The Uses of Maternal Distress in British Society, c.1948-1979
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After the Second World War mothering became an object of social, political, medical and psychiatric investigation. These investigations would in turn serve as the bases for new campaigns around the practice, meaning and significance of maternity. This brought attention to mothers’ emotional repertoires, and particularly their experiences of distress. In this thesis I interrogate the use of maternal distress, asking how and why maternal distress was made visible by professions, institutions and social movements in postwar Britain. To address this I investigate how maternal mental health was constituted both as an object of clinical interrogation and used as evidence of the need for reform. Social and medical studies were used to develop and circulate ideas about the causes and prevalence of distress, making possible a new series of interventions: the need for more information about users of the health care service, an enhanced interest in disorders at the milder end of the psychiatric ‘spectrum’, and raised expectations of health. I argue that the approaches of those studying maternal distress were shaped by their particular agendas. General practitioners, psychiatrists, activists in the Women’s Liberation Movement, clinicians interested in child abuse and social scientists, sought to understand and explain mothers’ emotions. These involvements were shaped by the foundation of the National Health Service in 1948 and the crystallization of support for alternative forms of care into self-help groups by 1979. The story of maternal distress is one of competing and complementary professional and political interests, set against the backdrop of increasing pessimism about the family. I argue that the figure of the distressed mother has exerted considerable influence in British society. As such, this research has important implications for our understanding of how mental distress developed into a mode of social and political critique across the late twentieth century.
- Theses