On Your Health

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Understanding "Matrescence," A Woman's Transition Into Motherhood

Becoming a mother is a profound experience.

It’s a wild ride, with good days, bad days, easy days, hard days and really strange days. During pregnancy, the physical transformation is constant. Women’s bodies change faster during pregnancy than they do during adolescence. Hormones surge, complexions erupt, breasts swell and leak, and waistlines become nonexistent.

One woman’s first trimester leaves her feeling sleepy and hungry, while another woman vomits for 90 days straight. Ankles swell, hair thickens beautifully and then falls out, babies kick ribs, heartburn and trips to the bathroom reach their peak, and finally, blessedly, the discomfort of week 40 surpasses the fear of labor and delivery, and things get real. A mother is born.

In the U.S., women are expected to love every second of becoming and being a mother, and of course much of it is very joyful. The challenge is, that for many decades, the only feeling it was acceptable for a mother-to-be or new mom to express was a steady stream of unmitigated bliss, whether or not that was what she was feeling. Until recently, and perhaps still, there was shame in feeling sad or mad or frightened as a new mother, or especially in feeling (or even mourning) the loss of a woman’s pre-motherhood self.

There’s a name for this. The term “matrescence” was coined by an anthropologist, Dana Raphael, in the 1970s. Aurelie Athan, a clinical psychologist and head of the maternal psychology lab at Columbia University, brought the term into our common vernacular. In short, just as adolescence describes a teenager’s passage into adulthood, matrescence describes a woman’s transition into motherhood and all the psychological and physical change that comes with it. It begins during pregnancy and continues after the baby is born.

In an article in the online publication The Cut, called “The Identity Transformation of Becoming a Mom,” Athan says this: “A colleague of mine once said, women might celebrate going to a yoga class, but not breastfeeding in the middle of the night ... as having the same sort of value. I think [kids are] teaching you things like mindfulness and patience. Think about the repetitive tasks [of parenthood] … they force you to be very present.”

Matrescence can feel like a big swirl of emotion, but much of it is physically rooted in hormone changes, just like adolescence. Some mood change is normal, but it’s a good idea to keep track. At a certain point, new mothers may need to see a doctor.

“Hormones are constantly fluctuating during pregnancy and especially the postpartum period. These hormonal changes can cause significant mood changes and perception. In the first two weeks after delivery, most women experience baby blues – meaning a change in their mood and increased sadness and crying, along with anxiety. If it persists past this time frame the diagnosis of postpartum depression needs to be considered,” says Dr. Katherine L. Shepherd, an OB-GYN at INTEGRIS.

Shepherd also says it’s normal for women to experience ambivalent or mixed feelings about becoming a mother, in fact the enormity of the role is intimidating for many. “It is very normal to be unsure of your role once your life has changed completely after the birth of a child. It is not uncommon for new mothers to be feel somewhat lost, as their life now revolves around someone else that relies on them for everything,” Shepherd says.

Dr. Shepherd counsels all her patients that as delivery approaches, they may also feel some anxiety regarding the actual delivery and what comes immediately after in terms of practically caring for an infant. It is one of the greatest unknowns to occur in a woman’s life. “I tell my patients they should read about parenting, about the stages that newborns go through to help prepare them. It is not intuitive at times, it does take work and most especially teamwork with your spouse, partner, family or neighbors to help you. It literally can take a village at times!”               

Postpartum depression is a disorder that occurs anytime within the 12-month period after delivery. The condition is far better understood now than it was in years past, and with prominent women like Chrissy Teigen, Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams opening up about their struggles with it, the stigma has fallen away, allowing for awareness to grow. “I screen all of my postpartum moms for postpartum depression because it is so common and often goes undiagnosed. I encourage my moms to call if they are feeling not quite themselves, so we can discuss it. It also is not only postpartum — expectant mothers can also experience depression and anxiety during their pregnancy and I urge my patients to bring this up in their prenatal visits,” Shepherd says.  “It can be treated with medication or therapy or a combination of both.”

Shepherd has some practical advice for mothers-to-be. “I think it all starts with expectations. Patients and their partners need to know that having a baby is the biggest life change one can imagine. I also let them know after delivery that it will take time to feel “yourself.” It took nearly 10 months to grow this baby, it will take time to feel like you again.”

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