When your baby is born, so are you as a mother. We tend not to think of this during pregnancy, but it is something that when given some thought and preparation can help the postpartum transition to motherhood. Matrescence is a term which describes a developmental transition which is hormonal, physical and emotional, which was coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also made the term ‘doula’ popular). Alexandra Sacks, M.D. is a leading clinical expert on matrescence and has brought this term to the public domain in recent years. The transition isn’t only experienced the first time you have a baby, but will be experienced differently each time you have a new baby, whether it’s your first or your fifth.
The term matrescence is a blend of motherhood and adolescence. Similar transitions happen during both of these times in your life, and being pregnant can feel a lot like puberty at times. The reason we need to talk about matrescence, and open up conversations among mothers, is that there is a lack of understanding of this period. Mothers are expected, and expect of themselves, to be happy while dealing with the lack of control over how they look and feel. This can be overwhelming. Becoming a mother is one of the most significant changes both physically and psychologically a woman will ever experience. Giving birth to your new identity, as explained by psychiatrist Daniel Stern, can be as demanding as giving birth to your baby. It makes sense therefore, to put as much preparation into the birthing of you as a mother, as you do into the birthing of your baby.
Alexandra Sacks identifies normal emotions in becoming a mother in her New York Times article, “Birth of a Mother”. Emotions such as ambivilance, the push and pull we can feel of both wanting the baby close, but at the same time wanting our own space. What we speak about a lot is the expectations of what you will look like as a mother and how that can differ from the reality. Sacks tells us that during pregnancy a woman will create a story about her baby and become emotionally invested in that story. Her thoughts and feelings of pregnancy and motherhood are influenced by her own family experiences, and those she finds in her community. Expectations now also come from social media, which oftentimes set us up for feeling like we’re not living up to how everyone else is portraying their lives. The books new mothers read on pregnancy and parenthood, and the classes they take also shape their story. Reality can be disappointing if it doesn’t match your expectations. Another normal emotion that can be at the forefront of early parenting is guilt and shame. As women set out on their journey looking for perfection this can lead to feelings of guilt. Donald Winnicott describes ‘The Good Enough Mother’ – she is not ‘perfect’ but ‘good enough’. Being ‘good enough’ can for some release the need for perfection, but for others leave them feeling guilty.
Talk about your feelings
Acknowledging these emotions as normal can help mothers move through their transition without the unnecessary worry that what they are feeling is outside the realm of normal. Women can often feel like there are only good or bad experiences of motherhood– either breezing through their transition to motherhood or having a difficult postpartum journey. When in fact most of the time the experience of motherhood is not good or bad, it is both good and bad.
Women can fear talking about their complicated experiences of becoming a mother, and the struggle of figuring out who they are – compared with who they were before and who they think they should be now. Some of this fear is the fear of being judged. Having someone to talk to who is not your family or your friend, but someone who will simply listen to and accept you, as you figure out the new you, can be a big support – one which may lessen the triggers of maternal mental health difficulties. Having these discussions, however uncomfortable they may make us feel, are hugely important. There is not enough emphasis being placed on how mothers are feeling as they navigate this major life event.
Ask for Help
Feeling overwhelmed in becoming a mother is normal, and it’s okay to ask for help. It can be for many women a lonely and stressful experience. When a woman feels that she is not experiencing motherhood as she thought it would be, she might not feel like reaching out to those people who are, through their words of apparent kindness, causing her to retreat away from everyday interactions. Having someone ask you how you are, if you’re getting out and about, or if the baby is good, when you feel like you’re not coping at all, can be very difficult to respond to. Reaching out and asking for help may feel like you are admitting, not only to yourself but to those around you, that you are not coping, or that you are failing. In reality, asking for help is the first step in recognising that, yes, becoming a mother IS hard. Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. Reaching out is a great reminder that you are not alone.
Some of the common myths of motherhood that can add to the adjustment being challenging for mothers include the expectation that the goal is to get back to ‘being herself’, that every mother falls in love with her baby immediately and that by 6 weeks postpartum this adjustment is complete. By talking openly and honestly about these common misconceptions, and having more conversations between new mothers and those who have been through it, these myths can be dispelled.
One of our roles as postpartum doulas is to be there, supporting mothers through their matrescence. This is a hugely important part of our work. Being in a family’s home, and giving a new mother the time and space to talk through her expectations of what she thought motherhood would look like for her, and helping her to understand that motherhood is difficult in different ways for most women, can really help to take the pressure off. The pressure we put on ourselves to be a certain way, parent in a certain way, feel a certain way, look a certain way, can be released by allowing ourselves to let go and just be.
When you feel well supported in your transition it allows the space for your energy to focus solely on your rest and recovery, and bonding with your baby. Having the practical and informational support of a postpartum doula, who can help with baby care, understanding your baby’s needs and language, and keeping everyone nourished and rested, gives you the time to fully focus on getting to know your baby and taking the time to get comfortable with you as a mother.
We also offer access to reliable resources and can connect your family to supports in your community. Creating a supportive community is akin to feeling secure in your birth as a mother.
Matrescence, moving from womanhood to motherhood, is a transition and a rebirth – one which for most is not without its struggles and difficulties. By you acknowledging this, the transition can be a little less bumpy.