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Dr Koa Whittingham

Email: koa@koawhittingham.com

Twitter: @WhittinghamKoa

Short Author Biography

Dr Koa Whittingham is a psychologist with specialisations in both clinical and developmental psychology, a parenting researcher at the University of Queensland, and a mother.  Koa wrote an initial outline for Becoming Mum while heavily pregnant and not so patiently awaiting the arrival of her first baby.  Most of the content of Becoming Mum was written on a laptop propped up on Koa’s knees while her beloved first child slept across her chest.  Koa lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her husband and her daughter.  She blogs about parenting on her website blog Parenting from the Heart: www.koawhittingham.com/blog.

Long Author Biography

Dr Koa Whittingham is a psychologist with specialisations in both clinical and developmental psychology, a parenting researcher at the University of Queensland, and a mother. 

Professional Memberships

Registered Psychologist in Australia (PSY0000965347) with specialisations in clinical and educational and developmental psychology

Member of the Australian Psychological Society (including clinical and educational/developmental colleges), the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science, the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health and the Australian Breastfeeding Association

Summary of Qualifications

PhD (Clinical Psychology) University of Queensland 2007

Bachelor of Science Honours Class 1 (Psychology) University of Queensland 2003

Bachelor of Science (Psychology) University of Queensland 2002

Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy) University of Queensland 2002

Koa completed her tertiary education at the University of Queensland, culminating in a PhD in clinical psychology in 2007.  From the beginning of her clinical training at UQ, Koa was drawn to the ‘third wave’ Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT), particularly to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, said as the word ‘act’).  Third wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapies represent the latest advances in the evidence-based CBT tradition and incorporate mindfulness, acceptance and vital living.  Koa is passionate about applying ACT to parenting, empowering parents to build loving relationships with their children and to live out their own values as parents. 

Koa has loved science since she was a small child and she feels privileged to have a research career.  Koa has over 25 research publications in peer-reviewed journals and holds an NHMRC postdoctoral research fellowship.  She has worked as a research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Cerebral Palsy and Rehabilitation Research Centre since 2008.  Koa’s research interests fall within three key areas:

  1. Parenting and parenting intervention.
  2. Neurodevelopmental disabilities and special needs, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, Acquired Brain Injury and infants born very preterm.
  3. Third wave CBT, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the clinical use of mindfulness.

Koa is particularly passionate about the application of ACT to parenting. In 2011, Koa was awarded the Early Career Research Award at the International Helping Families Change Conference in acknowledgement of her contributions to research on parenting children with neuro-developmental disabilities.

Koa’s greatest achievement is becoming a parent herself.  Koa fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a mum in July 2011.  Koa first had the idea of writing Becoming Mum, a book to support all women in the transition to motherhood, while trying to conceive herself.  The idea grew along with her pregnancy and she found herself writing an initial outline while heavily pregnant and impatiently awaiting the beginning of labour.  Most of the content of Becoming Mum was literally written on a laptop propped up on Koa’s knees while her beloved first child slept across her chest.

Koa lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and her beloved daughter.  She regularly blogs about parenting issues in her website blog Parenting from the Heart: www.koawhittingham/blog.

Becoming Mum is a truly unique self-help book.  It is the first book written to support women, all women, through the psychological passage to motherhood, empowering them to become the kind of mother they wish to be. 

The psychological passage to motherhood is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most important transitions of a woman’s life.  It is not without its challenges.  1 in 4 confirmed pregnancies end in miscarriage.   1 in 4 women report a traumatic childbirth.   1 in 7 develop postnatal depression.  Even without complications, becoming a mum includes dramatic physical challenges, from morning sickness to the birth itself. It also has wide-reaching flow-on effects, as it changes a woman’s relationship with her partner, her career, her family and her friends. Becoming a mother is a joyous adventure for many, but it is also an adventure that includes physical, mental and emotional challenges, as well as enormous personal adjustment. 

