Your Matrescence Journey

Matrescence.  According to the Cambridge dictionary, Matrescence is the “process of becoming a mother”. But what does this term actually mean?


Matrescence was a term coined by American anthropologist Dana Raphael PhD whilst she explored the transition into motherhood from an anthropological standpoint.  Dana Raphael stated that “childbirth brings about a series of very dramatic changes in the new mother’s physical being, in her emotional life, in her status within the group, even in her own female identity.  I distinguish this period of transition from others by terming in matrescence to empathise the mother and to focus on her new lifestyle.” Dana Raphael – The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding (1973)


As a side note, Dana Raphael is better known for having coined the term ‘doula’ as an emotional support to the mother during and after childbirth, someone to “Mother the Mother”.  The term doula became widely used after Dana’s dissertation publication The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding. The act of doulaing is to support a woman during her matrescence.


After its initial introduction, matrescence disappeared from the mainstream language, used only in circles within the birth space close to Dana’s continuous work in postnatal and lactation support. That’s until another American anthropologist, Dr Aurelie Athan, discovered the term when researching the physiological and developmental changes that happen at key milestones in life.  After a discussion with her students, the group realised that matrescence was in fact like adolescence in the impact that it has on all aspects of life in the transition to motherhood. The term as we now know it was born. 


Matrescence, like adolescence, is a developmental window characterised by a marked shift in biological, psychological, social, spiritual factors – from hormones to identity factors.  The journey from maiden to mother.


On a physical level pregnancy and postpartum have very obvious changes on a new mother’s body.  The movement of her internal organs to make space for the baby to grow, the widening of her pelvis, and opening of the cervix to allow baby to be birthed. And if a vaginal birth has not been possible, then the impact of major abdominal surgery on the body. These physical changes can have huge impacts on how a new mother perceives herself and feels within her own body.


During pregnancy women also undergo significant brain remodelling that persists for at least two years Scientific American Article. Within this time, there are considerable changes in grey matter in the regions associated with social cognition and theory of mind.  Science Focus Article  These structural changes in the brain, across multiple areas, all aid the mother to be more responsive to her new baby.  Areas associated with reward circuitry, emotion regulation, learning and decision making, empathy, as well as all the senses, get a boost to improve reproductive success.  BBC Video Mothers Brains . Some of these changes return to normal after pregnancy, whereas some have a lasting impact on the new mother.


There is also some evidence that a baby leaves their DNA mark within a mother’s brain and body during pregnancy through a process known as fetal-maternal microchimerism. 


We now understand more about how adaptable the brain in adult life is. Understanding neuroplasticity and how the brain can rewire and develop its neural network can explain how these brain changes affect new mothers.  One key area of these brain changes is experience dependent plasticity. Where our brains change based on previous experiences and therefore affect future behaviour; the more experience there is, the stronger the connection in the areas relating to parenting.  This kind of plasticity is seen in non-birthing partners too.  One study in Israel looked at same sex fathers and found experience-based plasticity resulted in greater brain responses to their baby, but also, the primary caregiver had the stronger pathways than their partner. BBC Video Mothers Brains and 


From a hormonal perspective, progestogen, oestrogen, oxytocin, prolactin, relaxin; all fluctuating at different times throughout pregnancy, birth and postpartum can have huge impacts on emotional regulation and mood swings.  Behaviours that are well documented in adolescence!  Such large quantities of progesterone and oestrogen are only seen in pregnancy and puberty


The psychological changes than happen in the early days of motherhood have huge impacts on the new mother’s mental wellbeing.  Uncertainty around this new identity, the triggering of unhealed emotional wounds, changes in personality, shifts in personal and family priorities, all topped off with questionable levels of self esteem and confidence.  New mothers are often expected to be joyful and carry on as they were before the birth of their child.  All these changes are not spoken about.  Having language around these changes gives new mothers the opportunity, and permission, to talk about them.  We were never meant to raise children alone.  We are meant to have heard the whispers of those wise women who have birthed before us. To be held and supported by our village, both emotionally and practically.  In the West there has been a loss of the ritual and acknowledgement of the transition to motherhood.  In many traditional communities and across the East, these do still exist.


In addition to the internal shifts happening, there are societal changes to account for when a new mother is born.  The economic change to work outside of the home, and the income associated with that, and all that that affects in the family home and dynamic. The dichotomy of maternity leave for those career focused new mothers.  Social changes of friendships, new and old; loss of status or income, pressure of the new status of being a “Mother”.


There are also shifts in spiritual aspects of a new mother’s life.  These can be around the existential questions, new or old faith, the act of now being a “We” as opposed to an “I”.


Whilst every new mother’s matrescence into motherhood is different, in their duration or ‘pain points’, there are some universal aspects of this transitionary period.  The feeling of ambivalence is absolutely normal, feeling both good and bad about motherhood.  Often shrouded in shame and guilt, mothers rarely talk about this.  This is something Alexandra Sacks calls the push and pull of matrescence, the emotional tug of war. Alexandra Sacks TED Talk Alongside ambivalence, there is overall guilt.  The pressure new mothers have these days to be ‘perfect’ mothers, to follow the parenting books and recommended timelines for their baby, many of which are wholly impossible to do.  A term paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined, was the ‘good enough mother’. He stated that a mother who makes mistakes is a necessary part of parenting.  He was a big believer in that mothers know their babies best and should be encouraged to follow their intuition as opposed to prescriptive instructions as if each baby were a carbon copy of another.


The general consensus is that matrescence is a rite of passage, a transitionary period that all new mothers will go through.  How they fare through it is dependent on the amount of space, support and understanding they receive.


The area I am passionate about is honouring and acknowledging the mother once she has given birth.  I think women in the western world are often forgotten, invisible, negligible once baby has been born.  


There is such a limited understanding of the emotional changes that happen after a baby has been born.  And even less support afforded to the new mother to go through this transition at the same time as nurturing her newborn (and older children if there are).  I want to bring back the notion that we were never meant to raise children alone, we are evolutionarily designed to live in tribes, with support of those who have gone before us, whispers of wisdom and are held to ensure that both baby and mother become emotionally secure, feel loved and supported, and are fundamentally good members of society.  We have lost the ritual around motherhood.  We’ve been so focused on ‘having it all’ and ‘being strong’ and individualised, that we have forgotten how important it is to have others around us.  To have the support and understanding. That is what I think the term Matrescence gives.  The language to acknowledge a change in happening within new mothers. A gateway of transition that allows a new mother to renew herself, refocus, and find her intuition.


As Dr Aurelie Athan states, “understanding that motherhood is the psychological and spiritual birth of a woman is the greatest story never told”.

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