Abstract: Understanding the Development of Prenatal Representations within Couples: A Qualitative Study of Parental Dyads (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Understanding the Development of Prenatal Representations within Couples: A Qualitative Study of Parental Dyads

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Reynders, BA, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI
Tova Walsh, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison
Elizabeth Premo, BS, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background: The prenatal period is widely recognized as a transformative time during which prospective parents begin to identify with their new role as a parent, envision their child as real, and establish a bond with their child. Abundant research has explored this process from the maternal perspective; however, despite mounting evidence supporting the positive impact of pre- and postnatal father engagement on maternal and child outcomes, little work has focused on understanding the paternal prenatal experience. Even less work has explored how mothers’ and fathers’ prenatal experiences relate to and influence one another. These gaps in knowledge demand attention in light of well-documented disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes. This study explored how mothers and fathers develop prenatal representations of the baby – thoughts and feelings about their future child and the relationship they will share – within the parental dyad, in order to better understand an important contextual influence on individual parental experience and parent-child relationship development in the prenatal period.

Methods: The current study is embedded in a larger mixed-methods study with the goal of informing and enhancing services to foster positive transitions to parenthood. Semi-structured, individual interviews were conducted with 18 mother-father dyads expecting their first child, approximately halfway through their pregnancy. Participants were from a large midwestern town and the majority identified as white, between the ages of 20 and 30. The 36 narratives that comprise the data set offered rich data that allowed for selective analysis focusing specifically on themes related to identification with the parental role, physical and emotional preparation for parenthood, and emerging perceptions of the child. Themes identified within the full sample were compared both within and across dyads to identify congruency and variation.

Results: Mothers and fathers both described an increased awareness of impending parenthood after attending their routine 20-week ultrasound, reporting the experience as contributing to a new sense of “realness.” Fathers identified learning the baby’s sex as particularly salient, while mothers focused more consistently on the ability to visually see the fetal movements they had been feeling for some time. Comparisons within parental dyads revealed mothers’ and fathers’ imagination of their child and emerging relationship with their child as generally developing in tandem with one another, with some variation. Within and across dyads, variation was seen in participants’ identification with the parenting role.

Conclusions: These results suggest that parental dyads may begin to develop representations of their child in tandem with one another, although the factors contributing to such representations may vary by gender. This may be particularly important to understand when considering how to support paternal prenatal engagement as a tool for improving maternal and infant outcomes. These results imply that simple dialogue with expectant parents may be sufficient to illuminate practice-relevant aspects of the emerging parent-child relationship, which has significance for future research and practice.