(Proposal) Pregnancy and Early Motherhood: A longitudinal investigation of the emotional rollercoaster.


Pregnancy and the early years of motherhood bring big changes for women. Women describe it as a “rollercoaster of emotions” (Coates, 2014). In addition to the physical, psychological, and emotional changes that having a baby brings, women are also subject to restrictive norms and expectations about their behaviours and abilities (Rothman, 2016). Women report overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt during this period, and pressure to meet societal expectations of being a “good” mother (Wolf, 2010). However, research to date has been limited by the cross-sectional nature of the designs, which obscure the changes experienced throughout this period. We would like to conduct a longitudinal study to examine changes in emotions, specifically, disgust, shame, and guilt, and beliefs/experiences about gender roles and motherhood across the pre-natal to post-natal period (first trimester – 9 months antenatal).

Theoretical Background

Theorising suggests that control of women’s reproduction is central to gender relations (cf. Ambivalent Sexism Theory; Glick & Fiske, 1996). Benevolent sexism (or BS) is a system of beliefs concerning women’s greater morality, purity, and caring nature. Central to BS is the reverence of women who fulfil traditional motherhood roles (Murphy et al., 2011; Cikara et al., 2009). Consistent with this, correlational research shows that BS is positively associated with restrictive beliefs about motherhood, including proscriptions on how pregnant women should behave, and BS predicts punishment of women who violate these proscriptions (Murphy et al., 2011). These findings indicate that pregnant women are considered precious and in need of protection, even from themselves. What is less clear is how women’s awareness, personal endorsement, and experiences of BS and pregnancy proscriptions affect their emotions long term.

Prior research has identified that disgust sensitivity (i.e., a disposition to experience disgust frequently and intensely) is heightened during pregnancy (Fessler et al., 2015), though mothers have lower levels of disgust sensitivity than non-mothers (Prokop & Fančovičová, 2016). However, little is known about whether disgust sensitivity fluctuates across the period (i.e., first trimester – 9 months perinatal) for the three domains of pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust (Tybur et al., 2009), as only core disgust has been shown to fluctuate to date. This is important as potentially we will see changes in pathogen disgust that are different from sexual and moral disgust longitudinally.

Recent evidence has also found that disgust sensitivity and shame proneness are positively correlated (Terrizzi Jr & Shook, 2020). It seems necessary to examine these relationships during pregnancy through to the postnatal period, because this is a time where women experience more body shame and objectification (Beech et al., 2020), as well as more feelings of shame and guilt because of their infant feeding choices (Russell et al., in press; Russell et al., 2021; ). Interestingly, it has also been found that both state shame and shame proneness are related to proscriptive beliefs, while guilt and guilt proneness are related to prescriptive beliefs (Sheikh & Janoff-Bulman, 2009). However, these proscriptive beliefs have only been examined in a general sense of morality; thus, it would be interesting to see how proscriptive beliefs about pregnancy/motherhood (Murphy et al. 2011) and morality/self-control (Hofmann et al., 2018) are related to shame proneness as well.

Hypotheses and Data Analyses

We predict that disgust sensitivity will decrease sharply after birth. However, in comparison levels of shame will steadily increase. Shame proneness, but not guilt or disgust, will be positively related to benevolent sexism and proscriptive beliefs. We do not have specific hypotheses about how time will impact these relationships, so these analyses will be exploratory. We also expect that women will report experiencing increased levels of benevolently sexist treatment from others throughout their pregnancy. They will also report higher endorsement of proscriptive beliefs throughout pregnancy. On the other hand, during the postnatal period these may either decrease in importance, or there may be a shift to different forms of proscription (i.e., motherhood and morality), increasing the relevance of these. Our hypotheses will be tested using multilevel data analyses, i.e., mixed models.


