Matrescence might be a new word you’ve not heard of before, don’t worry you’re not alone, in fact you’d be forgiven for wondering if this was a typo as the word isn’t in mainstream conversation… yet.
Pregnancy can be hard, (regardless of whether you're plus size and pregnant or straight sized and pregnant) it really puts your body through its paces right from the early signs of pregnancy to the morning sickness and pregnancy cravings to fielding questions on pregnancy weight gain.
During pregnancy and early motherhood, women undergo seismic psychological and physiological changes, yet this life-altering transition is neglected by society, women are expected to 'bounce back' after birth and 'work like they don't have children and mother like they don't work'. The expectation on mothers these days is unrealistic and unfair.
Understanding matrescence is taking time to adjust to your new role and be kind to yourself. But if you experience symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, seek help as soon as possible from your GP.
Anna Mathur, psychotherapist, author of Raising A Happier Mother: How to Find Balance, Feel Good and See Your Children Flourish as a Result, and mum-of-three tells us; “I sometimes wonder if society isn’t aware of matrescence because it’s easier that way. It’s easier, and cheaper perhaps, to assume that the transition into motherhood is black and white – you aren’t a mother, and then you are.”
Now the concept of matrescence, like adolescence, is opening up a whole host of new conversations about the challenges of modern motherhood, helping to create a new mothering culture. In this article we look at matrescence, what it is, what it means, and how it might feel for new mums, we talk to experts and other mums to get their experience.
"Simply put, matrescence is the process of becoming a mother." Anna tells us, "It’s the recognition that becoming a mother is an evolving and shifting of every mental, emotional, hormonal and social experience and identity. It’s a challenge of the belief that we become mothers the moment our baby emerges from the womb, or the moment the sperm meets the egg."
I'm Stephanie, Family Editor here at Goodto and I'm the first to admit that before I had my child at 35 years old I had little to no idea about what becoming a mother would actually do to me. I knew what it would do to my body, of course I did, society chats at length about mother's bodies and 'bouncing back', but everything else that goes with it, was a surprise, to say the least. Becoming a mother altered me, my self, my mind, my thought processes, my relationships, my career... in short it altered my everything - in a way I was not at all ready for. The weight of responsibility was almost too much to bear, I thought that I would still be the same person.
I'll be honest, life from a mother’s perspective - the work mother's do - had never really interested me before, real work happened in an office, after all, right? When in fact, motherhood has been the hardest, most enlivening and extreme psychological, existential, social, and physical 'work' of my entire life.
A 2023 study from Science Direct found that the maternal brain undergoes significant structural and functional neuroplasticity - which means the ability of the nervous system to change its activity by reorganising its structure, functions, or connections after childbirth - as well as cognitive adaptations during the peripartum period, which are long-lasting and present throughout the lifespan. In other words, it changes the very core of us.
"Matrescence is regularly misunderstood and confused with post natal depression." Dr Alexandra Saks, M.D. says in her TED talk. She goes on to add; "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 under these circumstance ambivalent was totally normal and nothing to be ashamed of - they would feel less alone and less stigmatised. And I believe it would reduce rates in post partum depression."
In a research paper she did for Psychology Today Dr Saks talks about her work on 'the developmental transition to motherhood' and explores “matrescence,” a term coined in 1973 by Dana Raphael, a medical anthropologist who also popularized the phrase “doula.”
What are the symptoms of matrescence?
While there are no 'formal symptoms' as such Dr Saks reports a pattern that she's observed. She writes; "Though [many women] may not meet diagnostic criteria for this postpartum depression [that term] seems to be the most familiar one they have to frame their distress. Here’s what many of them describe;
- “I love my baby but I don’t have the right maternal instincts.”
- “I’m not enjoying this, mostly I feel tired.”
- “I feel so guilty because I wanted a baby more than anything, but sometimes I find myself feeling bored and even resentful.”
"These descriptions of discomfort are natural to matrescence and not diagnostic of any specific disease." Dr Saks writes.
It’s no coincidence that matrescence sounds like adolescence. Both are times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels emotionally, and how they fit into the world. Anna agrees, telling us; "When we recognise the huge shifts that happen in a woman as she moves towards motherhood, and navigates the early weeks, months and years, then we have to acknowledge the need for recognition and support through these shifts and changes."
Talking to Positive News, author of Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood Lucy Jones says that after giving birth, she felt 'as if I had been rewired'. She goes on to say; "Many new mothers are lonely, anxious, depressed, burnt out and blame themselves for it. But the more I researched, the more I realised how impossible the institution of modern motherhood is today." It's important to remember you're not alone, and it's okay to talk about what you're thinking and feeling.
How long is matrescence?
No one really knows. Some say up to ten years after baby is born, others that it depends from person to person. According to Aurelie Athan, Matrescence advocate and clinical psychologist; "The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime."
No matter the length, Anna tells us; "In recent years, we are shining a light on the hormonal shifts that happen through perimenopause and menopause. Women are advocating for themselves within society and the medical system, for this huge and often behind-the-scenes, taboo, to be recognised, acknowledged and accounted for.
And, as we call for matrescence to be recognised, we begin to acknowledge the need for more emotional, physical and practical support that might be needed in order for mothers to thrive."
How do I prepare for matrescence?
Be kind to yourself and don't be afraid to talk about what you're feeling or going through - with friends, other mums, your partner.
Anna tells us; "When we recognise that we aren’t alone in some of the emotions and challenges we face in motherhood, it powerfully chips away at shame and taboo, paving the way for more honesty and vulnerability. Honesty strengthens community, and when people don’t feel alone, they’re more likely to seek and accept support."
Going through matrescence is like going through adolescence according to research from Science Direct, with this in mind Anna says that it would be transformative for each mother to be given insight into what to expect through matrescence; "We expect those going through puberty and menopause to experience challenged emotions and resources, yet the expectation tends to be that new mother’s should feel happy and grateful despite the fact that they’re also going through huge hormonal shifts."
She goes on to add; "When we normalise very common experiences (e.g experiences of emotional flux, exhaustion, overwhelm, impact of tiredness etc.), we can more easily talk about it and access support. Yet what often happens when something isn’t widely understood, is that they get pathologised and medically labelled, giving the impression that something is ‘wrong’, when truly the mother is having a very normal response to their vastly changed circumstances."
Matrescence - the best podcasts to listen to
- The Matrescence Podcast: Hour long podcasts with Australian hosts Kelly Wilkes and Bree Holling sharing evidence-based information with personal insight to help you make informed and empowered decisions, grow as individuals and mothers and find solidarity in this journey that is matrescence. The episodes are a joy to listen to.
- The Motherkind Podcast - Matrescence: the word we all need with Lucy Jones: This 40-minute episode is a great listen with Lucy Jones. She is an investigative journalist, award-winning author and has just written a new book called Matrescence.
- Matrescence to Motherhood: New to the block, American Camilla Spencer is diving into the highs and lows of the journey into motherhood.
Alexandra Sacks, MD is a psychiatrist affiliated with the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research, where she is an Associate Instructor and Co-Chair of Recruitment.
The early years of motherhood can feel the hardest, remember you're not alone if you hate playing with your kid, struggle with toy rotation or if you don't want mum friends.... you do you. And know that no matter your choices or style, we promise you're not alone in it.
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Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodTo covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. With his love of choo-choos, Hey Duggee and finger painting he keeps her on her toes.
- Anna Mathur MBACP AccredMother, Pyschotherapist and author
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