Why we NEED the word “Matrescence”

Women are eager to speak about their motherhood transitions

Photo courtesy of TED/Ryan Lash
The lived experiences of women go unspoken until the zeitgeist is ready to thunder.

It was midnight in February 2017 and Adele and Beyoncé were talking about matrescence. But they didn’t use that word. As the world watched, these two radiant lady-bosses spoke onstage at the Grammy’s about the hardships of new motherhood and how much each admired the other as new parents, women and artists. Watching at home, I was deep into research for a book on the identity shift of motherhood and got goosebumps because I had never heard such a frank and public conversation about these historically taboo emotional complexities. The next morning when I woke up and read Susan Chira’s wonderful front page New York Times article about this culturally impactful moment, I sent her a tweet about my work, and a few months later my article The Birth of a Mother went viral.

It was clear that women of the world were eager to speak more about their motherhood transitions, and many of the subsequent calls I received were in response to a term I mentioned in the piece that had never before been used in the New York Times: matrescence. Like adolescence, matrescence describes a developmental transition that is hormonal, physical and emotional. Matrescence was coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (she also popularized the term “doula”) and 20 years later, it seemed to me that Adele, Beyonce and most mothers understood it in their cellular memories, but the word was hardly ever spoken.

I am fascinated by the political and therapeutic power of language.

Was this cultural silence a reflection of the larger invisibility of women’s issues? In 2017, one year before #metoo, I would say yes. YES. The lived experiences of women go unspoken until the zeitgeist is ready to thunder.

As a college student, tears streamed down my face as I watched Oprah and Jane Fonda thunder about why women are silent about their own bodies in Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, and ever since have been fascinated by the political and therapeutic power of language. If you can name it, maybe you can tame it.

My hope is that every mother, every woman who wants to become a mother, and everyone who loves them will start sharing their matrescence stories.

This Mother’s Day, I was humbled by an invitation to give a TED talk about my work as a part of their incubator program called the TED Residency. I knew that the best use of my 6 minutes on this global stage would be to introduce the term matrescence. It is an honor to share this talk with you today. I stand on the shoulders of giants in the women’s mental health community who have been working on advocacy and awareness for decades, and ask anyone inspired to take action to make a donation to postpartum support international.

My hope is that every mother, every woman who wants to become a mother, and everyone who loves them will start sharing their matrescence stories without shame in their homes, coffee shops, and around the modern day fire-pit of social media. Together, we can make #motherhoodunfiltered so that we can all feel less alone, feel less stigmatized, and reduce rates of postpartum depression worldwide.

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