The statistics are staggering: One in seven mothers face postpartum depression. Nearly a quarter of women have pelvic floor pain. Sixty percent experience diastasis recti. The list goes on. Yet, there is one postpartum challenge all mothers grapple with, says reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks M.D. Some even experience it prior to giving birth.
One hundred percent of mothers experience matrescence—the dramatic physical, hormonal, and emotional changes associated with becoming a mother.
Matrescence, first coined in 1973 by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, gives a name to the multifaceted transition we make as we become moms. According to Sacks, it can begin as soon as a woman is TTC (trying to conceive) and continues through pregnancy, the postpartum stage, or when a mother expands her family with another child.
“It’s a time when a woman’s body is changing and [her] social identity is changing simultaneously,” Sacks says. “Matrescence is such a great word because it follows the same linguistic structure as adolescence.”
Sacks has been working to popularize this concept as a new way to think about motherhood. Like adolescence, matrescence is a time of healthy change in a woman’s life, she notes. And, like adolescence, it’s a transition not without ambivalence or angst.
“When a mother’s story is discussed it’s talked about as being the ‘happiest time in a woman’s life,’” she says. “That is just one aspect of this very demanding transition.”
Why it matters for moms
Sacks is right: motherhood is often rendered in extremes—the adoring, happy mother, or, on the other end of the spectrum, the mother suffering from postpartum depression.
In my own experience, I struggled to define the fundamental identity shift occurring inside of me in the tender months after birthing my son. I loved being a mother, but it was also the hardest thing I’d ever done. I wondered if I’d ever look or feel like my old self again. I wondered why all the parenting books I read and mommy bloggers I followed failed to fully communicate this tension. My feelings on motherhood were, surprisingly, mixed.
In her work as a reproductive psychiatrist, Sacks has heard firsthand from a plethora of mothers shaken by their emotional response to new motherhood. Be it sleep-deprivation, breastfeeding woes, or the pressures of caring for a helpless newborn, her patients feared they’d developed postpartum depression. In many cases, they were simply experiencing matrescence.
But all women experience matrescence, she contends, and in her practice, Sacks has seen how affirming it is for mothers to grasp this concept.
“Because we aren’t educating people about it, [matrescence] is getting confused with a separate condition (postpartum depression),” Sacks says. “As a general rule of thumb, postpartum depression is a condition that interferes with your daily function. You have trouble sleeping in a way that’s not just related to caring for a newborn. Your appetite may be gone or you’re eating more than normal. You may feel hopeless, slowed down. When those symptoms stick around for more than two weeks or longer without a break, that’s when we have concerns.”
First and foremost, Sacks recommends a mom always check with her doctor if she thinks she may have postpartum depression. But all women experience matrescence, she contends, and in her practice, Sacks has seen how affirming it is for mothers to grasp this concept. Her hope is that normalizing matrescence will reduce the social isolation associated with new motherhood.
“This time of the motherhood transition has not been more remarked upon and I think that’s because there’s a lot of attention to the pregnancy experience and tremendous attention to caring for a baby,” Sacks says. “In those other two dramatic moments, a mother’s transition and her continued growth are ignored. I think it’s time to shed light on that story because it makes people feel better to have a name for what they’re going through.”
Her book, What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, will delve into the emotional ups and downs of becoming a mother.
How to cope with this huge transition
Sacks has a couple suggestions for new moms undergoing this big life transition, the first being to carve out time for self-care.
“Make a list of everything that you do or did in your life before new motherhood and break it down in terms of your body, your relationships, and your personal life,” she says, suggesting mothers try to return to some of those activities as best they can. “It’s so exhausting to care for a baby, the basics of self-care get cut out.”
Mothers of newborns may need to get creative or lean on the support of friends, family, relatives, or paid help in order to claim the time they need to care for themselves. Taking small moments for self-care, such as a shower, workout, or dinner out with your partner, can make a big difference in overall wellbeing.
Additionally, Sacks recommends connecting with other moms, whether that’s in your family, friend circle, neighborhood or online. To that end, she created #motherhoodunfiltered, an opportunity for moms to congregate on social media and tell real stories acknowledging the complexity of motherhood—its heartaches, difficulties, and triumphs.
Culturally, there is “this expectation that bliss would be the primary and predominant emotion [for new mothers],” Sacks says. “Most people do find joy, but there are also moments of ambivalence and there are moments of stress. The more we talk about matrescence and the demands of this transition, the less isolated moms will feel.”
This article was originally published on January 29, 2019, and has been updated for timeliness.