Psychological maturity and the transition to parenthood: a study of older first-time mothers
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 14:38 by Anna-Lisa Camberis
In the context of the trend toward delayed parenthood, this research examined whether older maternal age is associated with greater psychological maturity, and whether greater psychological maturity provides any adaptive benefit during the transition to motherhood. A range of outcomes during pregnancy and early parenthood were considered, including psychological adaptation in pregnancy, early postnatal adjustment, maternal mental health, and parenting at seven months. This research is informed by two theoretical frameworks. The life-course perspective of development proposes that the changing social structure of the life course contributes to shifts in the normative ages of life events and one consequence is that women are delaying parenthood until they have attained other adult milestones and feel psychologically ready. Additionally, the parenting models of Belsky (1984) and Heinicke (1984) propose that while parenting is multiply determined, the psychological characteristics of the parent are the most important determinant, likely to impact parenting both directly and indirectly through other contextual factors. Participants were enrolled in an Australian prospective study of first-time parenthood with a particular focus on older maternal age. The sample comprised predominantly English-speaking, socio-economically advantaged women living in a metropolitan area, aged between 24 and 43 years who were expecting their first baby. Because of the strong association between older maternal age and declining fertility, the sampling strategy was to oversample older first-time mothers (aged 37 or more) relative to population rates and recruit approximately equivalent numbers of women who had conceived spontaneously or after fertility treatment. Three studies were undertaken using the same group of participants. In the first study, 240 women (mean age = 32.81 years; 41% conceived after fertility treatment) completed measures of psychological maturity (hardiness, ego development, and ego resiliency), and pregnancy adaptation (maternal fetal attachment and formation of a maternal identity) in the third trimester of pregnancy, and a measure of adjustment to motherhood at 4-6 months postpartum. Structural equation modelling showed age was positively associated with a latent construct of psychological maturity, and psychological maturity was associated with more optimal adaptation in pregnancy and early motherhood. Both psychological maturity and pregnancy adaptation predicted positive postnatal adjustment. The second study sought to replicate and extend the above findings in relation to maternal mental health across the transition to parenthood, whilst taking account of well documented determinants of perinatal mental health. Participants were 252 women (mean age 32.97 years; 43% conceived after fertility treatment) who completed symptom measures of anxiety, depression and emotional health in pregnancy and again at 4-6 months postpartum. Using the same latent construct of psychological maturity, structural equation modelling showed age-related maturity was related to more optimal mental health in pregnancy and the early months of motherhood directly, and indirectly through contextual factors associated with postnatal mental health, specifically maternal perceptions of an easier infant and a more supportive partner. The final study, in a subset of the larger sample, examined relations among maternal age and the observed quality of maternal-infant interaction at 7-months assessed in two ways: ratings of the mother's sensitivity and responsiveness to her infant's cues, and mind-mindedness, the mother's tendency to attribute mental states to her infant, while also considering whether any age effects were attributable to psychological factors, specifically psychological maturity and parenting cognitions. Participants were 143 mothers (mean age 33.4 years; 41% conceived after fertility treatment) and their first-born infants. Path analysis showed maternal age had both direct and indirect associations with maternal interactive behaviour. Older mothers made more comments about their infants' mental states. They were also more sensitive, however this effect was indirect and explained by greater psychological maturity (hardiness) and a more internal locus of control with regards to parenting. Results suggest that both maternal age and psychological maturity are important contributors to responsive mother-infant interactions. In all three studies, potentially confounding contextual factors associated with older motherhood were included in the models tested, and the relationships established in these models were examined to confirm that they applied regardless of mode of conception (fertility treatment or spontaneous). Overall, the results of this research suggest that older first-time mothers are more psychologically mature, that this maturity contributes to positive adjustment across the transition to parenthood and confers some advantages for parenting in the first postnatal year.