What happens to a woman when she becomes a mother? Discover matrescence
What happens to a woman when she becomes a mother?
This is the question I have been asking myself for more than a decade. When motherhood turned my world upside down and then seemed to continue to disrupt everything, I thought I knew about myself. As each new year and new baby emerged, I became a detective searching for evidence that what I’d experienced was “something”. Surely I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling, and questioning? Surely I wasn’t the only one feeling this radical shift in who I thought I was?
But I couldn’t find anything.
Why didn’t we talk about what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother? Why didn’t we acknowledge the massive redefining of her identity, her dreams and goals, her relationships? Why do we continue to dismiss the transformation a woman experiences in every area of her life as she navigates early motherhood with a smile and a “this too shall pass”?
After years of asking these questions of myself, thousands of mothers and experts around the world, I finally stumbled across the answer: a word that had been first spoken more than 40 years earlier, but no-one had listened. A word whose time has finally come, as we acknowledge that the way we have been supporting women through the juggle of motherhood must change. That word is matrescence.
What is matrescence?
In the late 1960s, Dana Raphael, an American anthropologist and breastfeeding advocate (at a time when breastfeeding was falling out of popularity), began to look at how a woman was supported as she became a mother. In studying the birthing process, she saw that there was a strong need for someone to advocate and support the woman in a non-medical way. Up until then, it was all about birthing the baby and not birthing a mother. When studying this, she realised that what we need is someone in the room who’s there for the woman — and so the term doula was born. Doula, an ancient Greek word for “a serving woman”, is now known and used worldwide to advocate for the woman during birth and the following weeks.
“Giving birth does not automatically make a mother out of a woman … The amount of time it takes to become a mother needs study.”
Raphael’s work on lactation and supporting a new mother changed the world, and yet it was not the only change in motherhood she was advocating for: Raphael also believed we need to rethink the way we view how a woman becomes a mother beyond the birthing process, and what we do to support her.
“The critical transition period which has been missed is matrescence — the time of mother-becoming,” Raphael said. “Giving birth does not automatically make a mother out of a woman … The amount of time it takes to become a mother needs study.”
And so the term matrescence was born: the beginnings of an acknowledgement that becoming a mother was a transition, not an event. But at the time, it simply disappeared into academic journals. It never gained the traction of the word doula, and the study and acknowledgement of “mother-becoming” faded into the background again.
Until another anthropologist, Dr Aurelie Athan, rediscovered it and gave it a new life.
The missing piece
In 2019, I flew to New York City to meet with Dr Athan. Based at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University, Dr Athan was the first in the world to create an area of study based on matrescence. After first hearing the term just a few months earlier, I knew I needed to get to New York and speak with her — this was the missing piece I’d been trying to understand for a decade.
I cried when she acknowledged this.
When you’ve based years of your life on trying to justify and explain something that was often dismissed as “self-care for mummies”, something washes over you: relief, and then anger.
If this was first flagged way back in the 1970s, why hadn’t I heard about it? If there was academic research and study into this all those years ago, then why didn’t the thousands of mothers who I’d been coaching, supporting and listening to for the past five years know about it either?
Dr Athan just nodded and handed me a tissue.
“Understanding that motherhood is the psychological and spiritual birth of a woman is the greatest story never told,” Dr Athan said. “It makes a tremendous difference. We can see in ancient cultures that we’re meant to be handed down information as we move through these stages of life: those who have done it before need to pass down the knowledge to those who have yet to do it. That is the way this is meant to happen. And when it doesn’t, when we don’t have those markers or acknowledgements, we feel lost.”
“Understanding that motherhood is the psychological and spiritual birth of a woman is the greatest story never told.”
“It’s also important to know that words create worlds,” she told me. “When we have a lack of language and don’t know how to articulate our experience and to put into words what we’re feeling, it makes the process incredibly difficult. We need words to help heal. When we’re feeling things that we don’t know how to integrate and incorporate, we really feel torn apart and conflicted. We feel shame and isolation. And so, putting these things into words and having road maps saying this is what you may experience is incredibly healing.”
We’re meant to have a road map to becoming a mother — to transitioning from the “maiden” to the “mother”. Yes, there are millions of books on parenting now, but all of them are still focused on the act of mothering: the act of raising a child. What we’ve failed to acknowledge is that motherhood is also a chance to raise yourself.
