Since becoming a mother, chances are you have experienced some or all of the below;
• Changes to your relationship; with yourself, your body, your husband and your friends
• Changes in your career; your goals, your aspirations and your capacity
• Changes in priorities, dreams or plans
• You may care deeply about things that didn’t use to be on your radar, and be completely uninterested in hobbies, activities or topics that you use to be deeply passionate about
• You might feel like you have lost your passion, your identity, even yourself
• Your body has likely changed in ways that are irreversible and ongoing and you might be experiencing heightened emotions such as guilt, resentment, joy and fulfillment
• You might question if you are cut out for motherhood, if you made the right decision, if you should be enjoying it more
• And at some stage you will probably be hit with the existential questions like; Who am I, What is my purpose, What do I want from life?
Chances are that you will feel like you are the only one grappling with these changes. That they are a sign that you are doing something wrong. Because in our society we fail to acknowledge the significant and irreversible transformation that motherhood brings.
But the good news is that these experiences are fairly universal when it comes to motherhood. Most women will experience some, or even most of them at some point in their journey.
Infact, they are inherent to matrescence.
So what is matrescence you might ask?
Matrescence describes a woman’s transition into parenthood. Be it through birth, surrogacy, marriage or any other means. It encompasses the physical, hormonal, social and emotional transitions that occur when you become a mother.
The term was originally coined in 1973 by Anthropologist Dana Raphael. It was a bid to acknowledge the transition from woman to mother in a way that normalized the ambivalence that many women experience throughout their transition to motherhood. However despite a growing interest in feminist issues during this time, the term received little attention, most likely due to a relative disinterest in mother’s wellbeing at this time, and arguably to this day.
Infact the term remained largely unheard of until 2008 when reproductive psychologist Dr Aurelie Athan from Columbia University revived the term through her teaching and writing. Dr Anthan is now considered to be the leading expert in the study of matrescence. Her work in this field has led to the development of a conceptual framework of matrescence that is the first of its kind. It incorporates biological, psychological, social, political and spiritual domains of study and practice allowing us to address women’s experience of motherhood in a way that is holistic, empowering and normalizes the transition to motherhood.
As part of her work Dr Anthan coined the phrase “matrescence like adolescence” in order to draw parallels between these two major life transitions.
That’s right, it is no coincidence that matresence sounds like adolescence.
As reproductive psychiatrist and author Dr Alexandra Sacks states:
“Being pregnant is like going through puberty all over again: your hormones go nuts, your hair and skin don’t behave the way you’d like, and you develop a new relationship with a body that seems to have a mind of its own. The difference? Everyone understands that adolescence is an awkward phase. But during matrescence, people expect you to be happy while it feels like you are losing control over your entire life.”
In adolescence, we acknowledge the biological, psychological, social and emotional changes that occur as we transition from child to adult. It is through our understanding of adolescence that we are able to give ourselves (and others) permission to change, to grow, to fumble, to make mistakes, and to not have everything figured out. Our knowledge of this rite of passage allows us to have patience and empathy for ourselves and others as we navigate this disorienting period.
While adolescence is a well-researched and widely understood developmental period, the term matrescence is not yet out there in popular culture.
Infact, while 77% of Australian women have experienced matrescence, few have ever heard of the term.
And this matters.
Matrescence is equally as transformative and challenging as adolescence. Infact, I would argue more challenging – hello sleep deprivation and ultra-dependent tiny human.
Without the language to explain what we are experiencing mother’s are left to conclude that something must be wrong with them. In the absence of language that describes their experiences, women are often left to reach for the most likely explanation.
As Dr Sacks shares: “Postpartum Depression seems to be the most familiar term they have on hand to frame their distress.”
While postpartum depression is a very real and prevalent mental health issue, there is an in-between space between thriving and depressed that so many mothers find themself in.
It is the rollercoaster that is matrescence.
It is the messiness of motherhood. The highs, the lows, the challenges and joys. The disorientation and reorientation. The doubts, the loss, the grief, the growth and everything in between.
Understanding matrescence does not automatically make motherhood a walk in the park. But having the language to describe our experiences empowers us and allows us to find solidarity in the shared hardness of these experiences.
In this way matrescence holds the key to mother’s feeling less alone and may even reduce rates of postpartum depression.
If you want to know more about matrescence, there are some incredible resources already available to you. We would highly recommend you check out the links bellow.
Ted Talk: Alexandra Sacks: A new way to think about the transition to motherhood
New York Times Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/well/family/the-birth-of-a-mother.html?_r=1
The work of Aurelie Anthan including her website: https://www.matrescence.com/
Book: Mama Rising: Amy Taylor-Kabbaz
Podcast: Dear Mama Project by Nikki McCahon”