There’s a Name for the Birth of a Mother: Matrescence

By Alexandra Sacks, M.D.

Alexandra Sacks and photographer Angelica Dass working with a family for their #matrescence TED photography project.

Though many of us have tried to block it out, we all remember puberty. First came the pimples and stretch marks. And next, feeling euphoric, awkward, and disoriented about growing from one life stage to the next.

Science and culture keep us well informed about the physical and psychological changes adolescents experience in their bodies, hormones, relationships, and identities. But women also go through a radical transformation in each of these dimensions when they are having a baby. There are entire textbooks written about the developmental arc of adolescence, but we don’t even have a word to describe the transition to motherhood. We need one.

I’m a psychiatrist who works with pregnant and postpartum women, a reproductive psychiatrist, and over the past decade that I’ve been working in this field I’ve observed a pattern. Hundreds of women have approached me and responded to articles I’ve written, to ask me “What is postpartum depression? Do I have it?”

While many women do suffer from that treatable, but serious, condition, the vast majority of the pregnant and postpartum women I speak to have discomfort, but not this disease.

These are the women who tell me: “I love my baby but I don’t have the right maternal instincts” and “I’m not enjoying this- mostly I feel tired” and “I feel so guilty because I wanted a baby more than anything, but sometimes I find myself feeling bored and even resentful.”

Most people find early motherhood to be both pleasurable as well as challenging, and at times fear and anger inducing. It’s hard to relax when you’re responsible for an ever-changing, vulnerable and precious creature, and your body and hormones are all in flux. It’s normal to feel ambivalent about the work of parenting when you have so little time and energy available to care for yourself.

After years of repeating this same information, I decided that it was time to summarize and organize this information about the psychology of motherhood in a public health initiative, so that fewer women would feel isolated and ashamed by these universal changes. I started out by reviewing the scientific literature, but there wasn’t much in the medical textbooks, because doctors mostly write about illness. So I turned to anthropology, and found the work of Dana Raphael, a medical anthropologist who popularized the phrase “doula.” In 1973, in her work on the transition to motherhood, she described it as matrescence, and I realized that it was not only time to spread the word, it was time to spread a word!

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. And like adolescence, matresence is not a disease, but since it’s not in the medical vocabulary, it’s being confused with a serious condition called postpartum depression.

There is so much love in matrescence. The bonding hormone oxytocin circulates through your body, and you become attached to your baby at the most basic cellular level. But, because you’re still human, your brain and body continue to send you the usual cues to take care of yourself: to sleep, to eat, to go to the bathroom. Not to mention to exercise, have sex, socialize, enjoy your professional, spiritual and intellectual life, and nurture your relationship. Most new moms find themselves feeling like they are in a push and pull, an emotional tug of war, as they try to figure out how to care for themselves and their baby’s needs at the same time.

Rather than feeling like something is “wrong with them,” let’s encourage mothers to speak more openly with each other so that the beautifully messy challenges of matrescence are as accepted in our culture as the ups and downs of adolescence. If more women understood the natural progression of matrescence, they would feel less alone, they would feel less stigmatized, and it might even reduce rates of postpartum depression.

Let’s encourage each other to share more honest and authentic images and stories on social media under #matrescence and #motherhoodunfiltered movements. Education and awareness can help public health. Please, be brave and share some of your more vulnerable stories, and I’ll continue writing in my newsletter and forthcoming coauthored book about the biological and psychological aspects of matrescence, ranging from how hormones impact “mommy brain,” to intergenerational complexities of relating to your own mother as you transition into your own motherhood identity.

When a baby is born, so is a mother, each unsteady in their own way. It’s a time for mothers to join together to share what we already know: matrescence is profound, but it’s also hard. And that’s what makes it human.

Topics: Maternal Health, Mental Health