Psychology: exploring the dynamics of antenatal groups

A fascinating exploration into the dynamics of antenatal groups by clinical psychologist Dr Virginia Lumsden. From the supportive, shoulder-to-cry-on friends you might make; to the judgments and comparisons that can make you feel anxious and left out…

Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist. In addition to her clinical and academic work, she is passionate about using psychology to understand everyday situations. When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family. 

Antenatal groups have become a rite of passage for many couples as they prepare to have a baby and become parents. Almost everyone I know who has signed up for such a group has said they’ve done it to make friends. Learning about childbirth and/or parenting is a secondary gain. However, groups are complex creatures with lives of their own and whilst such groups have the potential to be a source of friendship and support, they can also give rise to some unexpected and sometimes unwanted experiences and feelings.

A friend recently told me about her experience of members of her group sharing their birth stories in all their unprocessed, unfiltered and sleep-deprived detail whilst she and her partner, and others in the group, waited for the arrival of their babies. It was overwhelming for her and was counterproductive whilst she tried to ‘get in the zone’ in the last days of her pregnancy. She felt torn between responsibilities to be supportive to her hopefully-to-be-friends at the same time as feeling the need to protect her self. She feared that if she temporarily disengaged from the discussion then she might jeopardise her place in the group. Both options left her feeling unsafe in different ways.

Are group members ‘allowed’ to meet each other as sub-groups of the larger group?

Antenatal groups typically have a facilitator for the first few ‘official’ meetings but after this the group is left to its own devices. Without someone taking the lead, the group must negotiate its own rules and boundaries. This includes how the group will stay in touch with each other how often and where the group meets. There are also often many aspects of group functioning that are not explicitly discussed. Are group members ‘allowed’ to meet each other as sub-groups of the larger group? If they do, is it acceptable to discuss their experiences of the group and other members?

A newly formed group will also grapple with issues of how much to share with each other, particularly when clear boundaries have not been established. Some friends have told me that they’ve felt the need to hide how incredibly hard they were finding those early days of motherhood. Would people be shocked to hear that despite appearances some days were a real struggle? Would they feel supported and looked after or would they be left feeling vulnerable? Equally, I’ve heard of mothers feeling unable to share that they are enjoying their experience of motherhood for fear of being alienated from a group where the focus of conversation is often on the difficulties.

Perhaps you recognise yourself as the person who often takes the lead or the person who allows others to lead

When group members are left to negotiate their own roles it is likely that one or more members will take a lead in organising the others. Perhaps you recognise yourself as the person who often takes the lead or the person who allows others to lead. Maybe you are comfortable with this or resent the position you find yourself in. It is likely there will be other patterns of behaviour that are familiar to you such as always being the one to break a silence, trying to avoid conflict, or being quiet because you feel you don’t have anything of value to contribute to a discussion.

The way we experience others and ourselves in groups depends partly upon the group itself and its members, but it also depends upon us as individuals. When we join a new group we bring with us ‘templates’ of interactions from our previous experiences of being in a group and this influences our behaviour. I know I’m not the only one who still lives with that fear of being last to be picked for the team!

Groups are also a breeding ground for comparison and it can be unwelcome when you had a complicated birth, are still wearing your maternity clothes six months later and your baby wakes at least every two hours in the night

It is recognised that our experience of our family group continues to be highly influential. However, these processes are further complicated by the fact that whilst we are aware of some of ways we may interact with others in a group, there is also much of which we are unaware and in this way there are ‘unconscious’ processes that take place between group members. For example, someone who felt constantly talked over and not listened to in her/his family group may, without realising why, have a strong angry reaction to being interrupted by others in a group setting.

Groups are also a breeding ground for comparison and it can be unwelcome when you had a complicated birth, are still wearing your maternity clothes six months later and your baby wakes at least every two hours in the night. A group that comes together in the context of childbirth and parenting comes together in a context with the potential for differences of opinion; particularly about the ‘best’ way to do things – pain-relief vs no pain-relief, routine vs baby-led, breast-feeding vs bottle-feeding. Comparisons can be unsettling when you feel uncertain about whether or not your choices are the ‘right’ ones for you and strongly held beliefs about a particular way of doing things are sometimes a way to protect ourselves from doubts about whether or not the way we have chosen to do things really is the ‘best’ way.

Complexities often continue in a group that was established at the antenatal stage, particularly around the time of significant developmental milestones and significant events such as preparing to return to work or not. However, whilst some people may appear to be having an easier time than others, most people are having struggles of one sort or another. When a group feels safe enough to share these with each other in a way that is respectful of other people’s experience then the group’s potential to be a supportive experience; and sharing differences of opinion in the group context can lead to understanding other people’s choices.

Being part of a group experience can reduce feelings of isolation and normalise some of the struggles (and joys) associated with having a baby and becoming a parent.

To join a group with the intention of making friends can magnify the challenges, as we are keen to ensure that we fit in and are liked and accepted by the group. Do you ever have a word with yourself ‘not to be sarcastic’ or ‘not to make a joke of everything’ or ‘to make sure you aren’t too quiet’? Often these behaviours that we do but don’t like are our response to feeling anxious, so when we find ourselves feeling anxious we inadvertently do exactly what we planned not to do. But as we make our way home cringing that we ‘over-shared’ (despite our best intentions not to), what we may not realise is that we may have had a positive effect on the group by beginning to break down barriers and create an atmosphere in which sharing the truth is welcomed.

The stages of group development are well documented. My friend’s group is in its infancy and the challenges she is experiencing are typical of this stage. Hopefully the group will successfully navigate these choppy waters and before long she will have more positive experiences. Being part of a group experience can reduce feelings of isolation and normalise some of the struggles (and joys) associated with having a baby and becoming a parent.

Ultimately, groups provide an opportunity for significant shared experience that can deepen our connection and strengthen our relationships with each other; and in this way, has the potential to be a source of support. And if you can feel safe with one another as you sit bleary eyed, teary eyed (from both crying and laughing), dropping cake over yourself as you struggle to feed your baby and yourself, you may well have friends for life.

Follow Dr Virginia Lumsden on Twitter: @DrVLumsden

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