Applying Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception to maternal well-being in the first twelve months following birth
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (College of Philosophy and Theology)
Schools and Centres
Philosophy and Theology
Dr Richard Hamilton
Dr Catherine Ward
Maternal emotional wellbeing is a deeply personal experience embodied through society; however previous literature examining emotional adaptation to motherhood has focussed on negative outcomes, risk factors and pathology. This perspective is limiting and objectifies a mother’s experiences rather than exploring her being-in-the- world. In contrast to current conceptualisations, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception asserts a holistic view of the individual within the world, whereby the subjective body and the lived body are intertwined, and perception is a conversation between the body and the world. This conversation is how the mother embodies the world within her being, for example how she internalises the expectation of birth. When a mother’s reality does not meet her ideal this can create emotional disequilibrium which the health system and mothers conceptualise as “disordered” (known as postnatal depression [PND]) rather than as being a normal fluctuation of mothering.
Therefore, the purpose of this phenomenological descriptive study was to describe mothers' perceptions of emotional wellbeing, and PND screening, in the first year postpartum by applying Merleau-Ponty's concepts of perception, the body and embodiment. In-depth interviews were conducted with 26 mothers who had identified themselves as either having or not having experienced PND. Giorgi’sthematic analysis methodology was applied to explore the similarities and differences within the mothers’ perceptions of their emotional wellbeing experiences. The study found that mothers misunderstand the spectrum of emotions they can experience and that this view is engendered by society’s definitions of emotional wellbeing, motherhood and their identity as mothers. This leads mothers to conceal their feelings and not accept healthcare. The current ways of screening for emotional wellbeing misses mothers at risk. By conceptualising PND as a disorder, the health system makes it more difficult for mothers to get help.
The study results demonstrate compelling reasons for society and health care to change the way postpartum care is offered. Health professionals have an obligation to focus on promoting mothers’ abilities to transition to motherhood, normalising rather than pathologising mothers’ emotional responses and mothering behaviours. iv Furthermore, the health system has a duty to prioritise maternal care as a separate entity rather than the mother being perceived as an extension of her baby. The study provides Australian and international health care professionals with further guidance and recommendations to ensure mothers have the best experience of motherhood thereby safeguarding their emotional wellbeing.
Bosco, A. (2019). Applying Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception to maternal well-being in the first twelve months following birth (Doctor of Philosophy (College of Philosophy and Theology)). University of Notre Dame Australia. https://researchonline.nd.edu.au/theses/251