By Caitlin Green-Cheney
What is Matrescence?
A few years into my motherhood journey, I came face-to-face with a word that changed my life. Ok, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but let’s be real…drama is a pretty normal side effect of prolonged sleep deprivation and that’s the stage of life I’m in!
The life-changing word?
Matrescence (pronounced ma tres ens).
The definition: the process of a woman becoming a mother.
Finally! I had a word for this crazy, disorienting, moody, transformational identity shift that was intensely happening to me.
This remarkable woman-to-mother transformation had no name until the mid-1970s when a brilliant anthropologist coined the term “matrescence.” Most recently, Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist who treats pregnant and postpartum women, has centered her work around making matrescence as well known a word as adolescence.
So…what do these two concepts have in common? At first glance, we simply see that matrescence rhymes with adolescence. Yet, there are actual significant commonalities between these two transitional phases of life.
Matrescence and adolescence are:
I’m sure you can think of a few more descriptors that fit both stages of life. I now understand that mother-becoming, similar to adolescence, is a process. It happens over a period of time, rather than instantly at birth.
What a huge sigh of relief. I won’t feel like this forever!
The Metamorphosis of a Mother
Following the birth of my three children and in the midst of my own six-year matrescence journey, I can see how the mother-becoming process compares to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. There is one part of the comparison I find most incredible. If you peeked inside a cocoon, you wouldn’t find anything similar to a caterpillar or a butterfly; instead, it would resemble mush.
Postpartum wellness expert, Dr. Oscar Serrallach observes, “When a woman is in her cocoon phase (i.e. postpartum)–which can be weeks, months, or sometimes even years following the birth of her child–it needs to be recognized that she is in a liminal/suspended space, in which she is also something like mush. Her eventual transformation into a butterfly depends largely on full recovery on all levels of her being – physical, emotional and spiritual.”
As a new mom, have you ever felt like mush?
As a mom of three, mush exactly describes how my brain feels because I’m still in my postpartum “cocoon” phase. It helps to see that this is part of the transformation and not the permanent end state.
This begs the questions: What is needed to complete the transformation? What can women do to support their matrescence? Here are a few suggestions:
- Rest. Rest. Rest. An early postpartum aim is to rest when the baby rests. Your body needs to heal. The best way to help it along is rest. Closing your eyes and focusing on breath work does wonders. Meditation or yoga can give your nervous system some much needed downtime. If possible, try to be in bed before 10 p.m. After the kids go to sleep–it’s easy to get caught up watching a show or scanning Instagram. Keep in mind that the most beneficial sleep happens before midnight.
- When someone offers to help, say YES. They could fold laundry, load the dishwasher, rock your baby, or even mow the lawn. Accept that extra hand of help, so you can rest, shower, go to the store, or just take a breather.
- Set up a meal train. Ask friends and family to help you transition into a new family by bringing a meal. Believe me, it is a life saver to know that a meal will be ready for you at the end of the day!
- Share your birth story. Often times I see moms feeling trapped by the way their birth unfolded, especially if she felt it was traumatic or didn’t go as planned. Share your memories with a friend who will just listen. If that sounds like too much, write it down, or record it on your phone. Ask someone present at the birth (that you trust) to share their version of the experience.
- Find your community. Intentionally embed yourself in your community. Connect back with moms you may have met during pregnancy, perhaps in a birth class or prenatal yoga. Ask your teacher to introduce you to other new moms. This is how I met my first “mom friend”. Get to know the mom groups and meet-ups in your area. Attend groups a few times before you decide if it’s a good fit (turnout varies and you never know who you may connect with).
- Acknowledgement. Whenever we’re experiencing something challenging, it helps to be encouraged and to celebrate our accomplishments both internally and externally. Matrescence is no different–the life-altering shift is irreversible. It is something to be celebrated.
- Do you. While they may sound similar, a mother is NOT a martyr. Being a “good” mom does NOT mean putting yourself last. Find time to do what you love – guilt-free. When mom’s cup is full, she has more to give!
I know I need continued support from my family and my “tribe” to enable my full physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery. Sometimes this comes in the form of a friend to watch my kids, so I can nap or take a shower (by myself!). Perhaps it’s an hour to focus on a hobby, body care, meditation, or read a book.
Now back to the butterfly metaphor: Much like the cocoon creates a safe space for the butterfly’s transformation, community support provides a new mother with the necessary safe environment and the encouragement to transform. While the specifics of what we each need is unique to our situation, the common thread is that we all need community to wrap us in our cocoon.
It is my belief that when a woman sees herself in her new form and acknowledges her transformation as a mother–and also is seen by her community as the new person she has become–that is when a mother completes her matrescence.
Unfortunately, women who live in the U.S. have a harder time completing their matrescence.
While most of us understand a pregnant woman requires attention, care, and support throughout her three trimesters of pregnancy and birth–somehow, as a country, we fail to recognize the fourth trimester (i.e., the three months following birth) as an essential time of healing and adjustment into motherhood. As unimaginable as it may seem, in many other countries the time period after birth is focused on helping the new mother heal and adjust after the rigorous and demanding act of birth.
Sure, women are amazing… We can take care of baby, clean, cook, work–all on lack of sleep and a power bar. Women can do it all. But at what cost? Imagine if someone you knew had a knee surgery and she was released without a recovery and rehab plan. You would likely be appalled. Yet, this is exactly what happens in our culture. A new mom is released after birth without any guidance as to how to restore herself after such a tremendous body and life-altering experience. Instead, a new mother gathers her unrealistic and unhealthy recovery instructions from social media–with images of stunning celebrities who “bounce back” just weeks after their delivery.
In the United States, we live with epidemic levels of inadequate fourth trimester care. We don’t have to accept this black hole in women’s health. We can do better. We deserve better.
Brought to you by Mother Squad: Live group video chats that provide pregnant and new moms with support and education from experts and other moms (all from the comfort of home!).
Caitlin is a wife and mom to three amazing girls. She is passionate about empowering others to take their health and wellness into their own hands. She also loves building authentic relationships and creating supportive communities. Her love for the human body and movement began at a young age when she began dancing. Her love of movement only continued to grow and she eventually earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree in modern dance. After college she danced professionally for a short period of time before leading group fitness classes, which she has continued to do for 10 years.
After the birth of her first baby, Caitlin realized that staying active and being a part of a community were crucial for her mental and physical well-being. However, like many new moms, she didn’t have any mom-friends. She found Fit4Mom, where she gained a village of moms and was able to continue her “movement” passion. Caitlin began teaching pre- and postnatal fitness to moms of all fitness levels and abilities. This is where Caitlin recognized the desperate need for maternal support during the postpartum period. She knew something wasn’t quite right when moms were “cleared” to work out six weeks after having their baby. At the six-week mark, new moms were often times worn-out, stressed, hurting, and depleted (not to mention their doctors usually don’t check for diastasis recti or pelvic floor health). Caitlin knew something had to be done to change this narrative. With the courage and support of her dear friend Elizabeth, they immersed themselves into learning everything they could about the fourth trimester–as they were determined to help moms and families find a smoother transition into motherhood. It became readily evident that resources and information regarding this period were sparse and teaching moms how to prepare for the fourth trimester were almost non-existent. She then knew they had found their path and they co-founded Matrescence: 4th Trimester Planning and Support.