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Sociologist, Health Scientist Examine Pandemic’s Impact on New Mothers

By Megan Jonas

When Associate Professor of Sociology Stacy George's second child was born in fall 2019, she was reminded how hard parenting an infant can be. Even for new mothers who can rely on help from family and friends, support groups and frequent doctor visits, George says, "there's still a sense of isolation when you have young children."

Several months later the COVID-19 pandemic began, and George witnessed and experienced the resulting restrictions on social opportunities and medical care. "COVID certainly exacerbated that sense of isolation for people in general," George says, "but how much more so for young parents?"

This academic year, George is investigating this question with Associate Professor of Health Sciences Robin Pickering, who teaches courses in community health and directs the women's & gender studies program. Supported by a Hugh Johnston Interdisciplinary Research Grant from Whitworth, the pair will survey first-time mothers whose children were born during the pandemic about the social support they received, and will analyze the results using their distinct academic expertise.

Pickering has long been interested in the role of social support in postpartum health. "From a community health perspective, we build health by building communities, and we have a breakdown in community right now," she says. "I'm interested in looking at how the presence or absence of social support during the pandemic has impacted mental and physical health outcomes."

"...we build health by building communities, and we have a breakdown in community right now."

George will examine the data from her training as both a sociologist and marriage and family therapist. She believes the different theories and perspectives she and Pickering bring to the project will provide a more comprehensive assessment of what has been happening "interpersonally, in the family, and for women's and gender issues."

Pickering adds, "Our fields are both interested in building community and optimizing social groups and family connections, and there's much to be gained by having these conversations and looking at data using slightly different lenses." She believes their research will identify broad effects from the changes in family and social dynamics.

While many COVID-related studies have focused on families of school-age children, George says the population they are studying has been vastly under-researched. "I hope this will bring social awareness of the impact," she says. The pair also expect their research could inform policy decisions, health promotion programming and counseling approaches.

"This project has so much potential," George says. "Our questions are purposefully vague because we don't know what we're going to find. I am excited to discover what is worth investigating in more depth."

Left: Robin Pickering, Associate Professor of Health Sciences. Right: Stacy George, Associate Professor of Sociology