groups you can join to benefit from an empathetic community.
Google, Google, Google: a simple search on Google or Facebook can guide you to resources like classes, a group of pregnant individuals who brunch, or an assembly of people who can freely discuss their experiences and feel connected in a relatively anonymous and online setting.
Talk to your healthcare provider: if the quick search isn’t helping you find what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to ask for guidance from your health care professional to access resources, such as classes that allow you to interact with individuals or couples preparing to have a baby. You may be interested to know that there is also research that highlights benefits of group prenatal and postnatal care; through these classes, you can form alliances with those who understand, and can even meet each other’s babies (read: future friends for your little one!). The recognition of belonging and of being in a similar situation can help create bonds and support that will last.
Utilize Baby Center:Baby Center is another resource that can guide parents to a variety of groups to accompany their needs. Whether you're pregnant, trying to become pregnant, just had a newborn, or already have six kids and another one along the way, there is a group for you out there. The amazing thing about this site is that you can search for groups based on your state and region, so regardless of if you’re new to town, planning to move to a new area, or have lived in your community for years, you will be able to find a group perfect for you. If you’re more of an introvert, there are also online groups and forums where you can read, ask questions and find answers to anything and everything you may be curious about.
Start your own support group: if you’re feeling social and ready to get moving, head to your local playground, library, or dwelling where new parents may be and strike up a conversation about community support for pregnancy. Use your community members as a resource as they may be a part of a group that you had never heard of. If you find that the parents in your community are also experiencing a lack of social support, start your own group! There is no better way to create the community support you want and need, than forming it yourself.
As a mother, it is essential that you do not feel alone in your journey. There are roughly 3.6 million babies born a year in the United States alone, meaning there are just as many mothers who need help navigating motherhood - the journey is wild, but it’s better when you’re in it with strong allies.
Maggie Nash is the Content Creator Intern for Hibiscus Motherhood who brings together creativity and education through her knowledge of all things women and gender. As a recent graduate from Creighton University receiving a BA in Cultural Anthropology, she utilizes her skills of research, adaptability, and analysis to create engaging content for the team. With a background in expanding reproductive health, Maggie is dedicated to Hibiscus Motherhood’s mission and vision of providing quality, comfortable care to mothers post birth, as well as educating interested individuals. If you have any questions regarding her work at Hibiscus Motherhood, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.