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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.

I am a Founding Director at Family Tree Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice dedicated to reproductive mental health, located in Campbell, California. Most of the new mothers we see in our practice come to us seeking support for PPD or PPA (postpartum depression or anxiety) and are experiencing intense symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, despair, shame and self-criticism. What we commonly call postpartum depression is actually the amalgamation of significant brain changes, hormonal surges and identity transformation that sweeps perinatal women into raw vulnerability, from which they encounter the additional challenges of sleep deprivation, parenting an unsettled newborn and sometimes birth-related trauma, all set against the backdrop of their own attachment histories, as well as the reality of their present-day resources or lack thereof. In that complex equation there are abundant opportunities for essential elements of critical care to fall through the cracks. The biopsychosocial environment of a new mother, met with the inherent vulnerability and dependence of new motherhood, breeds either wellness or an experience of danger and survival threat. The experience of real or perceived survival threat, commingled with shame, produces what we diagnose as PMADs.

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.

Body Changes, Brain Changes, Loss
The biological and physical changes of new motherhood are undeniably challenging, but the dynamics of matrescence on a woman’s psychological and spiritual existence are even more earth shattering. In less than a year, a woman’s former body and her familiar sense of her physical and psychological identity are gone, and an entirely new, rather shocking constellation of experiences emerge. The typical biology of pregnancy and new motherhood include the rising and falling of reproductive hormones that dramatically color mood and perception in mothers. During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels have increased 10 to 100 times, but within 24 hours of giving birth, those hormone levels crash down to roughly zero (Colino & Fabian-Weber, 2021). These hormonal fluctuations are designed to facilitate the symbiotic relationship between mother and infant, and along with measurable changes in mom’s brain, these hormones equip her to bond with and feed her baby. Much of mom’s biology gets behind this critical symbiotic mandate. Her nervous system must essentially download and replicate itself in her infant, and the shared identity and oneness help mom intuit and prioritize the baby's needs, even over her own. Margaret Mahler (as cited in Koenisberg, 1989) defined symbiosis as “that state of undifferentiation, of fusion with mother, in which the ‘I’ is not yet differentiated from the ‘not I’” (p. 1). This biological imperative for mom to bond and for baby to attach to mom as an auxiliary nervous system forces new moms into what we refer to as “the portal'', an inner dimension that houses mom’s implicit knowledge of what it is to be human, to be close, to be dependent and vulnerable. This portal sensitizes moms to their own early attachment knowledge, which is essentially implicit survival-related experience, most of which was laid down in the right brain, in her first years of life.

In looking at the neuroscience underlying perinatal experiences, we see that the brain changes significantly in matrescence, to enable symbiosis and right brain, portal access. According to Allan Schore (1994), it is the emotional right hemisphere that is more connected with the emotional state of the fetus and later the baby—not the left hemisphere. Babies are right brain dominant until their second year, meaning they experience the world non-verbally, somatically, and emotionally. The shift away from the verbal, logical and linear world of left brain dominance is necessary for new moms to make sense of their nonverbal baby, connect deeply with that baby, and ultimately wire their implicit attachment system to that baby. Studies show that these significant brain changes “predicted the quality of maternal bonding and the absence of hostility toward their newborns in the postpartum period. These reductions continued for at least two years post-pregnancy and prepared women for the transition into motherhood” (Gholampour, Riem, & van den Heuvel, 2020).

What does it feel like for mom to shift into right brain dominance?
As the right hemisphere of mom’s brain comes actively online and engages in its non-verbal dance with her baby, mom can feel awash in evocative emotional material that might be destabilizing, depending on its content. There is an experience of being more present, less connected to time, less verbal, less logical, and more emotionally alive. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to disparagingly as “mommy brain”, but rather than being a diminution in function, these profound changes are in fact a heightened kind of functioning, designed to connect moms to their babies. And yet…that does not always feel so good for mom.

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?
Moms can only relocate to their right brain and move into symbiosis with their babies when they feel safe and well supported, when their environment allows them to exist peacefully in a less verbal, linear, logical world, while they symbiotically merge with their baby and begin to download their (hopefully) calm, attuned nervous systems. Moms who do not feel safe and well supported (inside and/or outside) will get caught in an experience of survival threat, will automatically shift out of right-brain connection mode, and into a more defensive position, or “protection mode”. When moms mother from protection mode, families do not thrive.

Matrescence, as a holistic paradigm, acknowledges the growth and expansion of new motherhood, and also the extensive losses new motherhood brings to women. Women certainly disproportionately experience losses around career, power, influence, and earning (Sandler & Szembrot). Less measurable are all the personal losses: her body, sex drive, sleep, freedom and time to herself. Even when things are going well in matrescence, there is loss, which often comes as a total surprise and a deep disappointment to new mothers, who commonly work very hard to avoid the reality of their grief and the shame associated with feeling such loss in the wake of the beautiful new life they have created. Culturally, women are steeped in intense critical messaging that has a lot to say about how new moms SHOULD feel. As a result, these common and natural feelings of loss, regret and loneliness, seem to walk hand in hand with shame and isolation.