Becoming Mum is grounded in the latest scientific literature on parenting and psychological health, drawing from mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Attachment Theory. The book encourages women to enjoy motherhood and builds each woman’s self-confidence as a mother by helping her to discover – and live by – her unique mothering values.  Further, Becoming Mum liberates mothers from the dual pressures of self-doubt and criticism from others, empowering every mother to parent her child in the way that she feels is best for her own unique baby. Becoming Mum is written in a flexible style that supports each woman’s individual circumstances. The practical strategies provided in the book can also easily be adapted to suit further challenges such as miscarriage, postnatal depression and preterm birth.

Dr Koa Whittingham first had the idea of writing Becoming Mum while trying to conceive herself.  Given what a monumental change it is to become a mother, Koa wondered why a book to support women, all women, through the transition to motherhood did not already exist.  She realised that, as a clinical and developmental psychologist and a parenting researcher, she was the right person to write such a book. The idea for Becoming Mum grew along with Koa’s first pregnancy as she experienced the challenge of becoming a mum for herself.  Koa began to write the book in earnest during her maternity leave.  Her own transition to motherhood, as well as the experience of supporting her two closest friends in becoming mothers themselves, had convinced her that even when the transition to motherhood is smooth, it is still challenging. 

Mums deserve psychological support that is nonjudgmental, empowering and liberating – support that is grounded in each woman’s values and easily adaptable to each woman’s circumstances.  Koa is determined to give all women such support during their transformation to motherhood, and this is her purpose in writing Becoming Mum: to support mothers in becoming the mum they want to be.

Why is Becoming Mum different?

There already exist numerous excellent books that give women clear information on the physical realities of conception, pregnancy and birth as well as practical advice on caring for a newborn baby.  Becoming Mum is the first book written to support women, all women, through the psychological passage to motherhood. 

Why did you write Becoming Mum?

The idea for Becoming Mum first came to me when I began trying to conceive myself.  I was reading lots of pregnancy and baby books and I began to wonder why a book to support women, all women, through the psychological aspects of the transition to motherhood did not exist.  Of course, I soon realised that, as a clinical and developmental psychologist and a parenting researcher, I was exactly the right person to write such a book.  The idea of Becoming Mum grew along with my pregnancy, as I experienced many of the challenges of becoming a mother for myself and supported my two closest friends in becoming mothers for the first time too.  I found myself sketching out an initial outline while heavily pregnant, over my due date and impatiently awaiting the beginning of labour.  During my maternity leave I used my daughter’s nap times to put together a first draft of Becoming Mum.  I am convinced that women deserve psychological support while becoming a mum; support that is nonjudgmental and empowering.  I hope women can find that within Becoming Mum. 

You wrote Becoming Mum while becoming a mum for the first time yourself; why is that important?

Yes, Becoming Mum grew from a vague idea into a clear plan during my pregnancy and the first draft was written during my maternity leave.  In fact, most of the content of Becoming Mum was literally written on a laptop propped up on my knees while my darling daughter slept across my chest.  I think that’s incredibly important because it makes Becoming Mum uniquely genuine.  When you are in the middle of making the transition to motherhood yourself, when you are quite literally leaning over your new baby to type, gently kissing her head as you think through your next sentence, it forces you get real!  It forced me to drop completely the veil of being ‘an expert’ and to, instead, write from my own heart.  Also, everything I wrote had to pass the ‘walk the walk’ test—if I couldn’t do it myself, I wasn’t going to put it into Becoming Mum

What is the research behind this book?

Becoming Mum is firmly grounded in the latest research in both clinical and developmental psychology.  Becoming Mum is grounded start to finish within a new Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT pronounced as the word ‘act’).  In addition, I also draw upon research on mindfulness, on developing compassion, on leading an active and rewarding life, and attachment theory. 

Who is Becoming Mum for?

Becoming Mum was written for all women, to support them in the transition to motherhood from first trying to conceive, through pregnancy and into life as a new mum.  Each chapter of Becoming Mum ends with a section called ‘My Unique Adventure’ that helps women to adapt the content of the chapter to their specific circumstances, including events such as miscarriage, postnatal depression and preterm birth.  Because the heart of Becoming Mum is each woman’s own mothering values, it truly is book for every woman who wishes to become a mother. 

What is mindfulness and why is it important for mothers?

