Healthy communities start with healthy families. That’s the guiding premise behind Motherwise.

Healthy communities start with healthy families. That’s the guiding premise behind Motherwise.

Galena Rhoades’ research has attracted funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a number of individual donors.

Seven months pregnant, 37-year-old Anna regards the pending arrival of her second child with a mix of expectation and anxiety.

After all, everything in her life is in flux.The father of her baby, and of her 8-year-old son, Gerardo, was deported to Mexico shortly before the Denver native learned she was pregnant. Although the couple remains in touch via phone calls and texts, Anna can’t count on him for the day-to-day support that would come with proximity.

For the time being, Anna and her son are living with her brother, and she is juggling the responsibilities associated with supervising an active third-grader, preparing for a new baby and taking care of her health. Recently diagnosed with gestational diabetes, she needs to watch her diet carefully to ensure a safe delivery and a healthy infant. 

It’s all pretty overwhelming, but Anna is learning to negotiate the challenges thanks to MotherWise, a Denver-based program created by Galena Rhoades, a research associate professor in DU’s Department of Psychology. 

Housed at Denver’s Rose Andom Center, which opened in 2016 as Colorado’s first family justice center, MotherWise partners with Denver Health to provide support and programs on healthy family relationships to disadvantaged women who are pregnant or have newborn babies. 

“A new baby comes with many changes and many decisions to make,” Rhoades explained, noting that the six-week MotherWise program empowers mothers with the tools and resources to hone their communication and relationship skills and learn about ways to care for and connect with a newborn—all in the interest of helping their families thrive at this critical stage in life.

The training has allowed Anna to dial down the stress of a long-distance relationship. She has learned to share her feelings and fears with greater specificity and not assume that her partner knows what is going on.

“I have learned that no matter how long you’ve been with someone,” she said, “sometimes it’s just good to use your words. Just don’t assume they should know you or know what you need or that you’re worried or sad. Sometimes you have to say it. With all the colors.” 

The program grew out of Rhoades’ research on how people form relationships and make decisions, as well as her work determining which relationship-building programs yield the best results. It uses a field-tested curriculum that Rhoades developed with her DU colleague Scott Stanley. 

Chris Carey, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Denver Health, considers the program an essential part of prenatal care in a population at high risk for preterm births and low birth weight in babies. By helping new and expectant mothers cultivate valuable life skills, MotherWise works to reduce their stress, anxiety and depression. And for the new arrival and the entire family, that’s no small thing.  

“Depression is a large risk factor for preterm birth, low birth weight and pre-eclampsia,” Carey explained. “The impacts of depression on adverse pregnancy outcomes are at least as great—are on the same order of magnitude—as smoking.”

For society as a whole, Carey added, MotherWise represents a wise investment. “Adverse pregnancy outcomes are very expensive: $300,000 of medical expenses for a preterm infant in the first year of life,” he said. “So if you pay for health insurance, if your company pays for health insurance, or you own a company that buys health insurance for its employees, these costs are shared across the community.”  

Just as important, Rhoades said, babies carried to term, born at a healthy weight and raised in a stable situation are more likely to have better, more productive lives. “Providing the kind of support we offer [to mothers] has the potential to impact important outcomes later on—improving the family’s stability going forward and really improving the lives of her children in the long term,” Rhoades said.

To gauge that potential, a research study aims to show whether MotherWise can reduce preterm birth and other complications related to early infant development. 

Meanwhile, for Anna, who has put her MotherWise training to work on a daily basis, the pending arrival of her baby girl remains daunting. But she has also learned that she can adjust to whatever challenges lie ahead, whether they are financial or personal. “It is kind of hard to do it on your own,” she said. “But now I know I’m capable of being able to move on.”