What is Matrescence?
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
When did it first hit you that you were really a mother? Maybe it was the day you got a positive result on a pregnancy test. Maybe it was when you were buying maternity clothes for your growing baby bump. Maybe it was when you were finally holding your baby in your arms for the first time. And maybe it still hasn't happened yet!
As mothers, no matter where we are on the path of motherhood, there are changes, ups, downs, and crazy twists. There's so much more to it than pregnancy and birth, but we never seem to talk about the journey a woman goes through as she truly becomes a mother.
This is where matrescence comes in. This term was first coined in 1973 by Dana Raphael, a medical anthropologist. It describes the emotional, mental, physical, social, and physiological transformative process a woman goes through as she becomes a mother. It's a way to describe the identity shift that happens when you think "... oh, I'm really a mother now. What does that mean for me?"
'Matrescence' and 'Adolescence' sound similar for a reason! They both mark periods of serious change in a person's life, changes that can ultimately lead to a happier, healthier, and more mature person. This TED talk by Alexandra Sacks gives a great overview on what matrescence is and how to bring attention to it.
The process of pregnancy and giving birth are typically thought of as the beginning of matrescence, but it continues for a long time afterward. For some women, matrescence begins when they start trying to conceive. Many say this transition lasts 10 years. Matrescence is a biologically, socially, and hormonally driven change that launches a new phase of life and a totally new identity.
The phrase and topic of matrescence hasn't gained much widespread attention among the general population yet, but you’ll find that as you’re reading this article about this transition, you’re already experiencing matrescence.
Matrescence is Not Postpartum Depression
When mothers are dealing with this massive shift in their lives and identities, we often have difficult emotions to work through. With our hormones settling and our bodies adjusting to life after birth, there are plenty of emotional changes to address. But when we start to feel bored, irritated, or lonely, it might feel like something is wrong.
I always thought that, as a baseline, I would feel pretty happy as a mother. And while there are wonderful feelings of love and peace, I sometimes feel a longing for my life before I had a baby. It's undeniable that I had more freedom before kids. Sometimes these moments of discontent can lead mothers to believe that they have postpartum depression.
While it's certainly possible that we can experience postpartum depression, not every negative emotion after birth means that we're depressed. Matrescence is a time for us to come to terms with our new lives as mothers. The struggle to adjust to this new identity is just that - a struggle! It might come easier to some, but we all need some time to accept the new person we’re becoming.
If you find yourself feeling particularly angry, sad, and emotionally fatigued after the first two weeks postpartum, you may be experiencing genuine postpartum depression and should check in with your doctor. While matrescence can be difficult, it shouldn't feel debilitating.
Common Threads of Matrescence
Every woman's experience with parenthood is going to be different. There's so much variety when it comes to birth choices, children's personalities, and the mother's own body and life circumstances. Matrescence isn't a one-size-fits-all experience!
However, after looking through many studies, we've found that there are a few common threads that tend to connect the matrescence experiences of many mothers. One great article that can give some extra depth on this is Alexandra Sacks’ piece, “The Birth of a Mother”
Ambivalence (Push and Pull)
One of the biggest commonalities that comes up in terms of matrescence is the feeling of ambivalence, or a constant mix of good and bad emotions. I always had the idea that motherhood would put me in a constantly positive mental state. I expected motherhood to come naturally to me, aside from the occasional hard night here and there.
But ambivalence is a real thing that all mothers face at some point. Something I hear from mothers all the time is "I love my baby, but ___". Take your pick at what fills that blank!
"I love my baby, but I get lonely sitting around the house all day."
"I love my baby, but I need to sleep more."
"I love my baby, but I wish they could keep a pair of clothes clean."
If any of those sound familiar, you're not a bad parent and you're certainly not alone. The push and pull of parenthood is inevitable. On one hand, we're deeply bonded with our babies and want to give them all the care and attention we can. But on the other, we don’t love every aspect of motherhood, and we're still adults with our own wants and needs to take care of.
Motherhood isn't all flowers and sunshine, but it isn't doom and gloom either. It's one of the few things in life that can be good AND bad at the same time.
One of my favorite nicknames for the glowing, perfect motherhood ideals you see in ads and social media is the "unicorn moms". It's something so beautiful, so perfect, and yet so unrealistic. And yet these unicorn moms are something that we can't help but compare ourselves to when it comes to parenthood.
Society has propped up an image of perfect parenthood that's impossible to live up to. This mommy has flawless skin, hair, and makeup. She always eats Instagram-worthy food and has spotless clothes for her angelic baby. She can jump right back into work without breaking stride, and fits into her pre-pregnancy jeans instantly.
Whether or not we are looking at pictures of the unicorn mom on social media or not, we have a vision in our head of what we SHOULD be like as a mom - we compare ourselves to the ideal unicorn mom often: we should be homeschooling our kids, we should be making organic homemade baby food for our kid, we should be saving the planet with cloth diapers, we should enjoy every part of motherhood.
We all know that there probably isn’t a mom out there that actually does all these things, but this kind of made-up mom idol is something that many of us can't help but compare ourselves to.
It’s a pretend person that we have created as we’ve gone throughout life, picking up traits and putting them in our “unicorn mom” basket; a mom who is a hot mess, but bakes bread with her kids every day - that goes in the unicorn mom basket. A mom who showed up to playdate with baby poop on her shirt yet somehow managed to bring organic treats for her kids - that goes in the unicorn mom basket. Scrolling through social media and seeing an influencer with a picture-perfect image of bath time - into the unicorn mom basket.
