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Motherhood is often represented by the birth of a child. But when a child is born, so too is a mother.
If you’ve never heard of the term “matrescence”—coined by the anthropologist Dana Raphael—it is defined as the process of becoming a mother. It’s a word used to describe the physical, psychological, and emotional changes people go through during the monumental transformation that is motherhood.
Yet, despite the enormity of this change—and beyond some attention in anthropology as well as the fields of psychiatry and psychology—the process of becoming a mother has been largely unexplored in the medical community as the focus remains mostly on the baby.
But the truth of the matter is that when a person becomes a mother, everything changes. And new mothers need support—arguably more support than ever, especially now.
So how can you make your journey of matrescence smooth, rewarding, and memorable, ensuring that you get the care and attention that you need?
Here are a few takeaways from the study of matrescence:
In a well-known 2017 New York Times essay, reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, M.D.—who regularly writes about and talks about matrescence—discusses some of the changes that often take place in the transition to motherhood. They include identity changes; changes in family dynamics (think: with a partner); feeling emotions like ambivalence, guilt, and shame; and even struggling with what you imagined motherhood to look like versus what your reality of your motherhood is (her TED Talk on the topic of matrescence has almost two million views!).
Simply being aware of these changes, the emotions you might feel, and the “clashes” you might experience between expectations and reality can help you better adjust to motherhood. After all, while there are times photo ops and Instagram-worthy shots with your baby, motherhood is the unfiltered stuff—and it’s not always accurately on display.
Find the Support You Need
No one is supposed to parent alone. And while support certainly looks different in the times of quarantine and a worldwide pandemic, it’s still possible—and just as (if not more) crucial for new moms. After all, motherhood could very likely be the biggest transition of your life.
Support comes in many forms, too, including virtual support groups (institutions such as Postpartum Support International, The Motherhood Center of New York, and The Postpartum Stress Center regularly host different kinds of support groups for pregnant and postpartum women), postpartum plans (what will you need after you have the baby? Who could drop by food? Who could help with overnight care?), and even people who can lend an ear when you just need a calming voice to talk with.
Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a perinatal psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at The George Washington University School of Medicine suggested to Shape that you should set up two kinds of support in advance: someone who you can call in a pinch for help and someone who you can call who will be accepting and listen to you. Figuring this out before you have a baby can pay off in spades postpartum.
Motherhood is filled with a ‘push and pull’ of emotions (you want to spend time with your baby, you want a break)—and that’s normal! Allow yourself to feel the losses (a social life as you knew it, your regular routine, ‘me’ time), as well as the gains (your new title of mama, an increased appreciation for family.
This will help you see that it’s okay—in fact, it’s expected—that transformative experiences be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or’ when it comes to emotions. No change is without gains and losses—even and especially motherhood.
Eventually you will recognize the ways in which motherhood is in fact, empowering!
Self-care matters and as you spend most of your day (and night) giving to another human, it’s important to give back to yourself, too. Of course, exactly how you do that will look different from person to person but honing in on the activities that help feel your best (a short yoga class, a walk around the block, a conversation with a good friend, elevate your skincare routine) is a key part of easing into the transition to motherhood.
Need some more ways to fit self-care into your busy day? Click here for some ideas.