What No One Tells You About Matrescence

Before I had my daughter, I knew that motherhood would change things. I knew it would change the amount of time I had available for myself in the day. I knew it would change my body. I knew it would change the trajectory of my career. But I didn't realize how deeply it would change me.

New motherhood involves a seismic shift, not just physically, but in your hormones, in your day-to-day activities, in the way you think, and in the trajectory of your life.

I have been feeling around for a metaphor to describe this process. The closest I've been able to land on is kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. The pot may have been broken apart and rebuilt — it may even look and act almost the same as it did before — but it is forever changed, now imbued with precious metal.

There is a word for this unraveling and remaking: matrescence. First coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the 1970s, matrescence is a period of transformation, much like adolescence, that takes place during early motherhood.

"The scope of the changes encompasses multiple domains — bio, psycho, social, political, spiritual — and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence," explains clinical psychologist Aurélie Athan, PhD.

While matrescence is being spoken about more in spaces for new mothers, there is scant discussion outside of these spaces. For those considering motherhood, and for those surrounding and supporting new mothers, more education is needed on what to expect during and after matrescence. "We've come a long way in sex ed. Now we need the same progress for repro ed," Dr. Athan says. "This is not just for girls to consider."

Know That Motherhood Does Change People

The biggest change a lot of us consider before pregnancy is the physical change our bodies go through. It seems laughable, looking back, that I worried my belly would be softer than it was before (it is), my hips permanently made wider (they are), and my skin etched with stretch marks (it is). For me, those changes pale in comparison to the psychological shift: the loss — and rebuilding — of identity brought on by motherhood.

Reflecting on her period of matrescence, Lucy Jones, author of the book "Matrescence: On Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood," says, "I had felt that something really significant was happening to me — physically, yes, as I carried my baby, but also psychologically, neurobiologically, socially, existentially, emotionally — and how seismic it felt compared with how minimized becoming a mother is in our culture."

This, I think, gets to the crux of the issue: while this earth-shattering transformation is happening inside, mothers are expected to just get up and carry on as though nothing has changed.

"In the lead-up to having a baby, and even when she joined us earthside, I was arrogantly opposed to the notion that I was ever going to change," writes journalist Ella Delancey Jones in her newsletter about motherhood, So Basically, Like.

This insistence that motherhood won't change us is laced with covert misogyny. While, on the surface, we may be railing against harmful stereotypes that mothers are dull, that mothers only want to talk about their kids, and that mothers lose their ambition, what we are actually doing is perpetuating them.

Motherhood has changed me, yes. I have never felt more creative or more capable than I have as a mother. My priorities and motivations have shifted and solidified around my daughter. My politics (particularly around gender equity and reproductive rights) have become more clear and urgent. And that creativity and capability, that renewed drive, has only broadened my ambitions and outlook, not narrowed them.

Know That You Are Not Alone in Matrescence

That said, matrecsence can be an incredibly lonely time.

In the midst of postpartum, armed with reams of information about caring for our baby and, if we're lucky, some information about our physical recovery and temporary hormone surges, a mother's psychological state can be overlooked.

I was awake in the depths of postpartum, like centuries of new mothers before me, when I stumbled on the word matrescence. My newborn was asleep on my chest as I opened Instagram on my phone. Incidentally, I am so glad that I live in a time when I can hold the love and solidarity of other mothers in the palm of my hand.

The algorithm had quickly realized that I was in the early stages of motherhood, and it filled my feed with parenting advice, memes about breastfeeding, and pithy, emotion-laced quotes. In all honesty, I don't recall the exact wording of the post. I do recall how much it stood out to me though, on those nights of endless scrolling — how I gasped as I read it, how I felt opened up, as though someone finally understood the way I had been feeling.

So many of the mothers I speak to (both in person and online) stumbled on the word matrescence much the same way I did: when we were already going through it, or even later. "I didn't know anything about matrescence before I had my kids," says Nicky Elliott, the host of the "Women's Business" podcast and a mom of two. "I'd never even heard the term until well after I'd had both of them, but hearing about it was a lightbulb moment where things started to make sense."

"Having an explanation of not just what had happened to me but that something real had actually happened at all through that process was so enlightening, and freeing, but it was also sad," Elliott says, "sad for old me who didn't know at the time."

Susannah Dale, the founder of The Maternity Pledge, an organization supporting the transition to motherhood in the workplace, had a similar experience: "I had never heard of matrescence before I went through it," she says. "I just wish I'd known about it. I wish I'd had the language to be able to talk to other moms about it so I'd feel less alone."

"Mothers tell me it connects them to the larger lineage of mothering."

Through motherhood, I was able to foster the kind of friendships I hadn't experienced since school, the kind of intense friendship that blooms between teenagers in the classroom and on the playground. Except this time, these friendships were primarily fueled by our shared experience of matrescence and the pressures of early motherhood. "It also can connect you not only with other mothers you know, but across time and space, geography and history," Dr. Athan says. "Mothers tell me it connects them to the larger lineage of mothering."

Know That We Need More Education Around Matrescence

Matrescence, like adolescence, is a huge, largely permanent change. But, unlike adolescents, new mothers are granted very little space or grace for those changes to manifest. To suggest that a person should remain fundamentally the same after having a child is akin to expecting a 16-year-old to have the same priorities, motivations, and opinions as their 10-year-old self.

"The metamorphosis of matrescence is a given, and of course all matrescences, like adolescences, will be unique," Jones says. "When women become mothers, we expect them to breeze into it with ease and delight, when actually for some it can be a complicated, risky, and vulnerable time which is absurdly undersupported in dominant cultures in the Global North."

Being able to name and speak about the process of matrescence is just the first step in normalizing the enormity of change that many people go through in early motherhood. We also need to educate partners and employers about the kind of shift they might see in new mothers and how they can best offer support. And from there, hopefully, we can stop seeing change as a negative side effect of motherhood and start seeing it as the powerful, necessary transformation it is.

Zoe Pickburn is a writer, journalist, and essayist exploring topics around motherhood and domestic gender equity. She lives in Yorkshire, UK, with her husband and daughter.