Motherhood and Reproduction in the Lives of Women with Bipolar Disorder

Date of Completion

January 2011


Women's Studies|Psychology, Clinical|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




In empirical studies, the voices of women with bipolar disorder have been blended with those of other mothers with mental illnesses in reports on motherhood in their situated lives; however, the voices describing mothering with bipolar disorder have rarely been heard. Furthermore, their voices have often been silenced in biomedical investigations of self-care during reproduction with this highly heritable disorder. In this qualitative interview research project, the voices of women with bipolar disorder were placed at the center, illuminating reproduction and motherhood from their standpoints. Criterion sampling was used. Twenty-six participants self-selected to enter into this research project, ranging in age from twenty-eight to sixty-four. Fifteen were involved with self-help and recovery. Data collection occurred through two focused life history interviews with participants as research collaborators. Analysis was conducted using qualitative methods based in symbolic interaction with a feminist lens, with findings reported here. ^ Findings include three frames around which participants assigned meaning to bipolar disorder: role performance scrutiny, family legacy and medicalization. Emergent themes relevant to reproductive decision-making concerned mate selection; informed risk-benefit decisions; and moral aspects. Emergent themes relevant to mothering include: raising children with motherhood guilt; negotiating and relinquishing motherhood duties; monitoring self-care with the support of others. Illuminated are the qualitative features of support in participants' reproductive decision-making and interdependent contexts for mothering and self-care with bipolar disorder. Study findings have relevance to women with bipolar disorder and their families, other women who experience motherhood in the contemporary United States, and practitioners across disciplines who work with women and their families affected by the disorder. These often resilient women have experienced healing across the developmental trajectory. They described shared awareness, reciprocity and mutuality in their relationships with empathic others. From their wisdom represented here, opportunities are available for others with bipolar disorder and their sources of support to learn about living and mothering with bipolar disorder. Participants' wisdom inspires a shift in clinical practices and community supports for women's experiences of motherhood as presently constructed. ^