The Transition from Woman to Mother
Matrescence - a term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael - describes the transition from woman to mother. It is a profound experience; one which can be both joyful and challenging. Each woman experiences their own unique journey into motherhood, yet it is rarely talked about. Pregnancy and postpartum resources and support tend to focus on the practicalities of pregnancy, childbirth and caring for a newborn, and often neglect the mother’s evolution.
As a psychologist and mother, I am passionate about normalising this transition and increasing women’s (and men’s!) awareness of this journey, to help women navigate this challenging time feeling confident, empowered, and well supported.
What To Expect During Matrescence
The transition from woman to mother involves a range of a profound physical, psychological and social changes that can affect a woman's self-image, health, relationships, and priorities. These may include:
- Physical changes – soreness, pain and exhaustion, and hormonal changes resulting from pregnancy, childbirth, and the demands of caring for a newborn.
- Emotional changes – from joy and excitement to sadness and hopelessness. From calm and control to anxiety and anger. They don’t call motherhood an “emotional rollercoaster” for nothing.
- A shift in values and priorities – priorities often shift to focus on the child's needs, often at the expense of the mothers. Personal, professional, and relational values and goals may become less important.
- A shift in identity – women gain a significant new part to their identity when they become a mother. Figuring out how this new role sits alongside other aspects of who they are can at times be confusing and challenging.
- Changes in responsibility – The transition from individual with no dependants to caregiver, suddenly responsible for the life of a human being, is a big adjustment. It can take time to settle into this new role as you gradually become more knowledgeable and confident in caring for your child.
- Relationship changes - relationships with partners, family members, and friends change. The demands of motherhood can make some relationships feel stronger whilst others may feel more strained and distant. It is important that women, and their partners, are aware of the possible changes during this period. Awareness can be a powerful tool as it can help to normalise a woman’s transition and protect her against catastrophizing or misinterpreting her symptoms and experiences. This in turn can enhance psychological resilience and protect against common perinatal mental health difficulties, such as postpartum anxiety and depression.
Tips for Thriving During Matrescence
Below are some evidence-based strategies for successfully managing the transition from woman to mother:
- Attend to your primary needs – don’t forget the basics… eat, hydrate, move and sleep when you can. Ask for and accept offers of help to facilitate you in meeting any unmet needs.
- Manage expectations - Be realistic about what you can and cannot do as a new mother. Activities, which may have felt effortless before, may now feel overwhelming, due to the combination of physical and emotional changes. Be mindful of putting too much pressure on yourself or striving to be or do things perfectly. Good enough is good enough.
- Practice self-care – even micro-moments of care matter. Do a simple breathing exercise whilst you settle your baby, or practise mindfulness whilst you feed. Simple things like wearing jewellery you love, a spritz of your favourite perfume or throwing on a cosy pair of socks can add up to a big difference.
- Connect – Research has shown social support to be an important protective factor against perinatal mental health problems. Be intentional about making time and effort to seek out and connect with like-minded people, in person or online. Finding a community of women who have gone through or are going through a similar transition can help ease loneliness and normalise your experiences. Schedule in time to connect with non-parent friends too - sometimes it can be nice to talk about anything but babies!
- Communicate – Be open and honest with your partner about your feelings and experiences. If you don’t, it’s hard for them to give you the support or space you need. Find simple and creative ways to connect with each other which take account of feelings of exhaustion or feeling “touched out” after a day caring for your baby. Simple acts of connection could include a daily six-second kiss, holding hands whilst watching TV or giggly to a comedy together.
- Connect with your baby – Find ways to bond with your baby through cuddling, talking, or playing with them. Fluctuations in feelings of love and connection are a normal part of the matrescence process - be gentle and kind to yourself as you navigate this challenging time.
- Be patient - Remember that the transition to motherhood is a process, and it takes time to adjust to your new role. Be patient and compassionate with yourself on this journey.
- Seek professional support - If you are struggling, reach out for professional help. Evidence-based talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), are effective at addressing distress associated with a wide range of difficulties, including anxiety, depression and trauma. The COPE: Centre of Perinatal Excellence (www.cope.org.au) has some great resources and guidance on how to connect with therapists who specialise in perinatal mental health.
It is important to recognize and acknowledge the profound transition from woman to mother. Whilst it can be challenging at times, the process of matrescence is also an incredibly rewarding and transformative experience. It can be a beautiful opportunity for growth and personal development and to re-evaluate your values and priorities, to create a meaningful, connected way of being for you and your new family.
Dr Tess Browne is a mum of two and a Chartered Clinical Psychologist who specialises in trauma and maternal mental health. She provides online therapy and coaching services to women wanting to shift from feeling burnt out to balanced, and is particularly passionate about supporting new mums, and mums-to-be, as they navigate the psychological challenges of early parenthood.