If you are a mother, chances are you experienced a massive change in your life once your baby was born. I’m not just talking about post-pregnancy bellies or sleepless nights; I’m talking about feeling all over the place because there are a million things you now have to figure out, the realisation of your new role and identity as a mother, the weight of the responsibility to raise a human being, the world turning upside-down…
I could go on but I’m pretty sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Turns out there is an actual word to describe all the changes that happen to a woman once she becomes a mum: matrescence.
By definition, matrescence is the process of becoming a mother. When you’re a new mum and you feel different somehow, but you can’t quite put your finger on what has changed; it’s not only your body that’s changed but your identity is also changing; when certain things just don’t feel the same any more – this is matrescence, or the birth of a mother.
Life will never be as it was before – motherhood changes not just your body, but also your mind, your heart, your soul, your identity.
The word “matrescence” was coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael back in 1973, but if you’ve never heard it before you’re definitely not alone. It’s still not common to see it in mainstream media – but it’s about time for this word to enter our dictionary.
The shift from womanhood to motherhood doesn’t happen in an instant. It is gradual, subtle, and yet powerful – not unlike the changes that happen in adolescence. You’re going through matrescence; and now you have a word you can use to describe all these changes.
Everyone understands what it means to go through adolescence. The passage into adulthood is well known for being a challenging time. You don’t have to highlight the hormonal changes, the confusion, getting used to a new and mature body, or working out new priorities. It is common knowledge that adolescence can be tricky to navigate.
Matrescence is the same upheaval: your body has changed, your hormones are all over the place, you find yourself in a completely new role, and the confusion is very real. It takes time for the dust to settle, it takes time to transition into your new role. No one would expect a teenager to wake up one day and suddenly say “well, it feels like I’m not a child any more; now I’m an adult”. That’s not quite how it happens, right? Well, it’s not how it happens with motherhood, either.
The rules have changed and now you have a new “normal” to establish – and that takes time.
Becoming a mum is a completely new territory. Life will never be as it was before – motherhood changes not just your body, but also your mind, your heart, your soul, your identity. This is why it’s ridiculous to expect new mums to get back to their old life as soon as they can. To get back to “normal”. It’s impossible to get back to something that no longer exists. The rules have changed and now you have a new “normal” to establish – and that takes time.
Matrescence is still a very much misunderstood and under-investigated area, but psychologists are starting to take note. One of the researchers in this area is psychiatrist Dr Alexandra Sacks, who’s written the popular New York Times article The Birth of a Mother. (You can also read her articles about matrescence on Medium here and here.)
Dr Sacks highlights that current conversation about matrescence tends to be polarised: it either paints an idealised picture of the transition into motherhood, or it focuses on postnatal depression.
But as Dr Sacks says, matrescence affects every new mum.
All mothers undergo this significant transformation. Postpartum depression is an extreme manifestation of this transition that (thankfully) doesn’t affect every mother. The other extreme, the example of perfection and bliss we see on Instagram, is unrealistic – it’s a myth which is simply unattainable.
Matrescence is the journey of real, everyday women who choose to be mothers. It’s nothing mystical or extreme; just like adolescence is a natural part of life, so is matrescence for those women who choose to have a child. And it’s important that we talk about it.
It’s a great start to have a word to describe this transition – because if you can name it, if you can define it, that empowers you to talk about it and express your feelings. The next step is making it more mainstream; which is why talking about our own experiences matters so much.
The more we share our stories, the more we encourage conversation around this neglected area – and the more we help our fellow mothers.
This also means that new mums in the future will have a much better understanding of this rite of passage – and that alone will be super helpful. Knowing that you are going to change, knowing that this is okay, this is normal and you’re not going crazy – this reassurance could bring some much-needed peace of mind to a stressed out first-time mum.