Matrescence: The Becoming of a Mother by Jo Whitehead
The first few weeks of motherhood brings on a myriad of emotions: from sore nipples, to pain from contractions as your uterus shrinks back, to the influx of hormones, to learning to live in a sleep deprived state - it really is a time for all of the emotions to run wild. And then, come the visitors, arriving to shower the baby with love and gifts, cuddles and affection, but oftentimes, the mother can be left to the side as the new arrival has all of the focus and attention.
In some cultures, the first 4o days (or fourth trimester) are given to confinement, where the new mother and baby rest and develop a bond. Given the fact that the mother has spent the past 9 months carrying the baby and not to mention, expending all of her energy to deliver the child (naturally or via caesarean section), allowing the mother and child the time they need to bond, receive nourishment and gain much needed rest is crucial. In our western society, this looks different, but we can and should re-connect with some of these traditions.
One of the most grateful times in my life was when my friend Jodie, visited me in my home after I had my third child, Florence. She arrived and put herself to work right away - hanging out my washing, washing my dishes and asking how I was really doing settling into life with three children. It was honestly one of the most touching moments in my life - having a dear friend come in, amongst the chaos and mess, and offer such practical help during such a vulnerable time for me. I often think back to this day and remind myself how I can do the same for others.
Becoming a mother, whether it is the first or fifth time changes you. The term matrescence, as described by Dr Alexandra Sacks, can be defined as “the developmental phase of new motherhood, like adolescence — it is a transition when hormones surge, bodies morph, and identity andrelationships shift,”. So many mothers feel lost during the postpartum period as this transition brings on both physical, emotional and mental challenges and not to mention the mum guilt! From a nutritional point of view, the postpartum period is a time to focus on restoring the strength and vitality of the woman, rebalancing the hormones and ensuring she is nourishing her body to support breastfeeding. Taking the time she needs to heal from the labour should also be a priority.
The mental challenges that can arise during matrescence can also add to the daily pressures of adapting to motherhood. Postpartum depression and anxiety affects approximately 10-15% of women and can have detrimental effects on the woman bonding with her baby and carrying out her daily tasks. Dr Oscar Sellarach coined the term ‘postnatal depletion’ and describes how it affects all mothers and can leave the woman feeling depleted for up to ten years after the birth of her baby. How can we change these statistics? I believe by allowing the mother the time she needs to recover and bond with her baby and by enlisting ‘the village’ to come and support and care for the mother so she can best care for her baby.
My own journey into matrescence has had its ups and downs. I had never been a very ‘maternal’person and was never one to gush over other people’s babies and make a fuss – but when the time came for my husband and I to start trying for a baby – I wanted one right away! After experiencing the loss of our first child to miscarriage, I was more than ready to start our family when we fell pregnant again three months later. I remember the night we brought our son home from hospital and faced the sheer shock of what our life had just become. Our first two children were relatively ‘easy’ and I felt the transition went well. But then came our third, and boy oh boy, did she throw a spanner in the works. She was colicky, only wanted to be held to sleep, hated the car and refused to take a pacifier. Luckily, she breastfed well (all night) but after months and months of spending up to an hour and a
half each nap to get her to sleep (while letting my other two children run wild in the house) I started to experience feelings of anxiety. This was new to me, as I had always been able to cope with pressure well in other areas of life. During times of overwhelm I started to experience mental fogginess, a rush of adrenaline and feelings of not being able to cope. For me, the best help in my situation was sharing honestly with my friends and family what was going on and not feeling ashamed for struggling in these areas. As a ‘capable’ woman, this was a challenge, but really helped me get through it. Oftentimes we can put on a brave face and pretend to be ok, when deep down, what we really need is someone to sit with us, listen and support us with their presence.
Wherever you are on the path of matrescence – don’t forget to show yourself some love and support, as well as accept if from others around you. Take the time you need to fuel yourself with nourishing foods, give your body the rest it deserves and take the pressure off yourself to ‘have it all together’ –be present and fully immerse yourself in your season. Band yourself to other mother’s who you can be real with and know that you have each other’s backs. Together, we can make the transition into motherhood a more supportive and nurtured one.