The Transition To Motherhood Has A Name: Matrescence. So Why Don't We Talk About It?

We don't talk about matrescence — the developmental passage into motherhood. Experts explain why we should.
We don't talk about matrescence — the developmental passage into motherhood. Experts explain why we should.

We don't talk about matrescence — the developmental passage into motherhood.  Experts explain why we should.

The word matrescence sounds a lot like adolescence, and that’s not a coincidence. Like adolescence, matrescence — the developmental process of becoming a mother — is a time of transition in nearly every facet of a woman’s life. It changes her physically, hormonally, psychologically, socially, even politically and spiritually.

While adolescence is its own field of study and is well-established in the public consciousness, matrescence is not. But it should be, says reproductive psychologist Aurélie Athan, a research professor at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Anthropologist Dana Raphael originally coined the term matrescence in the 1970s; Athan revived it in 2008 and applied it to mental health to give “patience and time and support” to adults transitioning into parenthood, she told HuffPost.

As a psychologist, Athan was interested in how becoming a mother transforms a person’s identity.

“It’s about how I think about myself with my body changing, with my relationships changing: my friends, the peers that I hang out with, my relationship with my significant other, loved ones and family members,” she said.

It's a pretty profound change — and it’s a worldview change at the end of the day.Aurélie Athan, psychologist

“But then [it’s] also thinking about myself in the larger world: How do I feel about political systems and social justice? I might awaken to those things now too. And even larger questions like spiritual and religious questions about the sort of origins of all things. So it’s a pretty profound change — and it’s a worldview change at the end of the day.”

Mothers go through the developmental passage of matrescence whether they give birth or welcome a child via adoption or surrogacy. The acute stage typically lasts several years, but the “learning and maturation and growth then takes the rest of the lifetime to do,” Athan said.

An Antidote To ‘Bounce Back’ Culture

Rather than honoring the transformation that has taken place, the cultural conversation around new motherhood, at least in the United States, has too often focused on “bouncing back.” When are you going back to work? When are you going to fit into your jeans again? When are you going to return to the person you were before you had the baby?

Kendra Williams is a motherhood coach and content creator who frequently talks about matrescence on her social media platforms. She told HuffPost that she first remembers hearing the word in early 2021 when her kids were 2 and 3 and she was still feeling “somewhat disoriented about who [she] was.”

“The word made me feel so seen and helped make sense of what was going on in my own life outside of parenting,” Williams said. “Back then, it was my shifting career goals, my relationship with my parents and my marriage.”

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Williams wishes she had learned about matrescence prior to having kids, she said — then, perhaps, she would have known she wasn’t supposed to be the same person before and after.

“‘Bounce back’ culture is alive and well when it comes to women’s postpartum bodies but I think a lot of us also walk into motherhood with an unconscious expectation that everything else in our life should bounce back too,” Williams said. “That’s just not the case. And while it can sound like a bad thing at first, it’s simultaneously an amazing opportunity for growth and healing.” 

Normalizing — Rather Than Pathologizing — The Ups And Downs Of Becoming A Mom

Reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks wrote in a 2019 Psychology Today blog about matrescence that new mothers frequently call her asking if they have postpartum depression because they’re feeling exhausted, bored, resentful or just not enjoying every minute of the motherhood experience as they thought they would.

“Though they may not meet diagnostic criteria for this condition, postpartum depression seems to be the most familiar term they have on hand to frame their distress,” Sacks, who helped popularize the term matrescence, wrote in the piece.

These uncomfortable feelings are a normal part of matrescence; they don’t always need to be pathologized. Reproductive psychiatrist Sarah Oreck described the transition to motherhood as “wonderful and challenging — even unpleasant.”

“Unfortunately, our culture has been invested in the myths around the bliss and martyrdom that surrounds pregnancy and the postpartum period,” she told HuffPost. “Which is likely the reason this term [matrescence] has not become more popular earlier.”

“In a world with so many stressors and a lack of support for new parents, especially mothers, I see a great deal of suffering during the transition to motherhood when ideals of perfection can’t be reached,” Oreck added. “It’s important to normalize the bumps that come during matrescence, and to also differentiate these symptoms from more severe perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.”

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Athan said she, too, wants to normalize the conflicting emotions that accompany the motherhood experience. It’s not this feeling or that one — it’s this feeling and that one, often at the same time.

