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Paper

Differences and similarities between the experiences of mothers and fathers of a child with a disability: the point of view of parents

abstract

Background. Until the early 1980s, few researchers focused on the differential experiences of mothers and fathers of a child with a disability. Most research dealt with mothers in this situation and their needs, perceptions and behaviours, without exploring the experience of fathers. Yet studies have revealed differences in the way mothers and fathers experience parenting a child with a disability. Meanwhile, professionals and physicians still have a stereotyped vision of these mothers' and fathers' roles.

 

Objectives. This study set out to explore the point of view of mothers, fathers, professionals and physicians concerning the similarities and differences in the experience of mothers and fathers as regards perceptions and adaptive strategies for living with a child with cerebral palsy. It also identified the knowledge acquired in the course of this experience, the conditions for acquiring this knowledge, and the transformation of mothers and fathers at the individual, parental, conjugal and extrafamilial levels.

 

Methodology. This was a qualitative study using co-construction of each person's experience and knowledge. Individual interviews were conducted with 13 fathers and 13 mothers (age 26 to 46) of children with a cerebral palsy, and with 4 physicians and 17 health professionals (psychologists, physiotherapists, nurses, kinesiologists, massage therapists, social workers, speech therapists, occupational therapists) working with this clientele.

 

Results. Mothers seem to experience their grief on a more emotional level than fathers. They use active adaptive strategies such as seeking out information, weeping, actively taking care of their child and turning to the extended family, social circle and health professionals for support. Mothers are in tune with what their child, spouse and extended family are going through. They perform daily tasks, talk about the disability and look for support as an extension of their maternal role of caring for the child. Fathers seem to experience their grief more at the cognitive level, distancing themselves somewhat at every level and employing adaptive strategies less actively than mothers. Fathers are more likely to use mechanisms of denial, escape and withdrawal. They need to adopt the child, make the child part of their own story and bring the child into society. Fathers often break away from the over-authoritarian paternal model and emphasize the qualities of the maternal model in their family background.

At the extrafamilial level, fathers have trouble sharing the problem and asking for support. As their beliefs about difference evolve, mothers and fathers apply their new knowledge in all areas of their life. At the individual level, mothers develop more self-respect and a greater sense of self-worth by respecting their own limits, while fathers develop patience and perseverance.

At the parental level, mothers and fathers build new parenting skills, gain confidence in their child and learn to respect the educational values of other parents. Their common goal is to make the child as autonomous as possible. For this, mothers focus mainly on being with the other person, other people and other people with the child. Fathers tend to direct their energies towards doing and coping in a more external space (sports, workplace).

At the conjugal level, they learn to respect each other's differences. In dealing with health professionals, they use their learning and transformation to have their needs addressed. Through this adaptation/transformation process, mothers and fathers seek to normalize their life situation with a child with a disability. Significant differences were observed between parents whose child was under three and those whose child was over three.

 

Recommendations. This study points to avenues for enriching the family intervention. It provides a fuller understanding of the adaptation/transformation process undergone by mothers and fathers, and of the individual and family dynamic resulting from the arrival of a child with a health problem, as well as the effects of potential marginalization of these parents and the different ways in which mothers and fathers adjust.

This situation has the potential for transforming both parents. Many similarities were observed with the families of children without a disability. Difficulties common to both types of families were exacerbated by the child's problem.

 

Key references

Hastings, R. P., Kovshoff, H., Brown, T., Ward, N. J., Espinosa, F. D., & Remington, B. (2005). Coping strategies in mothers and fathers of preschool and school-age children with autism. Autism, 9(4), 377-391.

Pelchat, D., Lefebvre, H. Levert, M.J. (2007). Gender differences and similarities in the experience of parenting a child with a health problem: Current state of knowledge. Journal of child health care. 11(2), 112-131. http://chc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/ abstract/11/2/112.

Pelchat, D., Lefebvre, H., Perreault, M. (2003). Differences and similarities between mothers' and fathers' experiences of parenting a child with a disability. Journal of child health care, 7 (4), 231-247. http://chc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract /7/4/231.

 

Contacts: Diane Pelchat, Ph.D. Psychology, Emeritus Professor, Université de Montréal, Faculty of Nursing, Université de Montréal, P.O.B. 6128, Downtown Station, Montréal, QC H3C 3J7 Canada. E-mail: diane.pelchat@umontreal.ca, Phone: 1-514-680-4218.

 

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