Humans evolved as cooperative childrearers where mothers require allomaternal support from kin and non-kin for successful reproduction. While the sources and nature of support vary across cultures, allomothers (i.e., caregivers other than the mother) are generally associated with better maternal-child wellbeing. Kin, particularly grandmothers, are important supporters in the postnatal period, providing a range of support to new mothers across domains. Mothers with infants are hypothesised to be particularly dependent on allomaternal support due to the high direct care needs of infants (such as prolonged carrying and high feeding frequency) which conflict with other activities; indeed, the postnatal period is often acknowledged in public health literature as a “vulnerable time” for mothers where they require high levels of support. In Western contexts, despite the nuclear-family and intensive parenting norms, where fathers are key allomothers, public health literature shows that wider social support remains important for a range for postnatal health indices. The COVID-19 pandemic in the UK saw widespread disruption to postnatal institutional support services, along with early years settings and schools, likely making mothers both more reliant on, and in need of, informal social support. Due to shared genetic interests, kin are likely to be particularly important at this time and we have previously shown that, during the first lockdown in England, mothers experiencing postnatal depressive symptoms saw higher numbers of kin, but not other network members, suggesting relatives were particularly responsive to maternal need at this time (Myers and Emmott 2021a). However, we do not know how mothers and their relatives were interacting at this time; understanding the ways postnatal mothers’ use extended family support is important for policy protecting maternal wellbeing, both during and beyond the pandemic.
Here we present findings from an ongoing longitudinal ego-centric social network study of a cohort of UK mothers with infants aged <=14months in late 2020. Participants self-reported via online survey up to 25 individuals (i.e. alters) who were important to them, their relationship with them, and the relationships (i.e. ties) between alters, allowing us to map the social networks of these postnatal mothers in detail. Across three survey waves (Wave 1 in mid-October – early December 2020, n = 578; Wave 2 – February 2021, n = 481; Wave 3 – August 2021, data collection underway) participants reported whether each of their network alters had provided emotional support or help with domestic chores, infant feeding, or childcare and, if so, how much or how frequently. Using this data, we first describe the characteristics of the ego-networks of our mothers, assessing average: i) network size, ii) number of kin represented, iii) density (i.e. the proportion of possible ties between alters actually reported, excluding ego-alter ties), and iv) kin density (i.e. the proportion of possible kinship connections between alters, including ego kinship connections (Colleran 2020)) – a proxy for the “likelihood of compound or ‘coordinated’ interests” (Colleran 2020: 4) between relatives in the mother-infant dyad. We then explore who helped postnatal mothers and how during periods of i) varying social restrictions (Wave 1), ii) full lockdown (Wave 2), and iii) few if any restrictions (Wave 3) and test the prediction that kinship status (i.e. consanguineal or affinal kin vs. non-kin) will be associated with an increased probability of an alter having provided support in each domain. Finally, we explore the relationship between the aforementioned network characteristics and the hours of childcare support received (as the most easily quantified measure of support), with the expectation that mothers reporting both a higher number of kin and more kin-dense networks received more support.