Matrescence: A great adventure about to begin

Matrescence is a concept introduced in the 1970s by anthropologist Dana Raphael in her book Being Female: Reproduction, Power and Change. She described the complex transitions that take place in a woman’s life as she becomes a mother. In a sense, like the term adolescence, matrescence refers to a healthy but demanding change. A mother-to-be experiences dramatic physical, hormonal, and emotional changes as well as changes in her body shape and in her social identity. In another book, The Birth of a Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever, Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist, suggests that giving birth to a new identity can be as demanding as giving birth to a baby. 

According to these authors, matrescence may start as soon as a woman is trying to conceive and may continue through pregnancy, well into the postpartum stage. It is the ups and downs of pregnancy, the good and the not so good; it is a transition, a healthy change. It is important to distinguish the natural experiences of matrescence from postpartum depression, which is considered as a psychiatric ailment. 

There are a number of manifestations of matrescence, including:

Complex feelings of ambivalence: The pregnant mother can be happy and at the same time overwhelmed by her situation, experiencing worry, frustration, and fear. She may wish to be alone but at the same time want to experience the signs of new life in her changing body.

Experiencing the reality: Before the birth, mothers often imagine the baby according to their culture, their personal history, and their own childhood. At birth the reality may be different and the gap between fantasy and reality may be a source of negative or confusing emotions.

Feeling not good enough: New mothers may set for themselves the goal of being perfect. The unreality of that may lead to exhaustion and feelings of guilt

Reflections on maternal lineage: Becoming a mother may provide a re-experience of her own childhood—repeating or trying to improve what was or was not. 

Recognizing changing family dynamics: The birth creates a new family. New possibilities for intimate connections as well as new stresses may have to be dealt with in relationships with the partner, family, and friends.

Alexander Sacks, a psychiatrist, offers these suggestions to manage the stressful aspects of matrescence in her book, What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood

  • Carve out time for self-care. It is exhausting to be pregnant and it is exhausting to care for a baby. It is important to carry on with usual relationships and activities as best as one can. Mothers-to-be and new mothers need to be creative and use the support of family, relatives, friends, or paid care to ensure time for self-care.
  • Normalize matrescence; however, if symptoms of poor sleep, loss of appetite, feelings of hopelessness, or of being slowed down without a break extend beyond 1 or 2 weeks, a check-in with a physician is required to exclude other problems, including postpartum depression.

The transition to fatherhood is also an identity shift. However, matrescence—as the quoted authors point out—is a psycho-neuro-hormonal-biological-social event that is a unique life experience of women. It is the shift from being a woman to being someone’s mother. In a humanistic perspective, that is at once a beautiful and extraordinary accomplishment. The anthropologist author Dana Raphael and the psychiatrist authors suggest there is more happening: pregnancy and birth experiences change a person, a bit like an adolescent emerging from that period is a somewhat different person. As psychiatrist Daniel Stern puts it: “a mother is born.” 

As a male writer I ask, is there something to this matrescence concept?  
—George Szasz, CM MD

Suggested reading
Raphael D. Being female: Reproduction, power, and change. Chicago: Mouton Publishers; 1975.

Sacks A. What no one tells you: A guide to your emotions from pregnancy to motherhood. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc; 2019.

Stern DN, Bruschweiler-Stern N, Freeland A. The birth of a mother: How the motherhood experience changes you forever. New York: Basic Books; 1998. 

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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