This One Word Defines The Experience Of Motherhood
When we see a woman cradling her newborn we tend to think of her as a whole and complete. A mother.
After all, she has had months to prepare for this new role, hasn’t she?
But mother and child are fledgling forms facing a daunting world of unknowns. And both need to be reassured that, while the experience they’re launching into will no doubt be immensely enriching and profound, it is impossible to predict and will not always be comfortable. Quite the contrary.
In Alexandra Sacks’ TED talk regarding a woman’s transition to motherhood, the reproductive psychiatrist declares, “When a baby is born, so is a mother.”
She doesn’t shout it, but they are words worth screaming from the rooftops. Or perhaps at your expecting friends.
Remember the dramatic physical, emotional and mental turmoil of adolescence? That is a little bit what becoming a mother is like, (but more dramatic).
What is matresence?
Sacks began searching for a term to encapsulate the ‘birth of a mother’ after being approached by hundreds of women with a variation of this:
“I thought motherhood would make me feel whole and happy. There must be something wrong with me.”
All suspected they were suffering from some degree of Post-Natal Depression (PND), a serious mental illness effecting almost 16 per cent of mothers in the year after birth. But after seeking a diagnosis Sacks found many of these women did not require treatment for a health condition. Rather, they needed to know ambivalence is often a natural part of the transformation from woman to mother. Sacks recognised the need to actively normalise the challenging and uncomfortable aspects of early motherhood (and distinguish them from the symptoms of mental illness). She wanted to avoid passively perpetuating a fantasy of motherhood that makes an alarming number of women feel woefully inadequate, temporarily ill or permanently broken.
And so a word was born: Matrescence.
Adolescence: the period of time following the onset of puberty during which a young person develops from a child into an adult.
Matrescence: the period of time following conception during which a woman develops from a non-pregnant, independent person into SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY.
One of my best friends was referred to two Mothers’ Groups after the birth of her daughter; one ‘normal’ and one for mums considered to have, or be at risk of, PND.
“I believe only one person [in the PND group was being treated for mental health issues,” she told me. “The rest of us were just on a quest to understand what the fuck was happening to us!”
Matrescence is a handy term because it explains immediately that motherhood is a process and not an overnight absolute.
She didn’t have PND, she was just going through matrescence. It is a handy term because it explains immediately that motherhood is a process and not an overnight absolute. It is a concept that takes the making of a mother from the cute, idealised, fakery of Facebook to the rich and filthy mud of real life. By accepting matrescence as an indisputable and knotty developmental phase, we collectively create a safer space for the modern mum to be dazed, confused and even downright resentful. In Sacks’ words, the message that must ring loud and clear is this:
“The experience of motherhood is not good or bad. It’s good and bad.”
You know, like life in general.
It seems absurd to me now that I expected my motherhood to be the easy bit. I should have known it would challenge me in ways I couldn’t possibly foresee. How could a new dimension of intense relationships, physical demands, responsibilities and devotion not be challenging?
Why adolescence echoes through matrascence
I had no inkling becoming a mother would be the undoing of me before it could be the making of me. No one told me if the newborn phase didn’t break me in places, the toddler tantrums probably would. Or if I made it through the teenage years without unravelling in fresh and agonising ways, then adjusting to an “empty nest” might just do it. No one told me my impending motherhood would also be my re-birth. I thought I was going into the motherhood gig “complete” (I was 35!). I thought I would need only to worry about the development of my little charges.
Yeah, but no.
It turns out you don’t have children to feel whole or happy. You have children to grow.
It’s an important distinction and one that shifts expectations significantly. Because growing can really hurt in places.
That’s why adolescence echoes through matrascence with such resonance. Both are periods of desperate uncertainty and surrender. You can only hope that everything beyond your control will be kind to you.
The experience of motherhood is not good or bad. It’s good and bad.
You know, like life in general.
In matrasence as in adolescence, it helps enormously to spend time in the company of peers who are open and unashamed about their own awkward evolution. Both are both defining aspects of a lifetime.
Matrascence never officially ends
But once you have a child, matrascence never officially ends. It comes in waves for the rest of a woman’s life. Which is daunting. It’s also why motherhood is one of the grandest human stretches of all and, according to my yoga teacher, the highest of all spiritual practices (please note: I have not been to a yoga class for yonks due to the demands of said ‘spiritual practice’…fitting).