Have you ever stopped to think how much becoming a new mom feels like that awkward period of adolescence? You know that stage of life when your hormones are surging, it feels like you are on an emotional rollercoaster, you don’t quite know where you fit in or who you are anymore, and nobody seems to get it. Sound familiar? Well, there is a word to describe this period of transition to motherhood… it’s called Matrescence.
You were probably sold the idea that becoming a mother is something you should master as soon as your new child is placed in your arms. But the truth is, it doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming a mother is an extremely complicated process that can turn your world upside down. And that’s why Matrescence is such an important concept for mothers and anyone supporting us to understand.
The term Matrescence was coined in the 1970s by anthropologist Dana Louise Raphael to acknowledge and normalize the transition to motherhood. Reproductive psychologist Aurélie Athan, Ph.D., revived the term in 2008. She defines Matrescence as “a holistic change during the transition to motherhood that encompasses multiple domains — biological, psychological, social, political, spiritual — and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.” Dr. Athan sees this developmental stage as an individualized transition that can begin as early as preconception, recur with each kid, and arguably last a lifetime.
Dr. Athan explains that when talking to a teenager or a new mom, they tend to describe their transition as, “…it feels like everything’s turned upside down, it feels like I can’t recognize myself anymore. It feels like a part of me has died. I don’t know who I am yet. Nothing will ever be the same.” And if you just let out an exasperated “Oh my god, yes!” right now, know that you are not alone.
But here’s the thing. Unlike adolescence, Matrescence is not widely acknowledged as a developmental transition. Yet, as a mom, you tend to face this life-altering transformation with much more challenging circumstances. You are sleep deprived, working on a steep learning curve with high expectations, and having to care for another tiny, helpless human being while still caring for yourself. Not to mention, it feels like you are tossed right back into everyday life with little support or even acknowledgment of what you are experiencing.
You are developing new skills, building and rebuilding relationships, and even adjusting to a new way of being. All while simultaneously experiencing loss of identity, processing conflicting emotions, and mourning the life you had before becoming a mother. And these shifts take many moms by surprise. On top of all of this, when you hop on social media in search of camaraderie and support, you are often bombarded with images of the “perfectly perfect” mother that make you feel like you are doing everything wrong.
Most of us are well aware of the biological changes that can occur when you become a mother…the body changes, the hormones, the stretch marks. But becoming a mother isn’t just a physical process and focusing on just that part excludes mothers that didn’t birth their child. And in her research, Dr. Athan has found that the experience of Matrescence is not exclusive to mothers that have given birth. She shared that when she removed the details of adoption, stepparenting, surrogacy, or pregnancy, she heard the same things and could not tell the difference in participants’ experiences.
For every mom, motherhood is a complicated mix of emotions. You feel happiness, fear, celebration, loss, joy, exhaustion, boredom, pride, guilt, and pretty much every single emotion that exists. It can feel like you are in an uncontrollable spiral. And it’s so easy to get lost somewhere between the fantasy of what you thought motherhood would be and the reality of what you are experiencing. And although this is normal, lots of mothers still struggle through this transition in silence.
And it’s not uncommon to feel the need to hide these “negative” emotions because they don’t reconcile with the image of motherhood sold to you. And some confuse this struggle with emotions as postpartum depression. But that is often not the case.
There is a spectrum of experiences between the “perfectly perfect” mom and the depths of postpartum depression. And Dr. Athan believes that understanding Matrescence can act as a “healing agent.” It can help mothers realize that they will experience bad days and good days and everything in between.
Psychologically, becoming a mom means redefining yourself and the roles you play, whether you want that to be the case or not. And suddenly, who you are, what’s important to you, and how you relate to others is being tossed up and questioned. Dr. Athan likens this to playing a game of 52 card pickup. It’s like someone has tossed all your cards in the air, and now you are looking at the cards (e.g. your life as you knew it) strewn across the floor. And you have to make sense of it and put it all back in order.
You may feel like a hot mess, but Dr. Athan equates it to a butterfly still in its cocoon. She explains, “The wings need to press and break its own self through. There is a strengthening that happens through wrestling with this problem at hand. It needs to be supported, but it doesn’t need to be aborted. And so, that’s the tricky part of a mother becoming…It takes time.”