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Parenthood and identity after the neonatal intensive care unit : experiences in parenting a NICU graduate
Cyrilla J. Ray
May 8, 2019
This thesis seeks to get a clearer and more extensive picture of a unique and often challenging entrance to parenthood with the overarching research question: how does having an infant who spent time in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) influence parents 5-25 years after their NICU experience? While social science research has largely neglected the influence of this occurrence on subsequent parental experiences as NICU graduates grow out of infancy, this thesis spearheads this exploration using semi-structured in-depth interviews with 11 parents of NICU graduates. Specifically, interviews gathered data on parental beliefs on separation from and protection of their child, parental practices, and anxiety surrounding parenthood including feelings of uncertainty, inadequacy, and powerlessness. Gender and socioeconomic status of participants was also recorded. Findings understand parent experiences within the NICU through a microsociological lens founded in symbolic interactionism. This perspective offers a distinctly social conceptualization of parental experiences such as an identity reliant on others and a parental role reliant on collective understandings of parenthood. Because most research on parental experiences in the NICU has focused on psychology with an emphasis on the individual parent or child, this connection to shared meanings in society is novel. This thesis uses the sociological work of Annette Lareau, Sharon Hays, Sheldon Stryker, and Charles Horton Cooley as guides using sociological theories of intensive mothering, concerted cultivation, identity theory, and the looking glass self. This thesis reviews literature on the topic and moves on to a signposting section on how participants understand parenthood in contemporary America and then moves on to describe experiences within the NICU including anxiety, helplessness and difficulty with separation, all of which inform what this study finds on the post-NICU parent; specifically, a distinct parental identity and vulnerability to anxiety. With findings on parental experiences both in and out of the NICU being somewhat scarce within sociology, this study reiterates and validates specific parental experiences with social support, gender, anxiety, powerlessness, separation, and lost expectations in this setting. The findings of this study offer insight into the unique challenges of parenting a neonatal intensive care unit graduate and these should be taken into consideration when developing systems of support for parents in this setting. Based on these findings, I recommend health providers, counselors, and support groups alike stress the NICU as educational and empowering in their discussions and debriefs with NICU parents. I also emphasize the importance of parental autonomy in the NICU and posit it is crucial medical staff brief NICU parents on the potential lasting influences the experience may have on them.