Explore the scientific transformation involved in becoming a mother and the importance of realising that it’s a journey that continues throughout your baby’s childhood
Ever thought we don’t discuss the incredible journey, particularly when it comes to the more confusing emotions of impending change, of the transition into motherhood?
We might fixate on the birth of a child, but the birth of a mother happens long before the baby is born - as early as those first few hours of conception, in fact. It’s why we need to raise the conversation about matrescence, otherwise known as ‘the physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition to becoming a mother’. The theory recognises and consolidates the mixed emotions, messy processes and overwhelm that many women experience when they fall pregnant (and long into motherhood).
That roller coaster you feel like you’re on? You’re not alone. READ, it’s incredibly normal to feel all the changes you feel when you become a mum - and yes, that can be from the very beginning moments of conception. The ‘inner split’ that you feel between the person you once were and the person you are now - there’s a whole community of you out there and you never need to feel alone.
Never heard of the term before? No, not many people have (hence the problem, really!). Although seemingly a new term, it was actually coined in the early 1970’s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael. Although people ‘in the know’ such as leading expert Alexandra Sacks MD have expanded on her work and theories, it’s just not a term that’s widely out there. And it needs to be!
So, what is it, exactly?
Matrescence, put simply, is the identity transition period from non-motherhood to motherhood - in other words, and in the terminology used in the original birth of the theory and the narrative of matrescence, from ‘maiden’ to mother. It works to incorporate the biological, psychological and physical shifts that women experience from as early as pregnancy to different points in their child’s life.
The transitory time, where both your life, brain and body are changing, is one where both society and yourself start to view you as a different person. It’s a time of hormonal changes, identity changes, body changes, relationship changes, and it creates all sorts of different emotions and feelings. It can feel entirely alien - after all, you’re transitioning into a new and evolved version of yourself, while still holding onto the inner you.
All the while this is happening, you’ve got a little person to take care of, and the overriding view from the world seems to be that you’re expected to be happy, elated and smiling 24/7. Matrescence marks the process of becoming a mother where your identity as an individual reconciles with your identity as a mum. It can take as long as 10 years, or as little as a few years, to truly conclude the journey - there’s no right or wrong.
It’s no coincidence that the word sounds something like adolescence, either, given that adolescence is the very shift from childhood to adulthood, between developing emotions, developing bodies, and developing psychologies. We focus as a society on how much of a turmoil this time can be and on how much it can impact our emotions and behaviour, so why is it any different for matrescence?
The focus should be changing, and it’s time to change the narrative and conversation around motherhood. We often consider adolescence and the becoming of an adult to be something that is positively transforming, and the transformative power of motherhood is something that we shouldn’t ignore, too. There are actually more neurons put into a pregnancy brain than an adolescent brain - matresence is more biologically active than adolescence.
Wondering what some of the common feelings are in matrescence? From feelings of disappointment (completely normal to wonder why your life doesn’t seem the same as your old life, or why you can’t do some of the things you loved to do before) and sensitivity (the tiredness is real, and your hormones are all over the place, after all), to feelings of ambivalence (there’s a real juggle that comes with motherhood) and elation (that joy you feel that is stronger than anything else you’ve ever felt), it’s all part of the adventure.
So, why do we need to change the narrative?
When we focus too hard on the simplicity of becoming a mother, as though it’s a unanimous journey that is the same for everyone, we miss the rite of passage that is the individual transition for each individual woman. It’s a journey that’s different for everyone, and in focusing purely on society’s idea of being a good mother, the individual experience is missed, blurred and placed in turmoil.
We need to talk about it more and raise awareness of the word in order to ensure the right support and understanding is there for such a monumental movement. It happens to every single mother, yet the pressure remains to only talk about the good bits, the blissful moments and the sheer gratefulness you have for becoming a mum. The more we normalise the mixed emotions and turmoil that this period can create, at times, the better prepared we are as a society to support and nurture women, mothers, and families.
Birth doesn’t stop at the birth plan…
We need to put as much energy into the postnatal plan as we do into the months leading up to birth. After pregnancy, where the spotlight has very much been on the mother, she often fades into the shadows. But a mother never goes back to a maiden, in the same way that an adult never goes back to being a child.
Brain changes are important to understand.
Matrescence is a biological part of every pregnancy - even if you only are pregnant for a short time. A mother’s brain literally gets reorganised from conception onwards. The placenta is crucial in this transformation as it literally reaches into the mothers brain and puts a pause on her stress response system. The placenta then, while producing over 200 emotions, produces an endocrine tsunami that massively reorganises the brain.
Between the emotional response centre (amygdala) of the brain and the hormonal response centre (hypothalamus), thousands and thousands of oxytocin receptors are placed there (that maidens don’t have, and men don’t have). To put it simply, a mum’s stress response system goes from “Am I okay” to “Are we okay?”. This is part of the disorientation a mother might feel - this movement of “I” to “we”.
Once the placenta is delivered, a mother loses this hormone producing factory she’s had throughout pregnancy. What follows is that she goes into a very low hormonal phase (commonly referred to as the baby blues). Crucially, nature is designed to override this with things like skin to skin, breastfeeding and other oxytocin producing activities.
If there isn’t a time of deep rest, or if there was some kind of trauma, and oxytocin or prolactin can’t show up in the way they are intended to, a mother can remain in a low endocrine state for months or years afterwards. It might present through elements such as sleep deprivation, hyper-vigilance or anxiety - it’s neuro-inflammatory.
So, let’s keep in mind that each and every new mother is going through a shift.
Let’s walk alongside them, helping them to nurture their new roles and honour their ever changing emotions. It’s important that we do away with the tribalism that surrounds mums. Working mums, stay at home mums, I parent that way, I parent this way... We have a bigger cause to centre around and ultimately, all roads lead to Rome. No matter how we parent, whether we work, whether we don’t, we’re all in this together.
How can we look to make sense of this period of transition ourselves and how can we as a society help mothers to walk the journey?
Go easy on your expectations
Remember that you are still you
Embrace every emotion and celebrate it as a normal and magical occurrence
Don’t beat yourself up
As humans, we have the power to truly assist other humans on their journey, and to support mothers in the same way as we support children and teenagers . No one and no time in our lives needs to be forgotten - let’s honour, embrace and nurture the transition. As I’ve said before, only then can we move towards being our most fulfilled, nourished, imperfect version of ourselves.
Working with a coach can help you on this transition, and aid you in paving a path forward that finds the you at the centre of your exciting and beautiful motherhood journey. If this sounds like something you might need, I offer free 30-minute discovery calls as a chance to get to know each other and check that coaching is right for you. Click here to book a time that works for you.