Here’s the scenario: a new mother calls a therapist. She explains that she’s worried she’s not enjoying motherhood, that it isn’t what she thought it would be, and she’s worried she’s failing. She even thinks she might be sick. It used to be that, at this point, the therapist might diagnose her with postpartum depression or anxiety. But what if it’s something else?
Introducing matrescence, a term that describes the ups, downs, and conflicts of new motherhood.
What Is Matrescence?
Coined in 1973 by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, matrescence (its similarity to the term adolescence isn’t a coincidence) is the developmental process new mothers slog through, during which their body, lifestyle, and very identity is majorly reorganized and redefined.
“She (Raphael) kicks off a lot of her writings saying that in some cultures we say, ‘a woman has given birth,’ but here we say, ‘a child is born,’” said Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist at Columbia University, to NPR. “And with that, the emphasis gets shifted on the child.”
A Stunningly Rapid Shift
Reproductive psychologist Alexandra Sacks describes the matrescence state of being in a TED talk, pointing out that new motherhood is a push/pull process.
“Here’s the pull part. As humans, our babies are uniquely dependent. Unlike other animals, our babies can’t walk, they can’t feed themselves, they’re very hard to take care of. So evolution has helped us out with this hormone called oxytocin. It’s released around childbirth and also during skin-to-skin touch, so it rises even if you didn’t give birth to the baby. 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,” Sacks said.
But then, Sacks reveals, comes the push back.
“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 physical needs: to sleep, to eat, to exercise, to have sex, to go to the bathroom, alone. If possible. This is the emotional tug-of-war of matrescence.”
For some mothers, this push/pull dynamic runs counter to everything they’ve been led to expect regarding new motherhood. They expect bliss, instant connection, and contentment. Instead, they’re anxiety-ridden, physically uncomfortable, and exhausted. Plus, their own identity is now swept aside; the baby is paramount.
Sacks notes that many mothers experiencing this decide that “they must be sick.”
“If women understood the natural progression of matrescence, if they knew that most people found it hard to live inside this push and pull, if they knew that under these circumstances, ambivalence was normal and nothing to be ashamed of, they would feel less alone, they would feel less stigmatized, and I think it would even reduce rates of postpartum depression. I’d love to study that one day.”
Three Aspects of Matrescence
New mothers may feel these three different aspects of matrescence to varying degrees:
- Fantasy vs. Reality
- Guilt and shame
In any complicated change of life, there will be both good and bad feelings, and new matrescence epitomized this complexity. Ambivalence is a perfectly normal state of being for new mothers and parents.
The fantasy element of what new motherhood should be (which is based upon your observations of friends and family, plus whatever nonsense the media feeds you), usually directly collides with the reality of the situation. Depending upon fantasy will inevitably lead to dashed expectations.
These dashed expectations lead to the guilt and shame of not being a “perfect” mother. Sacks suggests that the term “good enough mother,” is far more appropriate during matrescence, but some women find that unacceptable. In motherhood, perfection is definitely the enemy of the good.
There’s Help Available
Therapy during matrescence is invaluable. If that’s not feasible, online resources like the matrescence site or Sacks’s essays on Medium are helpful.
“My matrescence call to action is to teach women that healthy mothering is good-enough mothering, because perfect mothering is not a realistic option,” Sacks writes on Medium. “ If we could all truly give ourselves permission to be good-enough, I think that women would start to speak more openly to normalize the natural emotional tensions that swirl during matrescence. This might even reduce the shame and social isolation that contributes to many cases of postpartum depression!”