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Matrescence: The complex reality of your birth as a mother

By Cradlewise Staff

Motherhood is one of the most transformative experiences someone can go through. 

However, in our society, the celebration of life is mainly centered around the baby’s arrival. We often forget that with the birth of a child, a mother is also born. 

Motherhood is expected to be a state of neverending bliss. Anything less than that is talked about with shame and guilt of not being a good enough mother. The reality is much more complex. For some, the joy of bringing a life into the world and becoming a mother may come with a sense of loss of your pre-motherhood life.

Thankfully, there’s a term for this multifaceted change: matrescence, the birth of a mother.

What is matrescence?

Matrescence describes the all-encompassing physical, psychological, and emotional changes people go through on their journey to motherhood. 

Medical anthropologist Dana Raphael first coined the term “Matrescence” in 1973 to describe the process of becoming a mother. But it was brought to public lingo by reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, M.D. after her New York Times essay “The Birth of a Mother” went viral in 2017. 

In her TedTalk, Sacks talks about adolescence as a time in people’s lives when they feel hormonal and moody while their bodies grow in strange places and very fast.

“These same changes happen to a woman when she’s having a baby,” she says, “And we know that it’s normal for teenagers to feel all over the place. So why don’t we talk about pregnancy in the same way? There are entire textbooks written about the developmental arc of adolescence. And we don’t even have a word to describe the transition to motherhood.”

When does matrescence begin?

Sacks states that matrescence can begin at different stages of motherhood—as early as when a woman is TTC and then continue through pregnancy. It can also start during the postpartum period or when a mother decides to have another child. 

Leslie Desai, a licensed independent clinical social worker and reproductive psychotherapist at Seattle Therapy talks about the profound shift that can occur.

In the process of matrescence, everything changes—it is quite literally the birth not only of the baby, but the mother as well. This process can create fundamental changes in our social, emotional, political, cultural, and religious perspectives. It can be difficult to prepare for—or believe—all the ways in which your identity changes.

— Leslie Desai

Postpartum blues vs. depression

Sacks notices a commonality among new mothers. They often wonder whether they have postpartum depression because they thought motherhood would make them feel whole and happy, and that their instincts would naturally tell them what to do. And that they’d always want to put the baby first—but none of that was happening. “This is an unrealistic expectation of what the transition to motherhood feels like,” Sacks says in her TedTalk. 

She also spoke about the lack of awareness around matrescence among medical providers, especially physicians. “Like adolescence, matrescence is not a disease. But since it’s not in the medical vocabulary, since doctors aren’t educating people about it, it’s being confused with a more serious condition called postpartum depression.”

Unlike matrescence, PPD interferes with a new mother’s daily functioning. Some symptoms include:

  • Difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Severe anxiety or panic attacks
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping that’s not related to caring for a newborn
  • Extreme changes in appetite (either lack of appetite or tendency to overheat)
  • A feeling of hopelessness and being slowed down

Connect to your doctor if you continue to feel these symptoms for more than two weeks without a break.

How to cope with this huge transition

Desai explains that with the arrival of a new little one, it’s easy to forget that we also have the arrival of a new mother. “When I work with women transitioning from pregnancy to the postpartum period, we try to spend time thinking about how we can communicate to others and prioritize her needs as well.”

She further notes that if the mom is not getting enough sleep, it can impact not only their mental health, but also bonding and attachment, breastfeeding and milk supply, and relationships with others—all of which have a direct and compelling impact on the physical and emotional development of the baby.

By caring for the mother, we are also caring for the baby.

— Leslie Desai

Here are some tips that you can follow

1. Develop a self-care routine

Since most of your time will be devoted to caring for your little one, you’ll need to carve out time to take care of yourself. It could look different for each mother, but it’s a great idea to do activities that help you feel connected to your old self. For example, a yoga or meditation class, a walk in the park, or a short shopping trip. If moving around isn’t an option yet, you can start a new skin-care routine to feel good, book an at-home massage, or just talk to a good friend.

Remember, self-care equals self-preservation. It might be easier if you start a routine early on in your pregnancy, so it becomes a habit.

Practice being compassionate and gentle with yourself. Whenever you feel like you’re edging towards self-judgment, remind yourself that you’re doing enough and nothing is supposed to be and look a certain way. Give yourself the same grace that you would to a friend or family member going through the same situation.

2. Build a support system

Support can take different forms. It can be a friend coming over for a couple of hours to watch your baby while you take a nap or go out with your partner, it can be someone dropping dinner at your place when you’re too exhausted to cook, and sometimes it can just be an hour-long phone call. 

Although the Covid pandemic caused many new parents to be isolated from their peers, luckily it’s gotten much easier for families to connect through groups and activities. “The pandemic made it difficult to see all forms of mothering, and it complicated the myths we have about motherhood,” Desai says, adding, “Watching how others are parenting in grocery stores or parks helps inform or remind us that motherhood is complex and nuanced, and that others struggle, too.”

