By Belinda Haan
When a woman is pregnant, her wellbeing is front and centre. Are you looking after yourself? Are you getting enough rest? Are you getting help?
And once the baby arrives, the conversation swiftly moves almost solely to the wellbeing and behaviour of the baby. Is she sleeping well? Is he feeding well? Are they a good baby?
And just like that, the woman is very often abandoned. Her value is as a facilitator for baby and child wellbeing, which of course is a critical and meaningful role. And she is more than that. She is a woman and a mother.
The wellbeing of mothers is a relatively new field of scholarly and clinical inquiry with the mother as the primary focus. The focus has most often been on the mother as she relates to positive or negative outcomes for the baby/child.
The mother’s wellbeing is “often rendered secondary if not entirely irrelevant to the problem at hand”. Of course, the baby/child’s wellbeing is essential. But how can we advocate for more balance? One way to do this is to acknowledge and support Matrescence: the transition from woman to mother.
What is Matrescence?
In 1973, Dana Raphael, Anthropologist, coined the term “Matrescence” in a bid to acknowledge the transition from woman to mother and to normalise, rather than pathologise, the “mixed feelings” that women experience in motherhood. However, the term received little attention because there was little interest in the wellbeing of mothers (despite the rise of feminism, midwifery and anthropology) at this time.
The concept of Matrescence continued to lay dormant for several decades until 2008, when Dr Aurelie Athan, from Columbia University, revived Dana’s idea. Dr Aurelie Athan has developed a conceptual framework of Matrescence that incorporates biological, psychological, social, political and spiritual domains of study and practice. I have had the fortunate opportunity of mentoring conversations with Dr Athan and the below is my interpretation of these conversations.
Matrescence is both oppressive and liberating in nature. It is an experience of disorientation and reorientation marked by an acceleration of changes in multiple domains: physical (changes in the body, hormonal fluctuations); psychological (e.g., identity, personality, defensive structure, self-esteem); social (e.g., re-evaluation of friendships, the forgiveness of loved ones, gains in social status, or loss of professional status), and spiritual (e.g., existential questioning, re-commitment to faith, increased religious/spiritual practices).
Dr Aurelie Athan
Matrescence is like Adolescence
In adolescence, we acknowledge the biological, psychological, social and spiritual (existential) changes that occur from child to adult. We recognise that the period of adolescence can be a time of great confusion and challenge as a new identity emerges.
When a woman gives birth or adopts, she undergoes a similar set of changes and challenges. The difference is, she has to go through this life-altering transition while being chronically sleep deprived, having to learn on-the-job, and whilst having to care for a very dependent and cute little human. And unlike a teenager, she very often has to cook and do her own washing.
Matrescence, like adolescence, is a complex, confusing, exciting, beautiful and (re)defining transition that impacts the woman across multiple domains:
- Nutrient depletion
- Physical changes
- Effects of chronic sleep deprivation and stress
- Recovery from birth.
Psychological + Emotional
- Identity disintegration and reorientation
- Myths, beliefs, and fantasies about motherhood and mothering
- Ambiguity and uncertainty
- Ambivalence and psychological complexity
- Lack of autonomy and freedom
- Learning on the job (with no manual)
Social + Political
- Societal norms, values and expectations
- External pressure, conflicting information and interventions
- Social media influences creating unrealistic expectations
- Changes within intimate partnerships including navigating complicated feelings, defining values and negotiating roles and responsibilities
- Family and external ideals about a Good Mother versus Bad Mother
- Changing friendships and family dynamics.
- Public policy that supports or devalues the role of mother and parenting in general.
- Activism, feminism and the value of a mother and a woman.
- Existential questioning “who am I now?”
- Spiritual values gained through motherhood such as mindfulness, compassion, meaning, purpose and humility.
- Experiences of suffering.
- Counter-cultural: the pursuit of meaning and purpose of happiness.
- Experience of dark and light emotions and the growth that comes from being with the full experience of life.
It is no wonder many of us find early motherhood so confusing and destabilising. The transformation from woman to mother is also occurring under extreme environmental conditions such as:
- Steep learning curve: learning how to mother when no handbook takes into consideration the unique woman, baby, family and many other parts of the motherhood system. This may be the first time that the woman has felt incapable and out of control.
- Little to no village to support her with learning how to mother, and also baby care. A sense of isolation.
- Relentless baby care: the baby’s needs run over the full 24-hours, seven days per week.
- Chronic exhaustion: the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation.
- Invisible and often devalued work that she performs domestically.
- Diverse mothering experiences (e.g. culture, race, support structure, sleep, feeding, baby personality and sensitivity) can result in a mother feeling like she is doing something wrong when comparing her experience to others. And, the curated social media feed amplifies comparison and suffering.
Matrescence is counter-cultural
In my conversations with Dr Athan, she has raised how counter-culture the matrescence period is. She states that it is a process of becoming rather than achieving. The matrescence period (which actually may never end!) requires time and patience. It has suffering inherent within it, despite motherhood being portrayed as a sentimental and moral pursuit with constant messages such as ‘enjoy every moment!’.
Of course, motherhood has many beautiful moments, times where we feel our heart may burst with love, and times of bliss like no other.
AND it also brings great suffering. It is painful when our sense of self is disintegrating and in the period before we have evolved to our new identity. It can be shocking and even excruciating to both love and hate motherhood at different times.
Our culture says that unless you are happy and positive, there’s something wrong with you that needs fixing. And, if you are feeling sad, angry or suffering in some other way, we give the message that you are simply just one solution or positive affirmation away from being your ideal self.
Matrescence: an opportunity to transform the motherhood experience
Simply the awareness of Matrescence has the potential to transform the motherhood experience. If a woman can redefine motherhood, not from a Huggies’ Ad but instead look to the very normal, complex, beautiful and confusing reality of Matrescence, would she be a bit more patient and kind to herself? Would she feel safe to share her entire experience, not just the highlights?
And, could all people around a mother, support her with warmth, understanding and encouragement? Can we believe in the mother and ask her what support she needs instead of throwing out silver bullets to all problems? Can we work towards a balanced approach to postpartum care which takes into account the wellbeing of the mother, baby and the entire family?