Mindfulness is the skill of being able to bring our attention to focus on what we want our attention to focus on, in the here and now, without judgment. That may sound very simple—and it is very simple—but it is actually very difficult to do!  It is incredible how much of our lives we can spend on automatic pilot, not being very mindful at all.   Yet recent psychological research has shown that living mindfully has benefits for our psychological wellbeing. A regular mindfulness practice can improve emotional stability and help people coping with depression, anxiety disorders and stress.

Mindfulness is particularly beneficial for mothers.  When our attention is in the here and now then we are more likely to notice the little rewards in life; small rewarding moments get turned into nourishing ‘me time’—surely a good thing for a busy mum!  Being psychologically present in the here and now of your life is also important for a mother because the here and now is where your baby is.  If you are psychologically present in this way then you are more likely to notice your baby’s cues, needs, feelings and patterns, and this is the first step to becoming a responsive mum.  You are also more likely to notice your baby’s unique and beautiful personality—to discover all the wonderful things to love about your baby and to discover what you enjoy in your new role as a mother. 

How can a mother learn mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a skill.  So just like other skills such as riding a bike or baking a cake, getting better at it takes practice.  Practicing mindfulness is as simple as deliberately spending time each day practicing bringing your attention back to focus on the here and now.  When you first start practicing mindfulness you’ll probably be surprised at just how often your mind wanders.  Don’t be put off by this.  The purpose of mindfulness practice isn’t to stop your mind from wandering; rather, it is to notice when your mind wanders and to gently bring your attention back to the here and now.  Traditionally, mindfulness is often practiced through mindfulness of breathing.  There’s some logic to this; after all, you carry your breathing around with you everywhere you go, so it is always there to be mindful of!  However, mindfulness can be practiced during any activity.  This is wonderful for new mothers because it means that you can practice mindfulness without needing to find any additional time.  For example, feeding your baby is an ideal time to practice mindfulness.

What are mothering values and why are values important?

Our values are what really matters to us, what gives us that deep sense of satisfaction and joy, what we really want, deep down, our lives to be about.  Values come from the heart.  So our mothering values are what really matters to us as mothers.  What do you hope for your child to be like as an adult, and how might your mothering contribute to that? What kind of impression do you want to leave on your child?  How do you enjoy being a mother?  What actions as a mum give you that, deep down, feeling of satisfaction and joy?  When we truly understand our own values and put them at the centre of our lives, then our lives become meaningful and fulfilling.  Values are flexible, so understanding our values, rather than just our goals, enables us to adapt to challenges, and can help guide us through difficult times. 

What makes a happy mother?

Happiness is a natural flow-on effect from leading a rewarding life.  The transition to motherhood changes a woman’s life completely, from the big fixtures such as her working life, her romantic relationship and her own body to the tiny details like what she eats for lunch.  With such sweeping changes, it is understandable that many women find themselves leading unrewarding lives as new mothers.  You may have built a deeply rewarding and fulfilling life for yourself pre-motherhood, but once the baby arrives you will need to rebuild a new, rewarding life as a mother.  Often we fall into the trap of thinking that the happiness should come first, and then we’ll do all of those important, rewarding activities later.  In fact, we need to build a rewarding life first in order to provide the right environment for happy, positive moods to grow. 

How can a mother build a strong bond with her baby?

There can be a lot of pressure on a woman to bond strongly with her baby at a particular time, such as at birth.  In fact, from baby’s perspective a loving mother–child relationship is built from many repetitions of mother lovingly responding to baby’s needs.  In other words, take the pressure off yourself, because your baby doesn’t need you to feel any particular way about him at birth.  You baby needs you to lovingly respond.  Start by staying psychologically present; that is, by keeping your attention in the here and now with your baby.  Try to gently open yourself up to your unique baby as he is, without any expectation of feeling anything in particular, just notice how your baby is.  Practice showing your baby kindness by responding, as best you can, to your baby’s needs.  With time and patience, a loving bond will grow. 

How can a mother best handle unwelcome advice?

If you ever want to hear a lot of unhelpful advice, become a mum!  The key to managing other people’s advice is to be very clear about what’s in your own heart.  You need to mother by your values, not by other people’s advice.  Not everyone will agree with you and it won’t always be easy, but deep down you’ll know that you are the mum that you want to be.  Remember, your baby has only one mum and it is you.  You have every right to be the mum that you want to be without any need to justify yourself. 

