Matrescence: The Developmental Phase of New Motherhood

Like adolescence, matrescence is a unique life phase — but too few new parents know about it.

Gauri Saxena
13 min readMay 13, 2024
Photo by Randy Rooibaatjie on Unsplash

After giving birth to my daughter, I remember feeling upside down and inside out, especially those first few weeks. I knew the postpartum period would be filled with new and sometimes difficult experiences, but I was in no way prepared for the depth and breadth of change in every area of my life. What I didn’t realize at the time: I was in a brand-new life phase, known as matrescence — one that’s as disorienting and discombobulating (and then some!) as adolescence, hence the similarity in words.

Every part of my mind and body had been impacted. Physical and mental health, career, family and partner relationships: all of it can feel like it changes in the blink of an eye. And unfortunately, our medical and societal systems are so hyper focused on the birth and the baby, these radical shifts in mothers are rarely highlighted.

As a clinical psychologist specializing in maternal health, sharing the concept of matrescence with my therapy clients has been incredibly powerful. The idea of being in a distinct developmental phase, with changes in mind and body, goals and identity, helps normalize and validate the tumultuousness of this period.

Below, I’ll break down some key changes that occur throughout matrescence, focusing specifically on the postpartum period where changes may be less visible than during pregnancy, and how to navigate this phase of development. We’ll look at the following categories (click to jump to each section if you’re antsy to skip ahead!): body, emotions, relationships, career, and identity & world view.

What is Matrescence?

This term was first developed in the 1970’s by anthropologist Dana Raphael, who also developed the term doula. More recently, the term has been revived and expanded by psychologist Aurelie Athan. Athan defines matrescence as:

“A developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompasses multiple domains — bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual — and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.”

It’s important to note that many cultures and countries grasp the concept that the perinatal period is a distinctive life stage and reinforce this through common practices, including birth recovery centers, or joriwon, in Korea, the concept of la cuarentena in Mexico / Latin America, or the focus on repeated midwife home visits in many countries around the world.

In fact, the United States is unique in its neglect of postpartum mothers and families — from lack of paid leave, to horrendous maternal mortality statistics, to astounding racial disparities, especially for Black women. Most infuriatingly, many postpartum pain points were designed to be this way. Thus, it’s all the more important to recognize matrescence as its own life phase, so we can advocate for care and work towards systemic change.

The Body in Matrescence

I’ll admit, this was one of the most fascinating sections to research for this article. Because there are so many changes, I’m breaking this section into three subsections: brain, hormones, and structure / function. It’s important to note while these changes happen primarily to the person giving birth, some changes have also been noted in partners and adoptive parents — what seems to matter is how deeply engaged the parent is in their parenting. Most of these changes appear to be temporary, but there’s limited clarity on how long they last, and if some are in fact permanent.


It makes sense that our brains undergo major changes through pregnancy and postpartum. From an evolutionary standpoint, new parents must focus on safety, cooperation, and survival — which influences how our brains need to reshape themselves. While I’m listing distinct areas of the brain, these structures work in circuits, and it’s the combination of these changes working in tandem that creates the intense changes we experience. Theories suggest these shifts help us bond with our baby and are necessary for infant-parent attachment.

Amygdala: The amygdala is part of our limbic system and is focused on fear and survival, as well as learning and memory. In the postpartum brain, the amygdala grows a whopping four times in size. Additional areas involved in this changing circuit include the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

Synaptic Pruning: In different developmental phases, including adolescence, our brains “trim” areas that are no longer crucial to make way for new growth. The same happens during pregnancy, with grey matter reducing — resulting in what some call “mommy brain”. Interestingly, we tend to regain it after giving birth.


Hormones are “chemical messengers” that originate in the brain and other glands (thyroid, ovaries, testes) and travel throughout the body. These chemical messengers undergo powerful changes during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum.

Oxytocin: Often called the “love hormone”, oxytocin influences bonding and attachment. So it’s no surprise oxytocin levels surge after delivering a baby, and are also associated with breastfeeding. Interestingly, oxytocin is also necessary to reduce uterine size post delivery — resulting in those uncomfortable cramps a new mother may experience, especially while nursing.

D-MER: This is a condition that can occur when breastfeeding or pumping called dysphoric milk ejection reflex, or D-MER. It happens during the “let down” period, or as soon as milk begins to drop, and decreases as milk flow increases. Symptoms include a brief period of intense negative emotions and thoughts, and is thought to be influenced by the interplay of surging oxytocin sharply suppressing dopamine.

Structure & Function

It’s obvious the birthing body changes rapidly during pregnancy, but the postpartum “snap back” culture — obsessed with returning to pre-pregnancy bodies — invalidates the fact that the body continues to experience changes after childbirth, too. Some may be permanent, which requires a shift in our expectations and appreciation of our post-birth bodies. Postpartum mothers have undergone remarkable changes; pregnancy is likened to be as grueling as running consecutive marathons. It’s no wonder our bodies evolve to meet these incredible, athletic feats.

Lungs & Rib Cage: Believe it or not, in pregnancy the rib cage expands 2–3 times so the lungs can take in 30–50% more air with each breath. I was blown away by this! Our bodies are truly superhuman. The rib cage may stay expanded after childbirth— something I realized when at 8 months postpartum, my sari blouses suddenly seemed an inch too small!

Pelvic Floor: Pelvic floor dysnfunction is amongst the most common problems women face postpartum. It doesn’t have to be this way — France, for example, offers universal free pelvic floor rehabilitation. Physical therapy can prevent these problems from being permanent. Hormones also play an important role in pelvic floor changes.

