Matrescence: Why becoming a mama can be so challenging

The transition into motherhood can be breathtaking, confusing and gruelling all at once. The concept of matrescence teaches us that these conflicting emotions don’t make us bad mothers, they make us human…

Matrescence

After the birth of my first daughter, I threw myself into motherhood with everything I had. I breastfed exclusively, pureed organic food, read parenting articles and downloaded baby development apps. I washed cloth diapers tirelessly and got up to my terrible sleeper five times a night without complaining.

Was I a blissed-out new mom who had taken on the demands of parenthood with a sweet smile on her face and peace in her heart? Oh, heck no. I loved my baby more than anything in the world, but it was HARD. I just didn’t want to admit it because I was so petrified that someone might think I wasn’t doing a good job… especially my worst critic: ME. Crazy, right?!

Not crazy at all, according to reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks M.D., coauthor of the book What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood.

Dr. Sacks’ work centers on the concept of “matrescence” – the process of becoming a mother and the huge identity shift that goes with it. She believes that new moms often hide the negative emotions they’re feeling – such as worry, fear, guilt, disappointment and frustration – because they feel pressure to conform to the image of the Perfect Mother.

“Society seems to be invested in a ‘bliss myth’ – the idea that joy is the primary emotion of motherhood,” says Dr. Sacks. “But alongside the joy, every mother will also have moments of ambivalence because she’s always juggling between giving and taking. Since conflicting feelings are rarely openly discussed, many women are left feeling that these struggles are their fault. But keeping your experience a secret is isolating and may make you feel lonely, when the odds are that if you talk to other mothers, you’ll learn that many can relate to what you’re going through.”

The roadblocks of matrescence

So, how can we break this cycle of isolation and apprehension that so many new mamas experience? According to Dr. Sacks, the key is to discuss the challenges of matrescence openly and to normalize them. Here are five of the main obstacles that she believes new mothers face…

  1. Accepting ambivalent feelings

Humans tend to reject feelings of ambivalence because contending with two opposing emotions at once can be very uncomfortable. But according to Dr. Sacks, ambivalence is at the core of motherhood because it’s an experience that’s inherently good and bad. She believes that moms need to get comfortable with contradictory emotions because they’re there to stay.

  1. Facing the reality of parenthood

We start to develop fantasies about pregnancy and motherhood as small children by observing our mothers and other women in our family and culture. This idealized vision becomes even stronger during our own pregnancy. When reality doesn’t measure up to our expectations, we can become disappointed and disillusioned.

  1. Learning to say no to guilt and shame by being “good enough”

“The image of the Perfect Mother looms over us, even when we know that in other areas of life, striving for perfection only sets us up to fail,” says Dr. Sacks.

Trying to be a flawless Supermom leads to feelings of guilt and shame when we inevitably fail to quash all our needs or to reach the unattainable standard we’ve set for ourselves. Instead, Dr. Sacks believes that we should aim to be “good enough”.

“You’re human, not a robot,” she says. “Even if you want to be selfless 24/7, it’s just not possible – you have to meet your own basic needs in body, mind and soul if you’re going to be able to continue caring for a baby. If you’re feeling deprived and burnt out, it becomes really tough to enjoy taking care of your children.

“I encourage moms to make a list of the self-care experiences that they miss most. Is it time to exercise, sleep in, get to a haircut or go to a doctor’s appointment, reconnect with a hobby or old friend, have some uninterrupted time to read or catch up on emails, or just plain relax?”

  1. Accepting changes in our close relationships

As new moms, we see a shift in our relationship dynamics with our partner, family members and friends – in some ways for the better and in others for the worst. At times, it can feel like everyone is competing with the baby for our time and attention.

  1. Choosing our parenting style

We have the chance to “do over” our childhood by picking and choosing the elements we want to repeat and those we want to do differently. For some women, there’s a lot of pressure to fix their mother’s wrongs and “get it right”.

Supporting women through matrescence

If we want the transition to motherhood to be easier for women, Dr. Sacks believes that we need to acknowledge the huge gray zone between Supermom and Depressed Mom. Postpartum depression is a serious condition that affects 10 to 15 of women, but there are plenty of other women out there who need support to make it through matrescence.

“A part of self-care is also thinking about how to balance the emotional and practical labor at home with your partner, and help couples better work together as a team,” says Dr. Sacks.  “The goal is to help both parents share overlapping responsibilities for caretaking of children – both the physical activities like making them lunch, and the emotional experiences like playing with them and comforting them. It isn’t only about splitting the work of childcare down the middle, it’s also about showing appreciation for your partner’s efforts, taking the time to talk together about your parenting strategies, and being open to communicating with your partner about how each of you feels about the balance of roles in the home – and reassessing how each of you feels about this balance over time.”

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the physical and emotional demands of motherhood, reach out to a friend or another new mom and talk about how you feel. Chat to your partner about how they can better support you. The more we talk about our struggles, the less they control us.

But if you feel like you’re not coping and you may have postpartum depression, call the National Postpartum Depression Hotline on 1-800-PPD-MOMS without delay to get the help you need. You’re not alone ♥