We would like to conduct a longitudinal study at the following 7 time points (first trimester, second trimester, third trimester, within three months, six months, and nine months after birth). In our lab we have successfully recruited similar samples on prolific, and conducted longitudinal studies; therefore, this funding opportunity would be an excellent opportunity to conduct the research we are proposing. Given possible attrition rates and the necessity to conduct specific pre-screening (i.e., to ensure women are in their 1st trimester at the 1st time point), we will first pre-screen 1,000 women for eligibility (paying 15p per participant, £204 in total). We will recruit 400 women to take part in each of the 7 time points, it is estimated that each time point will take 20 minutes; therefore, they will be paid £2.50. We would therefore like to ask for £1,360 for each time point (£9,520 total). This sample size is based on previous longitudinal designs in the perinatal period (see data extraction table Russell et al., 2021), where sample sizes of 250-300 participants are used but due to possible dropouts we will recruit 400 participants.

We will measure the following at each time point:

  • Disgust sensitivity
  • Shame and guilt proneness
  • Benevolent and hostile sexism
  • Experiences of benevolent sexism
  • Proscriptive beliefs about a) morality, b) self-control, c) pregnancy and motherhood


This research will have theoretical impact by examining disjointed literatures to date. It will also have practical significance, by shedding light on the emotional and ideological impact that pregnancy and motherhood have on women. It is hoped that these findings will lead to the development of interventions to support women during these important times.

Open Science

This study has been pre-registered ( https://osf.io/d3xp4 ) and will be added to our ResearchGate and OF profiles. Data and materials will be uploaded to OSF once all timepoints have been completed. Finally, we will upload a pre-print of the manuscript (to https://psyarxiv.com/) when submitting to a journal.


Beech, O. D., Kaufmann, L., & Anderson, J. (2020). A systematic literature review exploring objectification and motherhood. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 44 (4), 521-538. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0361684320949810

Cikara, M., Lee, T. L., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2009). Ambivalent sexism at home and at work: How attitudes toward women in relationships foster exclusion in the public sphere. In J. T. Jost, A. C. Kay, & H. Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification , (pp. 444-462). Oxford University Press.

Coates, R., Ayers, S. & de Visser, R. (2014). Women’s experiences of postnatal distress: a qualitative study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth , 14 , 359- . https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2393-14-359

Cohen, T. R., Wolf, S. T., Panter, A. T., & Insko, C. A. (2011). Introducing the GASP scale: a new measure of guilt and shame proneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5) , 947 –966. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022641.

Fessler, D. M., Eng, S. J., & Navarrete, C. D. (2005). Elevated disgust sensitivity in the first trimester of pregnancy: Evidence supporting the compensatory prophylaxis hypothesis. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(4 ), 344-351.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (3), 491-512. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.491

Hofmann, W., Meindl, P., Mooijman, M., & Graham, J. (2018). Morality and self-control: How they are intertwined and where they differ. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27 (4), 286-291.

Murphy, A. O., Sutton, R. M., Douglas, K. M., & McClellan, L. M. (2011). Ambivalent sexism and the “do” s and “don’t” s of pregnancy: Examining attitudes toward proscriptions and the women who flout them. Personality and Individual Differences, 51 (7), 812-816. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.031

Rothman, B. K. (2016). Beyond mothers and fathers: Ideology in a patriarchal society . In Mothering (pp. 139-157). Routledge.

Russell, P.S., Birtel, M.D., Smith, D.M, Hart, K, & Newman, R. (in press) Infant Feeding and Internalized Stigma: The Role of Experienced Emotions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology .

Russell, P.S., Smith, D.M. Birtel, M.D., Hart, K. A & Golding, S. (2021). The Role of Emotions and Injunctive Norms in Breastfeeding: A systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review . DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2021.1893783

Sheikh, S., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (2009). The “shoulds” and “should nots” of moral emotions: A self-regulatory perspective on shame and guilt. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (2), 213-224. doi:10.1177/0146167209356788

Sutton, R. M., Douglas, K. M., & McClellan, L. M. (2011). Benevolent sexism, perceived health risks, and the inclination to restrict pregnant women’s freedoms. Sex Roles, 65 (7-8), 596-605.

Terrizzi Jr, J. A., & Shook, N. J. (2020). On the Origin of Shame: Does Shame Emerge From an Evolved Disease-Avoidance Architecture? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 14, 19.

Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D., & Griskevicius, V. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(1), 103-122. doi:10.1037/a0015474

Wolf, J. B. (2010). Is breast best?: Taking on the breastfeeding experts and the new high stakes of motherhood . NYU Press.