What advice would you give to women experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth?

My heart goes out to all women experiencing the loss of a child. There is no ‘right’ way to grieve so you should grieve in the way that feels right to you.  Some women find it helpful to find ways in which they can honour their lost baby; for example, writing him a letter or poem, planting a tree, lighting a candle, keeping photos, or buying or making a keepsake such as a teddy bear or pendant.  Regardless of how you grieve, you will always be Mum to your babies, and you should feel free to continue to mother your babies in ways that feel right for you. It is also important to consider how you can best honour your baby in how you continue to live your life day by day.

What advice would you give to women planning to breastfeed?

I’m a breastfeeding mother myself and I’ve found my nursing relationship with my daughter deeply rewarding.  If you would like to breastfeed then start by asking yourself: what are the values behind your desire to breastfeed?  Is breastfeeding about promoting your baby’s physical health, or building a loving relationship, or being physically affectionate?  If you understand the values behind your decisions then it is easier to be flexible and to adapt, drawing from your own values, when life doesn’t go according to plan.  Also, although breastfeeding is a positive and deeply rewarding experience for many mums, there are definitely challenging moments, especially in the first few months as you are establishing breastfeeding.  Reminding yourself of why breastfeeding is important to you can give you the strength to persist through these challenging times.  Ultimately, make sure that you breastfeed your baby in a manner that is enjoyable for you.  Use your baby’s feeds as enjoyable and relaxing breaks, even using the time to do something enjoyable for yourself like read a magazine or listen to some music.  If something is rewarding you are much more likely to continue to do it. 

If you could give other women just one piece of advice about becoming a mum what would it be?

Enjoy it!  By which I don’t mean, ‘always feel good’.  That’s impossible.  Becoming a mum is an emotional roller-coaster and you will feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows along the way.  What I do mean is, indulge yourself in experiencing the fullness of your unique journey just as it is, luxuriate in sucking every drop of satisfaction, of meaning and of joy from the experience.  Pay attention to what makes your mother’s heart sing with joy and repeat those actions again and again.  Becoming a mother may sometimes be painful, challenging and stressful, but it also has the potential to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. 

Potential story hooks

Empowering mothers to mother their way

Liberating mothers from self-doubt and criticism

Building self-confidence and self-worth

Enjoying motherhood

The joy of mindful mothering

Inspirational Quotes

‘Our values, just like a guiding star, can guide us through stormy seas. There is a dignity and strength in choosing to face something painful, difficult or frightening in the service of something important to us.’ p. 3

‘If you could simply enjoy being a mum without the need to do anything ‘right’, without fear of judgment from others, with­out pressure from the outside world or from baby’s needs, what would you do?’ p. 5

‘We can either live our lives abundantly, with hearts and minds flung wide open to life, or we can measure our lives out carefully, tip­toeing around our emotional pain but missing out on joy as well.’ p. 15

‘You are confronted with this ques­tion: do you put your energy into fighting with the monsters and trying to keep them out, or do you fling the door to your heart wide open to let your baby in and accept that some of the monsters might sneak in too?’ p. 27

‘It takes a million little acts of love – a cuddle here, a kiss there – to build a loving mum.’ p. 218

‘Being the mum that you want to be is not about who you are or are not when you begin the journey, but what you do along the way.’ p. 218

‘To be a loving mum you don’t need to be loving absolutely all of the time in every possible way; you just need to be loving enough. There is space for bad moments and mistakes, space for you to be human.’ p. 224

‘Experiment with the small actions you can take to be the mum that you want to be. Do some of these actions give you a feeling of satisfaction or bring you joy? If so, repeat!’ p. 227

‘All babies deserve a mum who takes care of herself.’ p. 228

‘Becoming the mum that you want to be is a million little somethings that you do and that you can start doing right now.’ P 231

 ‘Steer your ship by your guiding stars – your values – and alter your course as necessary along the way so that you are doing what works for you and for your baby.’ p. 233

‘I guarantee that you’ll slip. When you do so, try as best you can to make room for your mistake. And when you slip at that too, be kind to yourself.’ p. 233