When you're pregnant, your doctor, your friends, and your family all tend to treat your due date as the finish line. Getting the baby out is the shared goal, and, once babies are born, their mothers are almost forgotten. "There is this energy shift that really happens when a baby is in the [delivery] room that everyone is looking at the baby and the mother is kind of there on the table and often no one is really with her," Dr. Alexandra Sacks recently told a panel attended by Romper. And yet the needs of women are immense in the postpartum period — which is why Sacks has reintroduced the term "matrescence."
“Matrescence, the developmental phase of new motherhood, is like adolescence — a transition when hormones surge, bodies morph, and identity and relationships shift,” Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and co-author of the forthcoming book, How Come No One Told Me: The Emotional Guide to Pregnancy and The First Year of Motherhood, tells Romper. “Our culture appreciates that adolescence is a time of physical and emotional awkwardness for most teenagers, because we understand that change is hard, and transformation on all of these levels simultaneously is stressful. The same is true for matrescence.”
Since publishing a piece on the topic in the New York Times last year that went viral, Sacks has been working to educate mothers and care providers on the anthropological term matrescence (sounds like adolescence) to better understand why so many mothers feel lost during the postpartum period.
“As with adolescence, the time frame of matrescence may vary woman to woman. Some of us biologically begin puberty earlier or later than others, and psychologically may feel like independent adults earlier or later,” she explains.
In my office, many new mothers tell me that they feel guilty and ashamed about the natural ups and downs of matrescence, because the medical community hasn’t explained how common this experience is.
You don't "become" a mother in the moments of childbirth, so having terminology to understand and talk about the transition into motherhood is important. Broken down, it’s a phase in which physical, hormonal, and psychological changes are happening. Although mothers may be able to function and push through these ups and downs while feeling generally healthy, this period of time can entail struggling to bond with the baby, feelings of guilt or shame, and, for somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of women, postnatal mood disorders, per the WHO. The images of motherhood we receive are often those of the glowing mother, and a natural maternal instinct surfacing out of nowhere. But matrescence entails a substantial identity shift. It is awkward, "a bumpy ride," says Sacks, as a mother adjusts to her entire life being altered and, in some ways, turned upside down.
"My postpartum rage was scary — I didn't know what to do with it. Where it came from," Romper contributor Christie Drozdowski writes of her own postpartum experience. Sacks is trying to address expectations around motherhood and normalize emotional experiences like Drozdowski's through her #motherhoodunfiltered hashtag on Facebook and Instagram. In a post tagged for the project, blogger Meg Boggs wrote, "So many thoughts were racing through my head as I met Maci for the very first time. Would I be a good mother? Can I handle this?"
“In my office, many new mothers tell me that they feel guilty and ashamed about the natural ups and downs of matrescence, because the medical community hasn’t explained how common this experience is. Instead of feeling ashamed because you’re not feeling like a goddess during the majority of your pregnancy and first year of motherhood, I encourage women to speak more openly about the ups and downs of matrescence,” Sacks says.
She adds, “Many women tell me that they feel guilty when they ‘complain’ about their pregnant/postpartum bodies or childbirth stories because [they] don’t want to sound ungrateful. But sharing your story, including the uncomfortable details, may help you realize that your experience is more common than you think. This may help you feel reassured about the fact that you’re not alone, and that there are many other women to turn to for emotional support and practical advice.”
To better understand the changes that occur during this time, matrescence can be broken down into three major pillars that all new mothers should look out for: physical, social, and psychological.
“Physically, it’s important to watch out for sleep deprivation; it’s biologically difficult to feel like yourself when you’re physically exhausted. Physical self-care is also important: if you’re used to waking up, taking a shower, and getting dressed in the morning, it’s helpful to maintain this routine.”
With a new baby in the house — especially if it is your first child — you may feel as though your world has been turned upside. Your daily routine is completely altered to fit the constant needs of your child as opposed to your own. Adjusting to this is not easy, whether you’re suffering from lack of sleep or low energy levels. This is why, as Sacks recommends, self-care is an essential step to ensuring you do not reach the point of physical exhaustion.
Self-care is not selfish. In fact, especially for new parents who are called on to give so much to their vulnerable babies, it’s self-preserving.
During the new-mother period, it’s also important to evaluate how your social interactions change. With a new baby, there’s undeniably less time to go out often with friends, but do you find yourself completely turning away from those close to you?
“Socially, I encourage women to maintain their friendships, both with old friends, including those without children, as well as make new friends who may relate to your shared experiences in new parenthood,” Sacks says.
And, of course, childbirth and parenthood have a tremendous impact on the mind. New mothers may lose their sense of self and begin to feel hopeless.
“Psychologically, it’s important to make the time for the activities that are central to your usual routine. If you’re used to waking up in the morning and reading the newspaper, going for a walk to pick up an afternoon coffee, or going salsa dancing on Friday night, it’s going to be difficult to continue feeling like yourself if you suddenly stop all of these routines. Consider bringing the baby on an activity or asking for help with childcare so that you can pop out to do something that makes you feel like you.”
If you see yourself struggling with the identity shift that comes from new-motherhood, it’s important to speak out and practice self-care.
“Self-care is not selfish. In fact, especially for new parents who are called on to give so much to their vulnerable babies, it’s self-preserving,” Sacks says.
To prepare for the inevitable changes that come with the birth of a child, Sacks suggests that expecting parents start taking steps towards self-care early in the pregnancy. For instance, she advises couples to make a list of common activities that are essential to the physical and emotional well-being of the parents, whether that be exercising, having a date night, or having sex. Then, post the list in a visible spot and keep an eye on it throughout the pregnancy and after the baby arrives to assure you are keeping up with these activities to stay physically and emotionally happy, as well as to stay connected with your partner if you are in a relationship.
We talk about the "fourth trimester" in understanding our baby's needs, but that term, Sacks points out, is a pediatric term. It doesn't apply to the mother. “The human baby is the most dependent and demanding in all of the animal kingdom — if you don’t put some thought into how to continue caring for yourself and your relationship, it’s easy for the care of the baby to take over, leaving you with little to give emotionally and physically to yourselves and each other.”
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.