'They've forgotten that I'm the mum': constructing and practising motherhood in special care nurseries

Soc Sci Med. 2001 Oct;53(8):1011-21. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(00)00396-8.


Little sociological research has sought to investigate the ways in which women with hospitalized newborn infants construct and practice motherhood. This article seeks to address this lacuna, using data from a qualitative research project based in two Australian neonatal nurseries. Thirty-one mothers of hospitalized newborns and 20 neonatal nurses were interviewed, and other data were obtained via observations of the nurseries, tape-recorded verbal interactions between parents and nursery staff and casual conversations with mothers and nurses. The data revealed that while the mothers' and nurses' discourses on what makes a 'good mother' in the context of the neonatal nursery converged to some extent, there were important differences. The mothers particularly emphasized the importance of physical contact with their infants and breastfeeding, while the nurses privileged presence in the nursery and willingness to learn about the infant's condition and treatment. There was evidence of power struggles between the mothers and nurses over the handling and treatment of the infants, which had implications for how the mothers constructed and practised motherhood. The mothers attempted to construct themselves as 'real mothers', which involved establishing connection with their infants and normalizing them. In time, many of the mothers sought to position themselves as the 'experts' on their infants. For their part, the nurses attempted to position themselves as 'teachers and monitors of the parents', 'protectors of the infants' and 'experts' by virtue of their medical training and experience. Differences in defining the situation resulted in frustration, resentment and anger on the part of the mothers and disciplinary and surveillance actions on the part of many of the nurses, both covert and overt. The nurses' attitude to and treatment of the mothers was integral in the development of the mothers' relationship with their infants in the nurseries, and this influence extended beyond discharge of the infants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child, Hospitalized / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intensive Care Units, Neonatal*
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • New South Wales
  • Nurse's Role
  • Nurse-Patient Relations*
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Object Attachment
  • Power, Psychological
  • Professional-Family Relations*