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When do you become a mama? It’s tempting to point to a single moment in time. Maybe it's the moment you find out you are pregnant for the first time, or perhaps it's the moment your baby is born. I will never forget when a mom friend first said to me, “your firstborn’s birthday is your “birth” day too, mama.”
But in reality, the transformation we undergo when becoming a mama is not actually a single point in time, but rather, a journey. “The process of becoming a mother,” coined as Matrescence by anthropologist Dana Raphael, summarizes the experience as not only the birth of your baby, but a profound transformation that includes the physical, emotional, and psychological changes that occur during pregnancy, childbirth, and the early postpartum period. Matrescence recognizes that becoming a mother is a profound transition that affects all aspects of a woman’s life.
Historically, parenting has largely focused on our children, while the experience of motherhood has gone unnoticed and undervalued. Understanding and acknowledging the significance of matrescence is essential for supporting and empowering mamas during this crucial phase of our lives. As a new mother, the changes we go through are all encompassing: physically, emotionally, mentally, socially. Even at a cellular level, we are not the same person after having children that we were before. For these reasons, new mamas need support more than ever during this crucial stage.
Matrescence challenges the notion that motherhood is a natural instinct that effortlessly accompanies childbirth. It recognizes that the journey to becoming a mother is a complex, multifaceted process that involves a complete identity transformation. By understanding matrescence, we can shift the focus from solely celebrating our baby to acknowledging and supporting your needs too, mama.
The Ups and Downs of the Emotional Journey:
While we might be familiar with the physical changes we encounter during pregnancy and postpartum, the emotional and psychological changes are too often overlooked. It’s not all excitement, and that’s ok! Joy, fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion and sadness are a normal part of the matrescence journey. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you! Hormonal fluctuations, sleep deprivation, and the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and even postpartum depression. By recognizing these emotional challenges, we can create a supportive environment that allows mothers to express their emotions without judgment or stigma.
I remember feeling deep shame around my inability to bond with my first baby in the weeks following our traumatic delivery and prolonged NICU stay. It was only later that I learned that the changes in my body and brain were normal, and that there was help out there.
The Journey Back to Yourself:
Becoming a mother often involves a profound shift in identity. Many moms find themselves grappling with questions of self-worth, career aspirations, and personal goals. Matrescence presents an opportunity for self-reflection and self-discovery, as we navigate our new roles while trying to also preserve our individuality. This is a time of immense personal growth and transformation. You might find that your priorities and values have shifted: you’re reevaluating career choices, your relationship with your partner, friendships, your view on world events. You may develop new interests and passions, or experience a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Take the time to explore these changes with curiosity rather than judgment. Accept that “change” is the new constant, and give yourself grace.
The Journey is Meant to be Shared - Building a Community:
The saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," is particularly relevant when considering matrescence. You might have a great support system in your family, and if you do, lean into it! Seek out support from your circle!
Many new moms do not have this support system. If your family is not physically or emotionally close to you, it will be key to take steps to surround yourself with a supportive community. Partners, friends, healthcare professionals, online and in person mom groups, anyone who can provide a safe and positive support system and offer non-judgmental advice. Establishing community resources helps to nurture the village and provide a sense of belonging for us mamas.
Pay Attention to and Protect Your Mental Health:
Parenting can be an amazing thing, but it’s also a job - especially in the early days. Like any job, you need breaks! Make sure you are planning at least 30 minutes a day to do something just for you: even if it means running a quick errand alone, or locking the bathroom door and having a good cry (we’ve all done this one!). Allow yourself to feel the loss of the person you were before, and embrace the beauty of the new person you are becoming. Make sure you share how you are feeling. Your loved ones may not know you’re struggling unless you tell them, so don’t hesitate to speak up! Make a list of a few people you can call in a pinch to help you, and talk to them in advance about what you might need.
Do mental check-ins with yourself regularly. The stress and exhaustion we feel as a new mom can sometimes escalate to the point that it requires medical intervention. Know that this is completely normal - in fact, nearly 1 in 5 new moms will experience postpartum mental health struggles. Recognizing the signs of postpartum depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions is crucial for early intervention and support. Remember, access to maternal health services is available. We aren’t meant to parent alone.
Matrescence recognizes the profound transformation we undergo when becoming mothers. You grow, you change, you laugh and cry. Let’s strive to bring this term to the forefront of conversation as we support ourselves and other moms during this transition. By understanding the emotional, psychological, and identity shifts that occur during matrescence, we can foster a more supportive environment for each other and promote the overall well-being of moms. Let us honor the beauty and significance of matrescence and embrace motherhood as the profound and life-altering experience it truly is.