Hello baby! Building the social capital of new parents
2015 was a big year for me. Beyond my usual realm of work, I became a new parent, welcoming a baby boy. I wasn’t alone either – we’ve had something of a baby boom here at Cube lately.
And while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the role of parent, I’ve also had some great opportunities to see public value in action from a different perspective. From our health and hospital services, to public spaces and parks, to (pram friendly) road and pathway planning, public libraries, pools and a renewed appreciation for fresh, farm direct food, the list goes on.
For many parents in Australia, soon after a baby arrives there is an invitation to attend a parents group. These groups are established and facilitated by Local Government Maternal and Child Health Nursing (MCHN) services, and typically provide meetings to offer advice over 5-8 weeks. Weekly sessions cover information on topics such as settling your baby, introducing solids, or looking after a sick child. And now here’s the awesome bit. After the official Local Government facilitation stops, these parent groups nearly always keep on going.
I’ve always thought parents groups were a great concept, but to have the opportunity to be a part of one has been a wonderful experience, allowing me to reflect on their public value in building social capital, healthy families, and better outcomes for children.
The idea of parents groups (or ‘mothers groups’ as you may have previously known them), emerged in response to changing societal structures. As women have joined the workforce, as young people have moved away from their own parents to new areas, and as couples have taken to starting a family later in life, many of our traditional neighbourhood supports and networks have suffered. As a consequence, people becoming parents for the first time regularly find themselves without the necessary social structures (‘social capital’) to support this big change in their lives.
Studies suggest that the concept, while not without its challenges, is wildly successful, at least on the count of building social capital in local communities. In a 2001 study Scott et al followed up with 24 parenting groups one year after they had been originally formed. Although formal sessions only run for the first month or two, a full year later 23 of the 24 groups still met regularly and after 18 months, 16 of the groups were still meeting. This is a fantastic community development outcome by anyone’s account.
What an innovative way to build public value! Governments invest in this important initial phase of gathering new parents together over a matter of weeks, and then this investment compounds for months, and more often than not, years, building the psychosocial health, confidence and wellbeing of parents and the longer-term health and wellbeing of children.
Studies have also explored these specific values some seven years after they were formed with one study (Johnson et al 2000) concluding that participants fared better in child health, nutrition, parenting skills and maternal self-esteem than those parents and children who were not engaged in a parenting group.
In an era where community resilience and neighbourhood social networks are challenged by our commuting lifestyles, our lack of extended family neighbourhoods, and busy careers, our local governments through their local Maternal and Child Health Nursing services are quietly planting and nurturing little social networks all over town.
“Our Local Governments through their local Maternal and Child Health Nursing services are quietly planting and nurturing little social networks all over town.”
As is to be expected, some unresolved issues remain. The first is that not everyone’s experience of a parenting group is positive. I have been saddened to learn that for some groups, the experience can feel pressured, competitive or even exclusive rather than inclusive. Here, the value of skilled facilitation and an awareness of group dynamics in those first weeks cannot be underestimated. Another evolving challenge is how to better engage and encourage more men so that they too can benefit directly.
Personally, I feel better connected to my local neighbourhood now that I know a new group of wonderful people in the area. I also know that I am more confident as a new parent with my posse of other new parents, where no question is dumb and every question gets a laugh or a litany of different answers. For our son, his instant gang of little friends is already proving to be a highlight and we look forward to many years of play to come. I am very grateful for the simplicity of this public service and its long lasting gift to my new family.
Piqued your interest? Here are a couple of good papers to continue your reading:
Carolan, M. (2005) Maternal and child health nurses: A vital link to the community for primiparae over the age of 35, Contemporary Nurse, Vol 18 Issue 1-2, pp 133-14.
Hanna, B., Edgecombe, G., Jackson, C., Newman, S. (2002) The importance of first-time parent groups for new parents, Nursing and Health Sciences, Vol 4 Issue 4, pp 209-214.
Johnson, Z., Molloy, B., Scallan, E., Fitzpatrick, P., Rooney, B., Keegan, T., Byrne, P. (2000) Community Mothers Programme – seven year follow-up of a randomised controlled trial of non-professional intervention in parenting, Journal of Public Health Medicine, Vol 22, pp 337-342.
Mulcahy, C., Parry, D., Glover, T. (2010) Play‐group politics: a critical social capital exploration of exclusion and conformity in mothers groups, Leisure Studies, Vol 29 Issue 1, pp 3-27
Scott, D., Brady, S., Glynn, P. (2001) New Mother Groups as a Social Network Intervention: Consumer and Maternal and Child Health Nurse Perspectives, Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol 18 Issue 4, pp 23-29