Matrescence: Becoming a Mother
Updated: Jul 9, 2019
Becoming a mother is similar to (but so much harder) than becoming a teenager! There are emotional, physical, hormonal, and cognitive changes. So why do we support teenagers and expect moms to just deal with it?
I first heard the term “Matresence” while listening to Dr. Alexandra Sach’s TED talk on the topic. When I heard Dr. Sachs speak about this phenomenon, I immediately thought: “This puts a name to my experience, as well as the experience I’ve heard so many other moms share with me.” It is an unspoken yet extremely powerful feeling about finding out there is a name for something you are experiencing. Just knowing this term existed made me feel validated and supported. After all, isn’t just what we as moms are looking for sometimes?
But what exactly matresence?
Well, for starters it’s no coincidence that it sounds like the term “adolescence.” We all know that during adolescence, a teenager’s body and brain is undergoing extensive hormonal, cognitive, physical, and psychological changes. A teenager is making the difficult transition into adulthood--a transition that spans several years. Not only do we know about these changes, we expect them as simply a normal part of the lifespan process.
If society appreciates the physical, emotional, hormonal and cognitive changes that occur during adolescence, why don’t we do this for mothers, who are experiencing substantial brain and body changes? The difference lies in the societal expectations that moms are caregivers--and not care receivers.
When a baby is born, visitors come in the first few days or weeks, but usually not much more afterwards. A new mom, and those around her, are focused on taking care of the baby, as well as any other children in the family. But there isn’t usually nearly as much focus on the mom; despite the fact that she is experiencing, and will continue to experience, matrescence: the ongoing transition into motherhood.
Just like during adolescence, there is a biological basis for the up and down emotions that women experience during this time. Even before birth, there are extensive changes that occur in the brain during pregnancy.
There is increased activity in the areas that control empathy, anxiety, and social interactions. These changes, along with the hormones the body produces during both pregnancy and postpartum, makes a mother experience roller coaster emotions. The shifts allow a mom to sleep through certain noises but immediately wake at the sound of a baby’s slight distress, deeply empathize with their pain, and multitask to meet their needs. These changes can occur in parents or caregivers who may not have given birth, but are constantly around the child.
A discussion on the topic of matresence would not be complete without paying homage and appreciation to those dedicated to bringing this concept into societal awareness. Dana Louise Raphael, an anthropologist, coined the term in the mid-1970s. Aurelie Athan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, has dedicated her career to researching matresence and normalizing it. Ms. Raphael, and Drs. Athan and Sachs paved the way for these conversations!
Read more about common struggles many moms face in the transition to motherhood here