by Sophie Renauldon
Please note: Matrescence does not normalise symptoms of maternal mental health conditions. If you have any concerns about your health, please see your GP. You can also refer to our Urgent Warning. This article is for general information purposes only and is in no way a substitute for medical advice or treatment. You can see our full disclaimer here.
Journalist and mum Sophie Renauldon explains how a simple word could help us better understand and accept the transition to parenthood.
When my first son was born, I felt immense joy and happiness – but also anxiety, stress and sheer overwhelm. Some days everything was fine, others I just wanted to cry and be alone. What was wrong with me? I was simply going through matrescence. I understood that much later when I read an article by Dr Alexandra Sacks in the New York Times called ‘The Birth of A Mother’. I learned that from the huge love and responsibility that comes with having a child, to the change in my relationships, my values, my work, the transformation of my body and the highs and lows of my emotions… all of it was normal.
What exactly is matrescence?
The word matrescence was first used in the 1970s by American anthropologist Dana Raphaël (who also coined the word doula) to describe the transition into motherhood. Ten years ago, maternal psychologist Dr Aurélie Athan came across the concept as she was looking for a way to describe maternal development. Dr Athan told Motherdom that ‘there had only been work on child development or perinatal psychopathology but nothing to describe the normative adjustment to parenthood.’
Since then, Dr Athan has created a course and a research laboratory on maternal psychology at Columbia University, bringing the concept to health workers and psychologists. In her words, matrescence is ‘a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains – bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual – and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.’
Dr Athan says ‘there is nothing wrong with you because you are struggling with this major life transformation which no one gave you a map or language for. No wonder you feel like you’re going mad.’ Of course, using this concept doesn’t magically take away the everyday struggles, nor does it normalise or ignore symptoms of birth trauma, perinatal depression or anxiety.
‘The suffering innate in this is not only normal but can also deepen and widen you, with the right support. This experience can develop over time with your participation in it,’ says Dr Athan. However, matrescence is only useful if we work with it and try to make sense of our experience of becoming a parent. It allows for self-compassion by acknowledging that yes, this experience is tough, but it will pass.
‘What’s really useful with this concept is that it pulls together all these different strands of changes – the neurobiological, the physical, the intergenerational, our identity and relationships,’ acknowledges UK based perinatal psychologist Julianne Boutaleb, who created her own practice called Parenthood in Mind. Matrescence implies that the changes happening when becoming a parent are bigger and deeper than we might think. ‘Research has shown that there are radical changes occurring in the female brain when becoming a mother,’ adds Julianne. ‘The limbic system, for example, responsible for the socio-emotional processing in the brain, becomes highly organized and sensitized, making mothers much more aware of the nature of their relationships changing.’ And this is just one example of how parenthood impacts us.
Change for the better
The brilliance of matrescence is not only that it helps us understand and validate our individual experience. It also has the potential to change the way society looks at parents. Julianne agrees: ‘It shows that mothers need space and time to transition, and structures that allow time off work. It also changes how we treat and talk to mothers; we don’t immediately worry if she is expressing stress or challenges, but rather go into problem solving. Change and help not only rest in medical hands anymore but also with entrepreneurs, policy changers, educational systems, product engineers. It expands the field of women’s health and allows us to look at mothers in a more expansive way.’
It also means that carers and professionals could better prepare parents for this transition. ‘One aspect I find couples are not prepared for is how much their relationship with their partner, their family and their peers changes,’ says Julianne. ‘We need to bring the message out that parenthood brings huge shifts and demands in relationships. The obvious place to do this is in antenatal classes.’
Normalising the motherhood experience
Dr Athan is committed to reviving the concept of matrescence to help mothers, parents, carers and society better understand this passage of life. When a teenager loves you one day and the very next doesn’t even want to talk to you, we accept it as being normal. Yet when a mother laughs one day and cries the next day, we think something is wrong with her. Why not normalise her experience? Yes, parenthood is joy and love – but it is also exhaustion, guilt and fear. Maybe we tell ourselves that nothing will change because we are scared. We resist the change or try to ‘go back.’
‘There is no going back,’ affirms Dr Athan. ‘The idea of returning to a former self, or the same self, is very problematic. It does such harm and disservice. We have to learn about what lies ahead positively.’ In her research, she has found that there is a real opportunity within matrescence for positive growth and self-development. Not only do we learn a whole new set of skills (patience, anyone?) but we also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
We have all accepted adolescence as being a necessary passage into adulthood. Now it’s time to acknowledge, accept and understand that matrescence is a necessary passage into motherhood. The concept and its implications could be used in antenatal classes and postnatal groups as well as appointments with midwives and health visitors so we can better prepare for and navigate this major life transformation. Knowing your birth options, getting hold of the baby gear and thinking about feeding and sleeping choices is important, but it is equally important to think about how having a child is going to affect your identity, your relationships and your work. Instead of fighting the changes, we could embrace them and honour the fact that with the birth of every new child, there is also a new mother being born.