Matrescence: The Most Dramatic Transformation of a Lifetime
by Jessica Sorci, LMFT
Jessica Sorci, LMFT is a Certified IFS (Internal Family Systems) Therapist and a Certified Perinatal Mental Health Professional with advanced training in Intimacy From the Inside Out (working with couples using IFS). In her early adulthood, Jessica devoted her life to her own emotional healing; as a Founding Director of Family Tree Wellness in Silicon Valley, she brings her wealth of compassion and knowledge to the clinical training and supervision of therapists as well as the healing journeys of clients. Jessica blends her love of IFS with her extensive background in creative expression and spirituality to create one-of-a-kind trainings and workshops that reach people's hearts and open their minds. With a view that mothering is the heart of our humanity, Jessica knows that the health of our world depends upon women and families receiving attuned support during their most tender times in life.
Our Western medical model understands and addresses the suffering that many women encounter perinatally as a disorder. This lens implies pathology. The concept of matrescence provides a more soulful, holistic, and empowering lens to look through when we think about new motherhood. Diagnostically, this territory is known as the realm of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders or PMADs. About 85% of women experience some type of mood disturbance postpartum and 15-20% of new mothers have a more significant, pervasive or unrelenting suffering, most commonly called Postpartum Depression (PPD) (MGH Center for Women's Mental Health, 2019). If the majority of women experience profound discomfort during the transformation to motherhood, how can we call what appears to be nearly ubiquitous, a disorder? Changing the current patriarchal paradigm in which new moms are “disordered” to one in which new motherhood is widely understood to be the most radical and challenging transition in a female human being’s lifetime is necessary for the health of our humanity. New motherhood is deserving of more attention, funding, compassion, care, support, and appreciation than it has ever received.
We introduce these women to the concept of matrescence as a way of describing the normative adaptation to motherhood, with the recognition that this transformative phase of life is wild, dramatic and difficult, without pathologizing them. The term matrescence was coined by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, PhD in the 1970’s (Zimmerman, 2018) to capture the reality that new motherhood is simultaneously stressful, growth-inducing and inherently full of ambivalent feelings. Ambivalence can be very triggering for people who have been indoctrinated to believe that good mothers feel only positive feelings about themselves and their babies. In fact, ambivalence is natural and is viewed as an inevitable aspect of growth and change through the lens of matrescence. Matrescence refers to a phase of life, not unlike adolescence, in that it describes an uncomfortable and critical physiological, developmental transition that entirely reworks one’s biology and identity. Polarized feelings are common in this time of life—immense love for the new baby as well as opposing feelings about dislike of the job itself. Women are given a forgiving, expansive lens through which to look at their experience, where they are allowed to feel and express their grief and loss along with their pride and confidence. The normalization of these feelings of ambivalence, grief and loss supports the growth of self-trust and resilience that are crucial to a mother’s healthy development.
In our experience, we see that a large portion of the suffering in matrescent women is shame-based and stems directly from taboos around acknowledging the dark side of mothering. “One study found that mothers feared that disclosure of depression would meet with an unsympathetic response, and would imply that they had failed as mothers” (Kumar & Brockington, 1989, p. 174). This feeling of failure and its accompanying shame are a backdrop to nearly all perinatal mental health struggles. As informed clinicians, we can understand and anticipate this dynamic, and destigmatize the shadow side of motherhood to help relax and soften the way new moms feel about themselves.
What does it feel like for mom to shift into right brain dominance?
As it turns out, a huge component of matrescence involves contending with one’s attachment history and weaving that history into the present-day relationship with this precious new baby. Sleep deprived, emotionally raw moms become more aware of ways they could falter, and so they often double down, becoming perfectionistic in an effort to not “screw up my baby”. It's a monumental task for many moms with preexisting emotional wounds, to do that weaving in a way that feels, in the words of Donald Winnicott (1953), “good enough” (page 89). And it is common for anxious new moms to forgo self-care and become very preoccupied with this task of not screwing up (which never produces good results). For most moms, nothing has ever felt so critically important as being a good mom, and they have never been so exclusively responsible for a dependent being. This territory is ripe for feelings of high-anxiety, failure, shame and despair!
What Supports Best Outcomes?
Building Self-Trust and Healing Humanity’s Wounds