We go through pregnancy, labour and delivery, and a child is born. Along with a child, a mother is born too. The term “matrescence” was coined by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (1975) who labels it as a period of transition quite similar to adolescence where a mother-to-be experiences dramatic hormonal, physical, and emotional changes including not only a change in her body shape but her whole identity.
According to Daniel N. Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, who have co-authored a book called ‘The Birth of a Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever (1998),’ the birth of a mother takes place over many months preceding and following the birth of the baby. While a mother is learning how to physically take care of her baby, change nappies, feed, nurture and bond with them, as well as handle her own physical pain and discomfort, a completely new identity is being built in her inner landscape.
Early psychologists believed that a woman would essentially remain the same woman she was before the baby was born, albeit with an added responsibility and new feelings and behaviours. Since then, however, this understanding has expanded to include the fact that this change is actually a whole mindset shift which determines a mother’s feelings and actions, influences how she perceives her world, redirects her likes and dislikes, realigns her values and makes her reevaluate her closest relationships. It also redefines her role in her own family’s history.
Social worker Zelma Tolley describes this as a process of “becoming” ever so slowly…for long after the mess of birth and the beauty of the first cuddle. It is filled with joy, hope, grief, relief, disappointment, intensity, surprise and bittersweet knowing that we are a parent for the rest of our lives. This process can be so intense and lonely that at times it can be misdiagnosed as postpartum depression.
While each story of motherhood is unique, psychiatrist and Ted Speaker Alexandra Sacks has found some universal aspects to the psychological narrative of matrescence and explains it in her New York Times article.
The push and pull of wanting your child and also wanting space for yourself. It is a challenging feeling of constantly juggling, giving and taking that comes up in the roles and relationships you are most invested in. Accepting and tolerating the feelings of both good and bad is an important skill to learn.
Changing Family Dynamics
Giving birth not only redefines a woman’s role in her family but also alters her closest relationships with new possibilities for intimacy along with new stresses. The process is also intergenerational, in that a mother’s identity is founded in her own mother’s style, which in turn is influenced by how she was raised. The mother reexperiences her own childhood – keeping what was good and trying to do over what was not.
Fantasy vs Reality
A woman develops fantasies of her imagined baby when she is pregnant and becomes emotionally invested in that story. If reality does not align with her vision, it may be terribly disappointing.
Guilt, Shame and the Good Enough Mother
Each mother has a fantasy of an ideal mother (always cheerful, happy, giving, sacrificing) in her mind and being a “good enough” mother often feels like settling. However, striving for perfection sets her up for guilt and shame.
Every mother feels guilty as she undoubtedly has to make many impossible choices, often having to choose between her own and her child’s needs. She is also often ashamed of speaking about these choices and their feelings for fear of being judged. It feels isolating and many women fear that something is wrong with them when in fact this feeling is absolutely normal.
There is this assumption that everyone else is coping and doing fine. At these times, it may be helpful to reflect on questions like – how have my values been challenged, how am I feeling about this shift in identity, do I have space to process my thoughts, what does parenthood bring to the surface, what feels hard to carry, what is a joy, whom can I rely on for support?
Exploring this process of “becoming” is important – to make space for the messy emotions, to not have it figured out. Talking about this, normalising this is the first step of the process of feeling like “you” again.
Bastidas, G., & Nguyen, A. (2021, August 8). How to navigate matrescence – the ups and downs of new motherhood. NPR.
Sacks, A. (2017, May 8). The birth of a mother. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/well/family/the-birth-of-a-mother.html
Stern, D. N., & Bruschweiler-Stern, N. (1998). The Birth Of A Mother: How the motherhood experience changes you forever. Hachette UK.
Tolley, Zelma. (2020, November 30). What is ‘matrescence’ and why does it matter? https://birthtrauma.org.au/what-is-matrescence/
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