In giving birth to our babies, we may find that we give birth to new possibilities within ourselves.”

Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin

I never thought motherhood would be such a challenging and transformative experience for me. In hindsight, I realise that it started well before my daughter came into this world. I felt a shift within me as I was trying to conceive, a journey that took two years, lots of tears and a crash course in surrender. It felt as if I was navigating uncharted territories at the time…even though many women before me had done their own baptism of fire through conception and beyond. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where the wisdom of women who have gone before us is rarely passed down. If it is, it’s often through truth-tainted glasses. 

So, here I was, overall feeling pretty inadequate and isolated. “If I can’t fall pregnant surely it means I’m failing at being a woman”. “If I can’t work out breastfeeding straight away, it must mean that something is wrong with me”. “I’m feeling conflicted about my work, my body, my relationship and this whole experience of motherhood, so it must mean that I’m not fit for it”. After a few years of shaming myself, taking numerous guilt trips and feeling this deep inner split within me, I stumbled upon the concept of matrescence. 

“Understanding that motherhood is the psychological and spiritual birth of a woman is the greatest story never told.”

Aurelie Athan

Matrescence: the roadmap to motherhood

Every piece of information I read after I gave birth was focused on the baby, the child, the parenting techniques. When I discovered matrescence, I realised that being a mother was not just about my child and how I showed up for her but also about me and how I showed up for myself in this new season of my life.

“Everybody tells us that mothering is about raising our kids. Nobody tells us that mothering is also about raising ourselves.”

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Matrescence is not a new experience, but it is a new way of understanding the complete transformation of a woman as she goes through motherhood: psychological, emotional, social, physical and spiritual. The term was first coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael, in 1973. It’s not until the recent work of Dr Aurelie Athan, a clinical psychologist based at Columbia University in New York, that the term got revived and the wisdom of matrescence started to be spread far and wide.  

This is what Dr Athan shares as the working definition of matrescence: 

“The process of becoming a mother is a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompasses multiple domains –bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual– and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.”

Why we need to value this important transition and how

The work of Dr Athan helps put this transformational period into perspective: matrescence, like adolescence. Motherhood is a rite of passage, similar to what adolescence is for a child who is transitioning to adulthood. We accept that teenagers may be going through physical, psychological and emotional turmoil (even though individual experiences differ) during adolescence. Everyone knows that they’ll likely be questioning many things in their world to help them define their new identity as adults. As adults, we hold space for them as best we can as they navigate this important transition. We don’t do this for mothers. 

The results? We put pressure on ourselves to go back to our pre-baby body, to our pre-baby self. We do everything we can to be the perfect mother. We try hard to work as if we didn’t have children and raise our children as if we didn’t work. We put on a brave face, we try to be superwoman…and we burn out, while everyone else around expects us to be happy. Clinically, this translates into increased rates of postpartum depression and rampant cases of postnatal depletion (a term coined by Dr Oscar Serrallach, read more about here). 

“If women understood the natural progression of matrescence, (…) if they knew that under these circumstances, ambivalence was normal and nothing to be ashamed of, they would feel less alone, they would feel less stigmatised and I think it would even reduce rates of postpartum depression.” 

Dr Alexandra Sacks

What would it take for us to change the way we view and support women when they become mothers? Dr Alexandra Sacks, reproductive psychiatrist, talks about this very eloquently in her excellent Ted Talk “A new way to think about the transition to motherhood”. We need to change our unrealistic expectations of motherhood, normalise this period of transition and understand that discomfort is not always the same thing as disease.  

Women rising together

Motherhood is changing me. Motherhood is not only teaching me how to mother my daughter, but also how to mother myself. The more I accept the changes and the lessons I’m learning along the way, the more I appreciate the woman I’m becoming through this journey. With the right support, with self-compassion and kindness, motherhood can be an incredible opportunity for a woman to discover her full potential. 

To facilitate this process, we need to gather as women and start sharing our experiences of matrescence together, so we can understand our own transition better. Under the mentorship of Amy Taylor-Kabbaz, author of Mama Rising and matrescence activist, I became an accredited Mama Rising facilitator in order to help spread the word of matrescence in my community.

I’m running women circles to help mothers explore their journeys of matrescence, discover the new identity that is arising within them and redefine how they want to show up for themselves, for their family and for the world. If you’d like to join, you can find more details here.

My hope for the future is that everyone understands how to provide adequate support to a woman during this important transition and learns to value it for what it represents in her life: a process that may take time, but has the potential to be the making of her.

Photos by Daria Obymaha and Andre Furtado on Pexels