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Matrescence: The Transition to Motherhood

Reflections of a New Mother

Written by Hannah Feliciano, LMFT

I became a new mom last year, and while this past year has been the most incredibly rewarding, it has also been one of the most difficult and draining years as well.  The transition to motherhood is one that is celebrated for its beauty and awe, but many times it is also a transition fraught with anxiety, depression and even sometimes anger and disappointment. 

The transition to motherhood is something I have been thinking a lot about, which sent me on a journey to understand this transformation.  From this search to understand my own changes, I was met with a new word that I believe our culture needs to adopt and use more often—matrescence.

For example, when you think of the change from childhood to adulthood, we have a word—adolescence.  So why do we not know the word for the transition from a woman to a mother? 

The word matrescence (pronounced similar to adolescence) was first used by Dana Raphael, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist in 1973.   And today, clinical psychologist Aurélie Athan, Ph.D., has been on a mission to revive and spread awareness about this critical transition into motherhood.  When I first discovered this term, it helped me make sense of my own experience—thinking about my own transformation not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  According to Athan, matrescence “is a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains –bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual– and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence”.

This was the change I felt deep within my being and now it had a name. Matrescence. This does not mean that postpartum mental health difficulties, like postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA) are any less real.  It just means that now the deep changes that do not get talked about enough have a space to live.  It also means that the women who are told they do not meet the criteria for diagnoses like PPD or PPA, but still feel so encumbered and distraught by the change and burden of motherhood, can now understand that there is a reason.  This change is so paramount, so life-altering and significant that it is, in fact, a whole transformation of one’s being.

In my own transformation into a mother and my subsequent journey through new motherhood, I have been faced with looking at my own shortcomings, but also my natural abilities.  I have learned that I am capable of doing things I never imagined, but have also learned even more how to depend and rely on those around me.  I could have never imagined the toll that new motherhood and, just motherhood, in general could take on one’s own energy and personhood. This whole new being that is so precious and dependent, so beautiful and destructive, is now so completely reliant on me.  

But just like any transformation, a whole new world has also opened up to me.  Motherhood has taught me the lesson of holding opposite truths at the same time.  Motherhood can feel so clumsy and hard some days.  Motherhood can also feel like you are living and fulfilling such a deep purpose.  Motherhood can feel like drowning.  Motherhood opens up the deepest love you could never have imagined.  Motherhood can feel like living in complete chaos one moment and then incredible peace the next.  Motherhood is a paradox. 

And I am still learning to accept this paradox.  I am still learning and failing, trying again and again each day as a mother.  This journey is also teaching me to be grateful—grateful for all the mothers that have gone before me.  I have learned to be so much more grateful for my own mother.  And I’m grateful for all the mothers that surround me.  I am grateful for their sacrifice, love and devotion.  I am grateful for their support and encouragement.  I am grateful to know I am not alone.

And while not all women are mothers, all women can “mother” in their own way, by nurturing ourselves and others we care for with a mothering spirit.  The idea of motherhood and Mother’s Day may also be very difficult and even painful for some women.  For many women who have experienced any form of pregnancy loss or infertility or who have chosen to not be mothers, the idea of Mother’s Day or motherhood may also be fraught with grief, sadness, or ambivalence.  So be gentle with yourselves and others.  Remember that we all must hold these paradoxical truths in whatever stage of life we find ourselves.   

By understanding the stages of womanhood and the transition into motherhood, however that looks for each of us, it is an important reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all.  And having a term such as matrescence to help us dialogue with those around us gives us a sense of belonging and normalcy amongst the discomfort.  Now that I know this term, I use it to describe my own experience, and I hope you will find it helpful as well as you remember that motherhood is a complex transformational experience.

So on this Mother’s Day, I hope you will remember to be thankful for those in your life who have gone before you and have given you life, but also be reminded of the transformation into being a mother.  And just as each of us moved through adolescence at our own pace, so do we become mothers in our own ways.  For now, I am grateful for all this new stage in life is teaching me, and I am learning to embrace the chaos as well as the peace. 

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