Lost mothers – how imprisoned women and those who support them experience enforced separation of new-born babies

Project: Research

Project Details


The following details my three-stage proposal and the contribution to the sociology of health and illness.The funding will contribute to: 1. The completion of dissemination of papers from my dissertation to include:•A paper submitted for peer review in Theoretical Criminology or Journal of Contemporary Criminology - “Institutional thoughtlessness and childbearing women in the prison estate”. This would deploy Crawley’s (2005) concept of institutional thoughtlessness as to consider pregnancy and childbirth in prison. The paper will explore the analytical purchase of the concept, originally developed in relation to older men in prison, and comment on its value in wider contexts. •A paper submitted for peer review to Midwifery : “An ethnographic study of pregnant women’s experiences of midwifery care in English prisons” - Examining Maternity service provision, access to midwifery care, whilst caught between penal and healthcare services, and women and staff perceptions of midwifery support in prison. •An oral paper to be presented at The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) in 2021 in Bali, Indonesia – (this was postponed due to Covid-19 and the paper had been accepted for a 2020 presentation). 2.Secondary analysis of data collected under the theme of separating and anticipating separation (of new-born baby from childbearing woman)Detailed further in-depth analysis is required to explore the notion of enforced separation which Kitzinger (1997) described as ‘emotional mutilation’ for both mother and baby. The mother undergoing enforced separation endures traumatically physical wounds of separation (e.g. breast engorgement and leaking and/or surgical wounds: e.g. caesarean scar or perineal tear/episiotomy) but without a baby to give them purpose. The experience of parting, or anticipating the separation, for imprisoned mothers has been explored before by Wismont (2000) and Chambers (2009), yet detailed further analysis of my data is required to build on this body of knowledge and further enhance the understanding of separation. This will also contribute to the work of Broadhurst et al., (2015) and deepen the understanding of ‘lost mothers’. In my research the unique pain of losing a baby in this way was commonly described by women as being “ripped” apart or their new-born being “ripped” from them symbolising violence in the act of separation. The women returning to prison, usually within 24–48 hours of birth, was said to be “devastating” and “heart-breaking” yet women talked of ways to be strong and move forward with resignation on return to prison without their baby: “It’s really hard, but there's nothing I can do about it…I have my moments, I'm upset, but just I'd rather to try and keep myself strong” (Susan).Secondary analysis of the rich data collected will allow for this in-depth analysis of the physical and emotion sensations of being forcibly separated from a new-born baby. Birth supporters provide continuous care, advocacy and emotional support before, during, or after the birth of a baby. They are often known as a ‘doula’, a woman, usually a mother herself, who is trained in providing birth support but not a health professional with any statutory responsibility. Proposed new research examining the experiences of birth supporters attending women separated from their babies will support this secondary analysis, building upon women’s experiences.3. Pilot study: Examination of the experiences of birth supporters attending women who are being separated AimThis proposed new research will examine the experiences of birth supporters attending women who are being separated from their babies through:•Audio-recorded focus groups with birth supporters•One to one in-depth interviews with birth supportersObjectivesTo uncover themes and elucidate the experiences of those who support women being separated from their newborn babies to add to the secondary analysis of women’s experiences of separation whilst in prison.Proposed MethodologyTwo focus groups – five participants in each groupOne to one interview with six to eight participantsSample criteria: birth supporters who volunteer for the charity: ‘Birth Companions’. Participants will be given a gift token to thank them and a donation will be given to the charity who the women volunteer for. AnalysisA thematic analytical approach will be employed to analyse the data.Timescale12 monthsEthical approvalUniversity ethics approval will be sought.4. Major grant proposal A grant application will build upon the findings of secondary analysis of existing data and the pilot study. Application will be made to The Wellbeing of Women (WoW) or the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC in order to undertake a more in-depth study of women’s experiences of separation.Contribution to medical sociology / sociology of health and illness and the sociology of reproductionMy research exploring the experiences of pregnancy in English prisons provides several notable additions to previous evidence, enhancing the understanding of the pregnant woman’s experience. Participants often experienced a deep connectedness with their unborn baby and throughout my thesis, there are examples of how loving that connection can be, building on Wismont (2000) and Chambers (2009) findings. The anticipation of separation mirrors some of Shroeder and Bell’s (2005) research, in that the anticipation of separation elicits feelings of loss. “It’s the biggest fear in your mind”. Crewe et al. (2017) found that the severing of relationships, especially of a mother from her children, was a struggle to cope with. The temporary status of being pregnant created a rhetoric of ‘I don’t know how I will cope’, yet women did seem to cope, moving from one liminal state (Van Gennep, 1960/2011) (expectant mother) to another (baby-less mother) to another (a ‘normal’ prisoner). The proposed secondary analysis and pilot research into birth supporters’ experiences will further add to the body of medical sociology and sociology of health and illness by including a discourse analysis analysing the concept of separation through the lens of Kitzinger’s (1997) proposed concept of enforced separation being ‘emotional mutilation’. A paper will be written and submitted for peer review in Sociology of Health and Illness presenting the findings and exploring the concept of ‘lost mothers’ in depth: “lost mothers – how imprisoned women experience enforced separation of their new-borns”. A pitch will be prepared to submit to ‘The Conversation’ to disseminate findings to a wider lay audience. Findings will be presented orally at Women, Family, Crime & Justice research network; The British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2021, the International Confederation of Midwives triennial conference and The Royal College of Midwives Annual Conference.ReferencesBroadhurst, K., Alrouh, B., Yeend, E., Harwin, J., Shaw, M., Pilling, M., and Kershaw, S. (2015). Connecting Events in Time to Identify a Hidden Population: Birth Mothers and Their Children in Recurrent Care Proceedings in England. British Journal of Social Work, Volume 45, Issue 8, 1 December 2015, pp. 2241–2260. Chambers, A. N. (2009). Impact of Forced Separation Policy on Incarcerated Postpartum Mothers. Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice, 10(3), 204-211.Crewe, B., Hulley, S., and Wright, S. (2017). The Gendered Pains of Life Imprisonment. British Journal of Criminology, 20.Kitzinger, S. (1997). 'Sheila Kitzinger's Letter from Europe: How can we Help Pregnant Women and Mothers in Prison?', Birth, 24(3), pp.197-8.Schroeder, C., and Bell, J. (2005). Doula Birth Support for Incarcerated Pregnant Women. Public Health Nursing, 22(1), 53-58.Wismont, J. M. (2000). The Lived Pregnancy Experience of Women in Prison. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, 45(4), 292-300.Van Gennep, A. (1960/2011). The Rites of Passage: University of Chicago Press. Routledge.
Short titleLost Mothers
Effective start/end date1/09/2031/08/21


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.