“Mothers will say how I’m both exhausted and exhilarated. I am both depleted, but also learning new wellsprings of patience within me that I didn’t know that I have,” Athan said. “This is the language of growth. And I don’t think that a lot of women know it because we sort of split things a lot.

Re-Centering The Woman In Motherhood 

So much of the modern motherhood discourse is about how to be a better parent and raise a happy, healthy kid. Those are important pursuits, but they put all of the energy and attention on the child. Matrescence turns some of that focus back on the mother.

Re-centering the woman in the motherhood conversation “feels like a breath of fresh air,” Williams said.

“I believe matrescence is focused on the woman and the act of mothering is focused on the child,” she said. “In a world so focused on parenting styles, Pinterest-perfect nurseries and child development, it’s easy for the woman to be overlooked. Matrescence is about the evolving woman who is navigating motherhood.”

Our culture has been invested in the myths around the bliss and martyrdom that surrounds pregnancy and the postpartum period.Sarah Oreck, reproductive psychiatrist

This may be one of the reasons matrescence has been slow to catch on: Culturally and academically, we’ve been much more interested in the child’s development than the parent’s.

“There’s always another theory on how to improve your parenting style and raise a child better and improve child outcomes,” Athan said. “So the empathic thrust has been largely on children — we understand that they’re the vulnerable other in the dyad. There hasn’t been as much curiosity on adult development.”

Sexism in scientific research may have also played a role in matrescence not getting the attention it deserves. Historically, researchers and their subjects were men, so many of the biological and psychological models we have are based on male bodies and brains.

The tides have been turning though. More and more women and mothers have entered academia, bringing with them “the techniques and tools and theories to narrate their [own] experience,” Athan said.

In recent years, the matrescence movement has picked up momentum thanks to social media, where moms are introducing each other to the term and having honest conversations about the many changes, joys and struggles of this phase of life.

“Social media as a sort of new wave of how public health information gets out there was so wonderful,” Athan said. “I would’ve still been probably refining this for years if it wasn’t for those mothers and mother groups coming in and picking it up and saying, ‘I need to use this now.’”

She believes mothers have latched on to the term because they feel understood by it. It helps them articulate and make sense of what they’re feeling.

“They have their light bulb moment, ‘matrescence is like adolescence,’ and suddenly you see the click, whether it’s in my private practice or when I’m teaching or when these mother groups are coming to me and saying thank you,” Athan said. “It just explains things better than the models that we’ve had before.”

Advice For Navigating Matrescence 

Just being aware that “matrescence” is a typical developmental phase can be powerful. It sets more realistic expectations for new mothers and society about what’s to come, what support they might need during this transition and lets moms know they’re not alone if they’re feeling different or lost or in flux.

Surrounding yourself with a strong support system can help you weather these the ups and downs. In many cultures around the world, children are raised by their extended family and members of their community — a practice that stands in stark contrast to the “relative isolation” in which we raise kids in this country, Oreck said. She called this “quite unusual” and “unsustainable,” as evidenced by “how broken our system is.”

“In my own Latin American culture, the first 40 days after having a baby is known as la cuarentena, a time for new moms to rest, recover and focus on breastfeeding while other women in the extended family feed her, provide housekeeping and other support,” Oreck said. “Here you spend hours laboring or have a major surgery and a nurse hands you your baby and basically tells you to fend for yourself the first night in the hospital.”

Be open to accepting help when it’s offered, Oreck said, “instead of reflexively saying ‘no’ to a meal train or a friend coming over to do laundry for you.”

Williams also underscored the importance of “creating your village” of  supportive parents to help you through this life transition and identity shift.

“Many women have been told the village is to help raise the child in the form of babysitting and childcare. But I view the modern village as a network of women who nurture and support the growing mother,” she said. “A truly safe community of women who are in the same phase of life or beyond who can whisper the realities of motherhood and parenting without the negative charge we so often hear with the, ‘Oh, you just wait until … ’ comments.”

It may help to think about matrescence as a time for personal growth and looking inward, getting acquainted with the person you’re becoming and your new goals and priorities. If you’re called to do so, it can also be a time to practice empowerment and deepen your sense of agency, Athan said.

“I think parenthood lays bare the cracks and that’s a good thing,” she said. “That’s where the light comes in.”

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