She further suggests that finding in-person or virtual opportunities to see a wide range of motherhood can help dispel the myths. It’s important to do that so we’re not just scrolling through carefully crafted posts by celebrity moms on Instagram (remember that many of them likely have multiple nannies and other staff helping them out!) 

You can have different friends and family members for different needs. There are also virtual platforms, chat forums, and support groups that can help during this phase. Some of them include:

3. Seek out a therapist

It might be helpful to reach out to a therapist to process your feelings and emotions about motherhood. The sense of loss of your pre-motherhood self and that life, the push and pull of emotions, and the feeling of ambivalence towards this new stage can be overwhelming. You don’t need to be having postpartum depression to benefit from a therapist’s care and expertise. Now that so many of them are available on Zoom, you can find high-quality mental health care without leaving the comfort of your couch.   

4. Manage the clash between expectations and reality

The expectation imposes the experience of motherhood to be all sunshine and roses. The reality is that most mothers feel ambivalent—meaning not only good or only bad, but both good and bad. And it’s essential to be aware of why you’re feeling ambivalent towards the changes. 

“A primary challenge, particularly when considering the risks of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, is the gap between the expectations of what motherhood will look and feel like, and the reality of the day-to-day,” says Desai. 

Managing these expectations is a key part of Desai’s work with new parents. “I spend a great deal of time with clients teaching about the gap, normalizing the contradictions and mixed feelings in this process, and gently exploring how to shrink the distance between what they expected and what they are experiencing,” she says.

Your transition to motherhood comes with changes in every aspect of your life—your body if you’re the one who has given birth to your baby, your identity, and your relationship with your partner (if you have one), among other things. It’s not supposed to be easy. 

Whenever you’re feeling a sense of clash between your expectations of motherhood and the reality of it, reach out to other moms in your circle or, even better, ones who’ve been through it already. Let them give you an unfiltered picture of what’s real, instead of curated shots of glowy postpartum moms in full makeup or yet another spotless mid-century modern nursery.

5. Recognize the losses and gains

It’s natural to feel the push and pull of emotions as you recognize the gains and the losses during matrescence.

Sacks talks about the emotional tug-of-war of matrescence in her TedTalk. “Oxytocin helps a human mother’s brain zoom in, pulling her attention in so that the baby is now at the center of her world. But at the same time, her mind is pushing away, because she remembers there are all these other parts to her identity, other relationships, her work, hobbies, a spiritual and intellectual life, not to mention her physical needs, to sleep, to eat, to exercise, to have sex, to go to the bathroom alone, if possible.”

Normalize feeling such emotions. While your gains include having your baby and getting to be a parent, it’s natural to feel a sense of loss around your life before the baby and that identity. Both emotions can coexist.

6. Practice self-compassion

With the societal expectations of motherhood, it’s easy to constantly feel that you’re not being enough or doing enough. Your nursery is covered with unfolded laundry and is a far cry from its picture-perfect Pinterest inspiration. Your body looks and feels different, and then there’s always someone on Instagram hashtagging their post-baby bounce-back body

But if you’re having these nagging thoughts, it makes sense to stop and consider their source. “I also like to remind new mothers that guilt is not a bad feeling—it feels bad, but at its core, guilt is our body and mind trying to check in on us,” Desai says, adding, “Guilt pushes us to consider if what we’re doing is in alignment with our values and beliefs—in this case, our values and beliefs about mothering and motherhood.”

In other words, if we’re feeling out of alignment with our values and core beliefs, then it’s a call to adjust; if we’re in alignment but feeling uncomfortable, it’s a reminder that we are staying true to ourselves despite the discomfort.

7. Understand your maternal identity

According to Desai, society often talks about motherhood or parenthood as instinctual or inherent in who we are or how motherhood comes to be, but no one officially teaches you how to be a mother. Instead, we learn to be a mother from the thousands of ways we were both mothered and the ways in which we felt unheard, unseen, or unloved in our childhood. 

“Consciously or unconsciously, we build a story in our heads over time about what motherhood will be or what kind of mother we will be, and that can shift for all kinds of reasons—an infertility journey, pregnancy loss, birth trauma, breastfeeding trauma, or simply the support we expected from our partner or support system. All of those pieces impact our experience of motherhood,” she says.

In order to move forward, Jordan Seidel, certified lactation consultant and owner of Let Mommy Sleep says that parents should engage in some careful reflection about their values and goals. “Mothers should identify the components of their childhood that they’d like their own children to experience. Equally as important, reflect on the things you’d like to do differently than your own parents. Remember there is no right way to do this—the most important thing you can provide your child with is a secure attachment,” she says.

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