Thriving in matrescence, like thriving in adolescence, requires steady, attuned support from outside. Unfortunately, in current American society, women in the perinatal phase of life are subjected to oppressive burdens unique to motherhood, full of high-pressure, high-stakes messaging around how to mother best: breast over bottle, cloth vs. disposable, home birth vs. hospital birth, sleep training, how much weight you should gain, how fast you should lose it, etc. This messaging permeates our families of origin and our larger culture, which in turn, sets new moms up for immense disappointment and failure. Experiences of disappointment and failure in new moms morph quickly into symptoms that constellate around perfectionism, self-doubt, guilt, inadequacy, intrusive thoughts and shame. It is in this painful soup that new moms start to identify as “bad moms” and lose trust in themselves. There is so much shame in feeling like you are not a good mom and when new moms lose trust in themselves, they inevitably disconnect from their babies.

Building Self-Trust and Healing Humanity’s Wounds
A primary developmental task of matrescence is developing trust in one’s self as a good enough mother. The development of self-trust is delayed or challenged by preexisting traumas, legacy burdens (racism, oppression, poverty), inadequate resources, and biological dysregulation. On the whole, mothers are highly motivated to mother well. As the challenges and difficulties of matrescence emerge, new moms tend to be more open to deep inner work and more receptive to help and to change than in more stable phases of life. When the portal is open, we have an opportunity to access the deepest implicit matriarchal wounds humanity carries—and heal them. Growing self-trust in mothers infuses their mothering with confidence, calm, compassion, curiosity, clarity, creativity, courage and connectedness (Schwartz, 2020), all of which nourish her baby, who then grows up to propagate those qualities. When a new mom learns she can trust herself, she has natural resilience and moves successfully through the challenges of matrescence, toward a sense of greater wholeness. Trust and self-compassion are antidotes to the self-doubt and self-criticism that fuel so much perinatal suffering.

At Family Tree Wellness, we know that mothers are the greatest influencers for the next generation. Helping mothers find calm and confidence gives society our best shot at future peace and wellbeing. Techniques and models that we find helpful are those that acknowledge and honor matrescence inclusive of its shadow side. Family Tree Wellness is an Internal Family Systems informed practice, and we deeply appreciate the model’s holistic, nonpathologizing and validating nature. Along with affirming new mom parts and helping women unblend from harsh inner critics and other extreme protectors, we also offer psychoeducation and facilitate support groups that are respectful of the unique needs of this developmental time. We hold a feminist stance that values the work of mothers and acknowledges that our social policies fall abysmally short. We also know that it is equally important to help fathers, partners and our larger communities understand the support new moms need.

When motherhood has not been valued or respected, women have forged through these difficult years isolated and depleted, judging ourselves and other women, stripped of the soulfulness and sisterhood that was our birthright, missing the celebration of ourselves as matrescent—as brand new moms being birthed right alongside our babies. In a world where matrescence is not recognized and respected, new moms look for ways to measure some sort of success and validation, often landing on things like material acquisitions, the shape and weight of our bodies, our babies’ achievements and milestones and our ability to juggle 1000 things simultaneously as proof of our worth. The result? Mommy wars. Maternal depletion. Auto-immune disease. Helicopter parenting. Loneliness. Depression and anxiety.

Matrescence is a powerful and unique developmental phase of life that forces new moms to reckon with individual and collective pain and trauma. By showing up in an informed and supportive way, clinicians can affect fundamental security in a woman, in her baby and ultimately in society as a whole. This is a critical shift in our cultural paradigm. Mothering is, in fact, the very heart of our humanity; the developmental phase of matrescence deserves to be held with reverence and extreme kindness for the ultimate development of a benevolent society.  

References:

Colino, S., & Fabian-Weber, N. (2021, July). Postpartum anxiety: The other baby blues we need to talk about. Parents. Retrieved from http://parents.com/
Gholampour, F., Riem, M. M. E., & van den Heuvel, M. I. (2020). Maternal brain in the process of maternal-infant bonding: Review of the literature. Social Neuroscience, 15, 380-384. doi:10.1080/17470919.2020.1764093
Koenisberg, R. A. (1989). Symbiosis and separation: Towards a psychology of culture. New York: Library of Social Science.
Kumar, R., & Brockington, I. F. (1989). Motherhood and mental illness. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
MGH Center for Women's Mental Health, Reproductive Psychiatry Resource & Information Center. (2019, June). Postpartum psychiatric disorders. Retrieved from https://womensmentalhealth.org/
Sandler, D. H., & Szembrot, N. (2020, June 16). New mothers experience temporary drop in earnings. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/
Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsadale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2020). Internal family systems therapy. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 34, 89-97
Zimmerman, E. (2018, May 25). The identity formation of becoming a mom. The Cut. Retrieved from: https://www.thecut.com/

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