Our culture has terms for the beginning (pubescence) and the end (menopause) of a woman’s reproductive life, but the transition to motherhood, matrescence, has been largely ignored. The anthropologist Dana Raphael first coined this term in the 70’s and yet it remains unacknowledged by most in the medical field. In fact, in the US we heap attention on pregnant women and then abruptly switch this focus to the baby immediately after delivery when support for the mother is virtually non-existent. Having ignored this rite of passage in our culture has left many new moms feeling isolated and alone, oftentimes compounding the stress and distress that can come from being a new mom. Also lacking is education on the realties of postpartum & maternal life, a fact that is missed entirely when scrolling through the instagram feed of friends. The lack of sleep and hormonal flux common during pregnancy and postpartum, factors that may continue for years in the event of multiple pregnancies, further complicate this transition and make symptoms of fatigue, sadness, and worry the norm rather than the exception, regardless if this is the first or fifth child. It is also important to recognize that adoptive and other non-birthing moms will experience this transition as well.
We as a culture ignore the needs of new mothers and make many demands on them that are prevented in other cultures out of respect for the postpartum period, a time recognized & honored as distinct from other times in a woman’s life. Curiously, these other cultures have virtually no post-partum disorders compared to 50-85% of new mothers in industrialized nations like the US. During this time, protective measures, so-called “mothering the mother,” help support and care for new moms. Specifically, the practice of “lying in” relieves women of their normal workload and implied duty to entertain visitors allowing for recuperation, rest, and family bonding. Oftentimes, this support is provided by extended family and includes nourishing meals, housekeeping, and designated times for mom to sleep. Not only does our culture minimize the significant change that occurs as a woman becomes a mother, but there is often an unspoken belief that any woman who needs post-partum support has somehow failed when, in reality, we as a culture have failed her. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acknowledged how difficult this transition is and gifted expectant and new moms with a meal delivery service, housecleaning, postpartum doula care, and lactation consults instead of the newest, cutest onesies?
Awareness of and education on the process of matrescence can alleviate much of the distress that is commonly experienced by new moms and we are so fortunate that it is becoming recognized more and more each year. We even have a company that specializes in this and offers educational classes for expectant moms here in Phoenix: Matrescence 4th Trimester Support & Planning. I, in conjunction with Elizabeth Wood from Matrescence, have created a chart to help women implement self-care and plan for and navigate some of the issues common in the late prenatal and postpartum period. This type of preparation is key to setting new moms and families up for success. The resources page on my website also lists several groups and practitioners who have experience in helping new moms through this transition when self-care is not enough. My next post will highlight the specific self-care supports you can implement to set yourself up for success.
It is important to acknowledge that we as women have a psychological connection with our reproductive lives that starts with menses and continues on through menopause, punctuated by decisions around and experiences with childbearing, that largely goes without reflection. Each of these transitions has the capacity to cause an existential upheaval and an opportunity for growth and the simple acts of meditating on, journaling about, and discussing our unique experiences can be powerfully transformative and healing. Unresolved issues regarding how one was raised, ambivalence about being a mother, loss of a former life, or guilt about presumed parenting mistakes can negatively impact matrescence, but simply acknowledging these feelings can go a long way toward soothing psychological distress. So use the term matrescence with your friends and spread the word and honor this time in your life for the miracle it is. Most importantly, if you need help, ask…motherhood is literally the hardest job.