Comparing ourselves to the ideal mother that we have created in our minds throughout our lives is a common part of matrescence. And now that we know it’s common, we can choose to accept ourselves as the mother we are, warts and all. Chances are, you’re doing an incredible job as a mother and deep down, we all know that unicorn mom isn’t a real person anyway.
Parenting Based on our own Parents
Another thing that all new parents ask themselves at some point is, "What will I repeat from my parents?" and, even more importantly, "What will I do differently from my parents?"
Just like we tend to compare ourselves to other mothers around us, we can't help but think about what we want to keep and change from our own upbringing. Sometimes we'll want to raise our children in a similar way to ourselves. But in other cases, we might be moving past bad childhood experiences and forging a brand new method of parenting for our own family.
Every parent has the desire to recreate the good stuff and improve on the bad. As a result, we kind of re-live our childhoods. Once I stepped into the role of a mother, I finally understood why a lot of things happened the way they did as a kid - for example, if a marriage is in a bad place, little attention will be given to the kids. When I finally realized that, I was able to forgive my mom for a lot of things that happened when I was a kid.
At the same time, when we step into the mother role, we will often question things that our parents did. I remember being in college and telling my dad that I wanted a better relationship with him. He flat out rejected me. As a parent, I am truly baffled by that. If my kid came to me with those same words, I would be overjoyed that he wanted that and would move the sun and moon to make it happen.
Re-evaluating your childhood as you step into a new role is a totally normal part of matrescence.
Increased Sensitivity and Compassion
Birth and motherhood are times of incredible emotional upheaval. This is a time when our feelings are at their highest peaks and our settling hormones can cause spikes of emotion when we least expect it.
Because of this, we mothers tend to be more compassionate toward others. Many new mothers have discovered that they’re suddenly unable to watch violent or distressing movies (especially involving children). Sometimes even watching the news can feel like too much to handle!
Not everyone experiences this kind of emotional response, but if you do, just know that it’s not a weakness.
In many ways, this increased compassion is a strength! These intense emotions are a reflection of seeing the world as your family. When you see a stranger’s child in danger, you might feel like it’s your own child. This often leads mothers to respond with more kindness and understanding toward everyone, not just our own families.
Sometimes this can be exhausting, so don’t feel like you need to solve everyone’s problems. It’s okay to turn off the news if it’s upsetting, or take a break from people who treat us like a free therapist. Mothers need to keep up our own strength before we can help others!
Becoming a Supporting Character
One of the things that changes after we have a baby is our status in society. If you think back to when you were pregnant, you had about 16 prenatal doctor’s visits. Everyone was very concerned about your comfort, health, and safety. For me, it was this weird mixture of celebration and scrutiny - “Please take this seat on the train” combined with “Should you be drinking that?”
As soon as my son was born, the celebrity status was gone. In the postpartum section of the hospital, they were totally concerned about the baby and not me. I had birth injuries and no one had answers, but they could tell me how to swaddle baby, burp baby, latch baby, etc. All of a sudden I was no longer the main character of my own life. I was the supporting character to my son, the behind-the-scenes helper to his story, even though I was still a human being.
This message of being a supporting character continues throughout motherhood. It can come across while we’re at a restaurant and get the side-eye when our kids are acting like the toddlers they are. Or it can be more blatant, like a friend of mine who was at the park and someone pulled the blanket off her twins and said, “Are they dressed?” totally disregarding the mother.
This is a common part of matrescence, and in the US we will see that our status in society changes. I wish I had a magic wand to change this, but all I can suggest right now is speaking up in situations where someone tries to convince you that you’re a supporting character. You’re the main character of your own life, regardless of if you have kids or not.
Social and Family Changes
Babies are born during birth, but so are mothers. While before it may have just been you (and maybe your partner, too), now there's a little one in the mix that's going to change your whole world around! The presence of a baby transforms ourselves and others. This is a wonderful time and it opens up new depths of love and intimacy for parents. But it's undeniable that there will be changes in your family and social life.
Partnerships and marriages change after having a baby. For me and my husband, we slipped into traditional gender roles we had never used before. I was honestly angry about it, but I didn’t know how to do it differently.
He did what he wanted while I took care of the baby, and if we needed a sitter, I arranged it. I cooked the meals and cleaned the house and he came home and played video games. It took us a few years to get things to where we wanted them in our marriage, from counselling to partner meditation. Marriage changes after babies.
Since matrescence is also about discovering our new identities and negotiating with the old one, it can be difficult to slot back into our usual social lives. Our emotional circle and our day-to-day lives completely transform after having a baby. That means that some of our old friends aren’t going to totally understand our lives, while new mom friends will “get” this huge part of us.
Here and Now Motherhood would be thrilled to be part of your matrescence journey. Join us for prenatal (or postpartum) yoga! Visit our website for time and location. We're a community of mothers of all stages who are looking for people who really understand what it means to give birth and continue living a fulfilling life afterward.
And yes, matrescence doesn’t have a set end date. It’s not just a one-and-done after you have your first baby. With every child that comes afterward, you'll discover new parts of your identity as a mother. Just like every birth will be different, so will every postpartum experience. Many say, “Once postpartum, always postpartum”
Matrescence is finally a way to explain the intense transformation you have experienced as a mother. There are a huge mix of emotions during this transformation, and you have become a totally new person. To quote author Julia Jones, “Every time a baby is born, so is a mother.”