Matrescence: the emerging mother

If you’ve been hearing the term matrescence lately, here is maybe why…

Few areas in psychology have developed as slowly as scholarship on mothers themselves. While models of child development rely heavily on mothers, interest into their own self-development has usually been saved for gender studies or the psychology of women. Rarely does this curiosity leak into the larger field despite the fact that every human being comes from a mother.

We need a new wave of theories, research, and funding just for them.

In my own neck of the academic woods, I have been steadily arguing for the creation of a missing model of psychological development for the emerging mother. Its absence has been strikingly obvious since beginning my work in maternal psychology a decade ago. At the time, while interviewing new mothers about their daily experiences, they had noticeable difficulty articulating the magnitude of this life-altering transition.

Without an explanatory framework, how could they know what was happening to them?

When turning to conventional psychology literature for guidance, what can be found is a growing body of research on maternal psychopathology. Albeit, one that is not always altruistic, since it can tend to emphasize the mother’s risk to her child, and child outcomes, over her own predicament.

While otherwise promising, this reigning clinical paradigm is inadequate — because it is too narrow in its scope. It does not capture the whole story.

By comparison, there are relatively few mappings of what normative adaptation to motherhood looks like. Fewer still examining positive adjustment and the potential for thriving. This represents a gap between what is considered worthy to be studied and the lived experiences of actual mothers who reject purely negative accounts.

I am suggesting that their may be an implicit bias operating in our science and therefore our education. In my class on matrescence I test this assumption every semester by asking graduate psychology students to free-associate to the word “postpartum.” Usually this leads to the word “depression” — much like how “midlife” is married to “crisis.”

Maternal mental health has thankfully expanded its focus on postpartum depression to now include a repertoire of related diagnoses, known as Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) with 10-20% of women reporting distress of some kind. The recent shift can be attributed both to increasingly brave mothers breaking their silence and marked advances in the identification and treatment of perinatal disturbance.

The groundswell of awareness on both sides has culminated in successful public health initiatives and legislation such as universal maternal screening that is paving the way for the new frontier ahead.

Now that mothers are talking more and censoring less, we should listen closely to the deeper register of what they are telling us. Perhaps we would hear even the silent majority, who do not reside in the further ends of the spectrum, attempting to voice something seemingly paradoxical about their experience. Namely, that ambivalence can be the hallmark of motherhood, and becoming a mother is both stressful and growth-producing.

This inherent co-existence is challenging psychologically, applies to every mother in varying degrees, and is in need of more support all around.

The ultimate rescue is an innovative theory of maternity that is more wide-reaching — one that is based in multifinality and resilience — and that recognizes the vast range of possibilities for both gains and losses in the lives of mothers as well as their children. If nothing more, we have a responsibility to end the forced choice of a love-it or hate-it narrative that splits mothers rather than aids them in making meaning of their motherhood.

That is why in 2015 in Feminism & Psychology, I first proposed the revival of the term matrescence, like adolescence, to give mothers and those that care for them, the language they didn’t know they needed. I cited the concept from a medical anthropologist, Dana Raphael who originally coined matrescence (and doula!) in 1973, and applied it to psychology to transform the conversation in mental health and ultimately change the paradigm.

As a wise mentor reminded me: words create worlds.

Women who transition through preconception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond, experience a acceleration in multiple domains true of any developmental push: bio-psycho-social-cultural-spiritual. A theory of matrescence provides a destigmatizing and agentic lens for mothers of all kinds to identify, explore, cope with, and shape their destinies according to their own individual differences.

This same gift was once given to adolescents who before they were named as such were merely thought to be children going mad on the way to adulthood. It also gave birth to a new field.

Matrescence while at its infancy, holds this same potential. Its depth and breadth can fit all the other psychological approaches under its wingspan — from clinical to developmental — and can also serve to coalesce sister disciplines that share its study (e.g., obstetrics/midwifery). Most importantly, it has the very practical purpose of easing the suffering of people.

As bell hooks movingly writes in the opening of Theory as Liberatory Practice (1991), explanatory models are most powerful because they heal:

I came to theory because I was hurting… I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend-to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing (p.1).

So why now — I am often asked — are we finally getting to know the message I’ve been trying to teach about matrescence?

Perhaps social trends made the timing right for it to take hold in the public imagination and refresh outmoded ways of thinking. Significant changes in the 21st century in the status of women from educational advancement, increased representation in the workforce, sexual/reproductive freedom, political activism and enlarged economic influence have resulted in a complex interplay of unprecedented benefits and challenges.

The pressures of these issues have only gained in importance and maybe the zeitgeist was simply ready for matrescence to come along and provide some long-awaited relief.

Happy International Women’s Day 2019.

Photo by Jhon David on Unsplash