I did very little to prepare for Evie’s birth, both emotionally and physically. I hadn’t yet packed a hospital bag, only to throw a bunch of things I didn’t need into a duffel bag as we left our house in the middle of the night for the hospital. At least I ordered some diapers and had done one load of laundry. I hadn’t considered how her birth would be different from Brendan’s, or how I would be different in the midst of those two experiences. How could it be different? We were going through the same motions, even if they were five years apart.
It wasn’t until I was talking to a friend a few days before Evie’s early birth that we stumbled upon the concept of shapeshifting identities as a mom. She asked how it would feel with two, and I confidently answered (possibly smugly) that I felt like I had it all under control. I’d been through hell and back the first round, and we made it through. I had lived experience to bear. And then she shared an anecdote that rocked me to my core: the transition to motherhood will shapeshift you in new physical and psychological ways, even if you’ve experienced it before.
And here I thought I was in control.
In addition to the physical changes women undergo when becoming a mother, psychologically our brains leap in development during the transition. Like adolescence, the transitory period in becoming a mother is called ‘matrescence.’ The term was first coined in 1973 by Dana Raphael, a medical anthropologist who also popularized the phrase “doula.”
Not surprisingly, matrescence is still understudied since its name was first coined. One particular piece of it that fascinates me is that researchers say matrescence occurs to all women becoming parents – whether through surrogacy, adoption, or other methods.
Aurélie Athan, Ph.D. is a research professor at Columbia University and published this background information about the phenomenon, while arguing for more funding for its research:
“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.”
This natural period of transition is not a disease or diagnosis. In adolescence, by comparison, we understand many teens are undergoing changes in their bodies and lives they haven’t encountered yet – we give them grace when they’re a bit down or snappy. But for many women, society expects them to be elated at their new addition, and does not recognize the immense pressure newfound parenthood has presented. I say we owe new moms the same grace we give occasionally snarky teens.
While matrescence is unique to each individual, Alexandra Sacks MD, published this article in 2017 noting common themes: guilt, shame, not feeling ‘good enough,’ competition for attention, and reflection on intergenerational patterns.
There aren’t many clear guidelines developed for the transitory period. Some women report feeling like they’re still going through matrensence when their child turns ten – many even say they go through a new one when they add new children to the mix – something I wish I processed a little more before we headed into labor.
As I reflect on becoming a first-time mom, I think back on how Dave and I wanted to tackle the first sleepless months on our own. I underestimated the hormone surges, the physical healing, the need to take things slow to hit a good rhythm. We shortchanged ourselves and didn’t ask for help.
After having Brendan, I wondered how postpartum depression would play out this time around (Spoiler alert, friend: it was really bad until Brendan was three years-old and I did my best not to let it show though it was evident to all.) I was on the edge of fight, flight or freeze at any given moment, and wondered if that would be my same story after Evie was born.
“When A Child Is Born, So Is A Mother.”The Matrensence, a digital community founded for to create resources for moms
No matter the new challenges or struggles that arise (especially going from one kiddo to two), I know that this period of transition is natural, and struggle is natural. I’m working on leaning into the village and knowing when to ask for help. We’re bringing in additional support and postpartum help, and I’ve already made appointments with my former therapist knowing that the stay in NICU presented a new complicated wrinkle in my matresence now that Evie was earthside.
While I encourage all mamas to get checked if they’re feeling continually down, and seek support if the ‘baby blues’ start to feel like an ocean, I encourage all mothers to remember that change is scary no matter how you spin it.
As luck would have it, I was planning on taking a week-long writing intensive with one of my favorite authors this week. I applied and was chosen to be a part of this virtual group, and I viewed it as my one last hurrah for myself before diving back into the land of diaper changes and spit up. Sitting in the NICU on Sunday night, I tearfully emailed the program chair and teacher to say that I wouldn’t be able to attend the first day, and would be open to considering alternatives. It felt too big to take on at the moment, but I longed to keep my commitment. I got an email back within 30-minutes, welcoming both me and Evie into the class and encouraging me to take it at my own pace. This group of writers has become a haven for the beautiful, hairy, messy challenges of parenthood can come to life aloud. They offered grace in a way that was new for me – completely unconditional and unrestrained. It gave me an outlet and a safe space to land in a swirling life moment.
I challenge us to think about motherhood in this way, with an understanding of the natural phenomenon of our ‘second puberty’ into matrescence. If we can ask more questions and offer more support, I think motherhood might be a kinder place.
The featured image in this article is by Austin Wade.