Throughout pregnancy, there is so much focus on preparation of the birth of the child – making sure we have everything we need for the baby, checking things off the list. But there is comparatively very little time, thought or space at all dedicated to preparing for the equally sacred ‘birth’ of the mother.
Physical and bodily changes during pregnancy, through birth and into early post-partum are significant, but it’s actually the change in our inner world – the physiological shift – that is the most life-altering and is the one that we should be creating spaces for women to talk about.
Without getting too science-y, let’s delve a little deeper into what happens to a woman’s mind, body + soul when she becomes a mother...
Most of us know a little bit about the flooding hormones during pregnancy and birth, right? But in fact, this is only the very beginning: it is actually once the baby arrives that the mother undergoes the biggest hormonal shifts that change the absolute essence of who she is, on a biological level - irreversibly. That’s right – becoming a mother changes the chemistry of your brain and your body for the rest of your life!
A growing number of leading doctors and researchers in this emerging field of study are even saying that we all, as a society, need to start thinking and talking about the scale of this change for women, in the same way we think and talk about adolescence¹.
This all encompassing transformation from woman to mother is now known as ‘matrescence’. It’s a term that arrived on the academic scene in 1973, when it was coined by an Anthropologist named Dana Raphael. But unfortunately, matrescence didn’t get much traction or attention until the 2000’s when it was picked up and revived by Dr Aurélie Athan, a Clinical Psychologist who put a whole framework around the term².
Dr Athan calls matrescence a “life passage” and believes it starts as early as pre-conception, and extends to the early post-natal period and even beyond.
While facing the ultimate learning curve that comes with meeting and becoming responsible for a newborn human, Mum’s are often establishing breastfeeding and physically recovering from birth. But at the very same time, we are left to reconcile the collision of our old and new self and identity. How long that takes is unknown – in fact, Dr Athan says “the exact length of matrescence is completely individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime”³.
She also strongly believes that women who do not physically carry or birth a baby (such in the case of surrogacy or adoption), still experience much of this transformation - even on a biological level. How mind-blowing is that?!
Most Mums we know all have their own unique version of how this evolution into motherhood felt for them – but almost all have one thing in common – it’s not been smooth sailing.
We sat down with the Mama’s group at our latest OMM Label photoshoot and got to chatting... There were lots of nods when one Mum remarked that she had never felt more amazed by all women, and, like she had unlocked a deeper understanding of her mother and grandmother. There was also consensus that motherhood is the ultimate “ïf you know you know” – people can tell you what it’s like, but you don’t understand until you’re in it.
It makes sense that one of the most significant changes in the way women experience the world throughout matrescence, and beyond, is in the way we think and in what we think about – something we like to call the ‘mothermind’.
The ‘mothermind’ is our way of describing the huge array of new ‘mum-life’ thoughts that now take up residency in our brains – permanently. You might have heard people refer to the ‘motherload’, which is a similar principle – these are terms that try to capture the incalculable amount of time and mental energy we spend thinking about our children, and every facet of our care for them.
- The practical – the constantly growing mental checklist of things to do, especially life-admin tasks like scheduling doctors’ appointments and play-dates, submitting childcare enrolment forms and making sure they have clothes for the change in season.
- The emotional – time spent thinking about things like our child’s development, how best to prepare them for upcoming situations or transitions, whether we are meeting their needs adequately.
There is one key characteristic of the emotional labour of motherhood which is likely quite familiar to us all: ‘Mum-guilt’. That’s that icky feeling that can spring up from seemingly any situation or circumstance, and makes us feel like we’re failing, like we’re not enough and like we’re letting our kids down. Blegh.
- The invisible – being the ‘knower of things’. Dr Lyn Craig, a Sociology Professor at the University of Melbourne who has undertaken considerable research on unpaid work and the mental load of motherhood, talks about those questions that mothers seem to always know the answers to “Where is the second gumboot?” ,“What will they eat and definitely not eat?”⁴.
Even when mothers return to paid work outside of the home, they tend to still carry the bulk of the mental load – perhaps as a result of both our biological wiring and sociocultural conditioning.
The switch to mothermind is a fundamental part of a woman’s shift in identity when becoming a mother, and it can feel like a radical and overwhelming change – even without being accompanied by other maternal mental health experiences like Postnatal Depression (PND) or Postnatal Anxiety (PNA).
We are all for creating the space, the language and a strong evidence base around these shared experiences that can feel isolating, overwhelming, hard to define and even harder to talk about. We hope that by talking about these things, our community of new, seasoned and expecting Mums will feel less alone and we can all start to really embrace motherhood as a catalyst for our own personal transformation.
We love what one of our beautiful OMM Label Mama’s said on set:
both breastfeeding, and motherhood in general, are such a rally point for women - they’re the challenges we're all going through together. It’s like we’re all running a marathon, it brings us together.
We’d really love to know your thoughts and hear your experiences in the comments below or over on our Instagram post.
¹Dr Oscar Serallach, Catherine Birndorf, MD, Dr Aurélie Athan
²Dr Aurélie Athan (www.matrescence.com)