Almost a decade ago, I pushed my seven-month-old son along our neighborhood sidewalk in his stroller. So many moments of the past easily fade into murkiness, but this one, I always recall so clearly. The cherry trees outside Boston had just bloomed, as they do for about a week every year in late April/early May, and the stroller rolled over their pink petals, getting crushed in the spokes. My son clutched a small plush soccer ball rattle and waved it in the air, happily drooling, trying to catch my eye as we cleared a path through the fallen flowers.
It was the stuff motherhood dreams were made of. On an early spring day, I was lucky enough to take my healthy baby boy to the park, where we would swing and maybe sit in the sandbox and watch the pigeons. I felt happy -- but also, inexplicably, and overwhelmingly -- sad. It wasn’t debilitating sadness like postpartum depression (for me, a bout of that would come just a few months later, when I stopped breastfeeding and returned to work) but more like, a deep sense of grief for the person I used to be.
I barely recognized myself. My breasts were knotty, swollen, and leaky, still tender from two painful bouts of mastitis. If I stepped too quickly out of bed, I still felt a sharp pain in the spot where stitches once held together a vaginal tear. Every morning, as I brushed my hair, it fell out in thick clumps. All my important relationships -- my marriage, my friendships, my family connections -- had shifted seemingly overnight. I loved this amazing, tiny human with every ounce of me. And yet, I felt lonely, lost, and uncertain.
It wasn’t until seven years later, after I’d given birth to my third child, that I first heard the word -- “matrescence” -- in a TED Talk by Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York City and Co-Founder of The Motherhood Center. Coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the 1970s, the term was revived by Aurélie Athan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University. It was Dr. Athan who first drew the comparison between matrescence and adolescence within the mental health field, in order to provide a framework in psychology for understanding this period as real and significant (previously, mothers felt they were simply failing, not having the language to name what they were going through). After all, they are two periods marked by change, mixed feelings, and a significant degree of angst. Of course, adolescence is widely recognized as arguably one of the most significant periods of change and growth; so why isn’t matrescence receiving the same air time?
Dr. Athan, who also runs the maternal psychology lab at Columbia, defines matrescence as “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!” So in other words, the upheaval new moms feel -- physically, psychologically, emotionally -- is the result of a whole host of very definite, very real changes. While overwhelmingly positive and healthy, like any major metamorphosis, matrescence can be rife with confusion, pain, and feelings of loss.
Dr. Athan emphasizes that matrescence is just as profound as adolescence in the way it affects nearly every aspect of one’s existence. “Before adolescence was coined, people thought kids went crazy on the way to adulthood,” she wrote in an email to Jenny + Evie. “Now that we know that it is a holistic, mind-body change across multiple domains: bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual. It does not change in just one area, but in all areas -- though each woman’s challenges may be emphasized in some more than others. This is what I was trying to suggest by the phrase ‘matrescence, like adolescence’ -- it is a normal human developmental window that impacts everything from hormones to identity to peer relationships to existential concerns and everything in between.”
As it turns out, women feel so markedly different in the transition to motherhood because, quite literally, their brains are changing. So perhaps the term “losing your mind” isn’t just an expression, after all. Research has found that during pregnancy, birth, and for up to two years following, a woman’s brain goes through an actual remodel of sorts. Entering motherhood is a “major event” for the brain, according to Jodi Pawluski, a researcher at the University of Rennes 1 in France who studies the neurobiology of the maternal brain. “It’s one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life,” Dr. Pawluski told The Week in 2018.
A 2017 study published in Nature Neuroscience revealed that during pregnancy, women undergo a sort of “neural remodeling,” which plays a vital role in their transition into motherhood. Elseline Hoekzema, who studies pregnancy and the brain at Leiden University in the Netherlands, led the study and found gray matter (the brain region thought to be responsible for processing sensory information) was reduced in the brains of new mothers for at least two years after birth. Interestingly, during adolescence, both girls and boys lose gray matter as well, as the brain connections they no longer need are “pruned” and their brains begin to be shaped into their adult forms. So, is this the proverbial “mom brain” we all hear about so much? Not exactly, according to Dr. Hoekzema. She believes that the loss in gray matter may be because mothers’ brains need to become more focused and specialized in ways that will specifically help them transition to the demands of motherhood, and become responsive caregivers to their babies.
Matrescence + PMADs: A Connection?
Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) affect 1 in 5 women, and of course need to be taken seriously. But one of the repercussions of matrescence not being discussed, explored, and fully recognized and understood, is that a growing number of moms believe they are suffering from a PMAD, when really, it’s perfectly normal to feel unmoored and like something’s “off.” As Dr. Sacks notes in her 2017 article, “The Birth of a Mother,” in the New York Times, “When women find themselves feeling lost somewhere between who they were before motherhood and who they think they should be now, many worry that something is terribly wrong, when in fact that discomfort is absolutely common.”
According to Dr. Athan, while we must continue to learn what factors contribute to PMADs, a culture that doesn’t support women as they become mothers certainly doesn’t help matters. “Any mental health issue is made better or worse by its surroundings,” Dr. Athan wrote to us. “If the larger culture takes that message up of matrescence on a larger, macro scale, then women would be seen as undergoing a rite of passage that requires support. Just as a child is held by a mother, a mother too needs to be held. When a mother becomes stressed, for me, it means the system is more likely the one that needs repair, not her.”
Becoming Mothers, Together
So, how do we ease the challenges of this profound and beautiful period? How can we “normalize” matrescence and make it an accepted and natural part of our collective social consciousness?
Dr. Athan says that it’s helpful to view matresence as an ongoing developmental process, and that the challenges may look different as time goes on. “In order to call forth your child you may have to (to name a few) start to change priorities and learn to surrender,” she wrote. “Fast forward, and boy is this even more true once the baby arrives! Fast forward to the teen years, and here come those lessons again. Empty nest, no different. The lessons are forever. It’s a marathon, not a race, and to come into a deeper knowing of yourself, and how you will react to all of these things, takes time, and many turns around the track before you find your stride.”
One of Dr. Sacks’ suggestions is for moms to be more candid with one another about what they’re feeling, and present a more uncensored portrayal of their experiences with new motherhood. “Rather than feel 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,” she writes in her article “There’s a Name for the Birth of Mother: Matrescence.”
Sometimes, I wish I could go back to that spring day nearly ten years ago, and tell my new-mom self what I know now: that what she was feeling was universal. That becoming a mother was a process. That the newness, the unsureness, the fish-out-of-water feeling, would gradually fade, and in its place, there would be a new, different, richer life. And perhaps most importantly of all, that she was far from alone.