It’s the awakening and transition. It’s the split between who you used to be, and who you are now. It’s the tug of war between your old self and your desire to be there for every moment of your child’s life. And when we don’t name that transition — when we ignore it and tell women they just need to multitask and get on with it — we deny her the truth. And we deny her the opportunity to define what motherhood means to her, in her own way.
Matrescence, like adolescence
Perhaps one of the most important contributions Dr Athan has brought to the world has been the simple but powerful statement: matrescence is like adolescence. With these four words, a whole world of understanding opened up.
Based at Columbia University in New York, as a psychologist Dr Athan struggled to find anything that explained the transition that women seemed to go through when they became mothers. She knew there was something there — she could hear it in the interviews she and her team would carry out with mothers — but there was nothing in academia that could adequately explain it: that is, until she found the writing of Dana Raphael on matrescence. Dr Athan knew this was it: this was the framework she needed to talk about what she was seeing and hearing in mothers. But it wasn’t until a lengthy debate with her students one day in which they tried to get a clear working description of what matrescence actually was that “matrescence, like adolescence” was born.
Adolescence is unavoidable, affects every part of your life, and is massively affected by the amount of support and understanding you receive. Whether you’re born to a poor family in Sydney or a rich family in Paris, there are certain markers and milestones you will pass through on your way to adulthood. It’s a process, something that takes years and many different forms.
But we expect teenagers to question everything as they transform. We now know a part of the process of becoming an adult is to question authority, friendships, relationships, status, their body, everything. We hold space for them to work through this as they figure out who they are now. We gather around them the best support and education we can, and we tell them what they’re feeling, even though it can be incredibly uncomfortable and unpredictable, is normal — and actually, the beginning of a very exciting time of life.
But we don’t allow this for mums. We don’t tell them how they’ll change, that it will take so much longer than the first twelve months of their child’s life, that it will bring up old wounds and make them question everything. Instead, we silence them, telling them what they are feeling is not “right” or “natural”.
Dr Alexandra Saks, an MD and reproductive psychiatrist affiliated with the Women’s Program at the Columbia University Medical Center, describes it like this: “Like adolescence, it is a transitionary period. 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 you’re losing control over the way you look and feel.”
Matrescence changes the way we view and support mothers beyond the first weeks and months of actually becoming a mother. It allows us to see this is an important transition in a woman’s life; one that will take time but will be the making of her.
“This same gift was once given to adolescents who before they were named as such were merely thought to be children going mad on the way to adulthood,” Dr Athan told me. “It also gave birth to a new field. Matrescence, while in its infancy, holds this same potential.”
A mother-centred framework
For five years I have been gathering the stories of mothers from around the world. More than four thousand women have passed through my online programs, events and workshops, an honour that still humbles me. I know their voices; I know how they feel about themselves. And I can tell you that giving them the gift of matrescence is the greatest privilege of my life.
Matrescence allows us to finally stop expecting mothers to just push through, silencing their struggles, hiding behind their smiles. It gives them permission to speak to their partners and their workplaces about their changing needs and desires.
We cannot expect a woman to take time off work, have a baby, figure out who she is now she’s a mother, all the while trying to work out how to actually be a mother, and then return to work and the world a few short months later as if nothing has changed.
Dr Oscar Serralach is a Byron Bay-based general practitioner who, after seeing mothers in his clinic turn up completely depleted after struggling through sleep deprivation, exhaustion and the demands of modern mothering, created the term “postnatal depletion”. His work on changing the way we view what happens to a woman’s body, mind and emotional health post-pregnancy and childbirth is also at the leading edge of a new view of motherhood. He too says it’s time we stopped this pressure on women to “just keep going on her own”.
“Too often new parents are left to the struggle of working it out alone, which leads to postnatal depletion, a condition that lasts years and impacts a mother’s ability to show up for herself, her kids and the world”, he says.
It’s time we reframed motherhood. We cannot expect a woman to take time off work, have a baby, and figure out who she is now she’s a mother, all the while trying to work out how to actually be a mother, and then return to work and the world a few short months later as if nothing has changed.
She’s changed. Motherhood changes us. And matrescence, as a framework, a study, and a way of viewing motherhood, is going to allow us to redefine how we value and support a woman in her child-rearing years.
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