How to Cope

If it’s not clear by now, the body undergoes intense changes during matrescence. A few tips to cope:

Give yourself grace. I should put this tip in every section, because it applies everywhere, all the time! Recognize how much your body is changing in so many areas all at once, and be patient with yourself. Reflecting with awe at what we’ve undertaken through pregnancy, childbirth, and the healing that follows can help us shift our mindset to appreciation instead of frustration.

Advocate for yourself. If a problem, such as pelvic floor issues, are ongoing or impairing your functioning, talk to your doctor or midwife. You deserve to pay attention to your body.

Think about being a teenager. Remember how awkward you may have felt in your body? The rapid changes happening during puberty? Yeah — that’s happening again! Just like adolescence, this period will pass, your body will stop changing so fast, and you’ll find your new normal.

Emotions in Matrescence

There is increasingly more attention on emotional and mental health problems during pregnancy and postpartum, which is sorely needed. As I tell my therapy clients, our nation does not make optimal mental health easy during matrescence. We are not meant to parent in isolation, with minimal infrastructure and no paid leave laws. How could our emotions not be impacted in these conditions?

Furthermore, the brain / hormone changes mentioned above contribute greatly to our emotions. The intense feelings of love you have no name for? Influenced by that surging oxytocin. Intrusive thoughts and worries? Influenced by your gigantic amygdala. Specific issues such as fertility struggles, health problems in mom or baby, housing or food insecurity, and other stressors often exacerbate emotional challenges.

Baby Blues & PMADs: Up to 80% of new mothers experience “Baby Blues in the first 2–4 weeks postpartum. It’s no wonder, given all the huge changes we experience, not to mention the presence of a tiny barely-human creature we need to keep alive! Up to 20% of postpartum mothers continue on to develop mental health problems known as PMADs: Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders. Tragically, deaths due to suicide or overdose are a leading cause of maternal death.

If you or someone you know is suffering from thoughts of ending your life or in intense distress, please know there is help. Contact the Postpartum Support International helpline for support, or dial 988 for immediate help.

It’s important to note fathers and partners can experience PMADs also. Needing help is not limited to the mother, and these struggles are just as valid as maternal struggles.

Empathy & Elation: It’s not all bad, mamas! Feelings of intense happiness, love, and joy are also common. Increases in empathy also occur, and is crucial to bonding with your baby, as well as a deeper sense of humanity.

How to Cope

Emotions can feel more intense and fluctuate rapidly during matrescence. Ride out those moments and pay attention to what your emotions are telling you.

Be open about how you’re feeling. Whether with a partner, friend, or family member — lean on the support systems available to you. Some of the most impactful moments for me in those early weeks was hearing from fellow new mamas, normalizing difficulties and promising hope.

Seek help. The earlier the better. Seeking professional help — medication, therapy, spiritual guidance, etc — can be transformational. Contrary to what you may hear, certain psychiatric medications are safe during pregnancy and nursing.

Move your body & get outside. Thinking about any form of exercise feels impossible when sleep deprived and in the throes of new motherhood, I know! But even a walk around the block can be incredibly helpful. I’m convinced my daily walks saved my teetering postpartum mental health — and although I did it because my daughter would only take her afternoon nap in the stroller, over time I realized how necessary it was for me, too.

Relationships in Matrescence

It won’t come as a surprise that relationships evolve in huge ways during this period. Matrescence can cause strain and strengthening, both. And it’s not just current relationships — new social bonds with fellow mothers / parents, and others involved in your parenthood ecosystem, add a new layer of connection and complexity.

Partners / Spouses: In heterosexual relationships, there’s been an increasing focus on an imbalance in the mental load or invisible labor. Changes in intimacy also occur after having a baby, causing shifts in the dynamics of a relationship. On the other hand, the presence of a baby also builds bonds, love, and a stronger family dynamic. Ride out the roller coaster, new parents!

Family & Friends: Having a baby can force us to re-evaluate relationships — sometimes increasing appreciation, sometimes necessitating new boundaries. As mentioned above, parenting is not meant to be done in isolation, and leaning on these bonds is crucial. The types of networks we have also influence decisions about family and child rearing.

The Spotlight Effect: Remember as a teenager when you were convinced everyone was looking at you, all the time? Well, this happens again in matrescence, and it’s known as the spotlight effect. Unfortunately, judgment can feel too common — most often against mothers, and especially for a first time mom. But acknowleding the spotlight effect as a common experience in this phase, just as it was in adolescence, can make the phenomenon feel less overwhelming.

How to Cope

Recognize that the presence of a new baby — whether your first or your second, third, fourth, etc — is going to re-shape your relationships. It’s natural for priorities to shift and relationships to evolve.

Distribution of tasks. Managing household and parenting tasks with a partner is a constant balancing act. Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play strategy can help recognize what the distribution looks like and what needs to change.

Invest in your relationships. Making time for a partner, friends, or family can feel like a gargantuan task, and it will likely always be a work in progress! Recognize the relationships you value most, and prioritize those.

Others’ judgment is usually about them, not you. Parenting is influenced by personal experiences and involves countless decisions, which can lead to self doubt. Judgmental behavior is often a person’s attempt to combat their own insecurities via judgments against others. Find your trusted tribe and don’t worry too much about others’ opinions, hard as it may seem.

Alone time is important, too. Sometimes the most helpful thing for any relationship is having space for yourself. Especially during matrescence, we need this space to re-learn ourselves and who we’re becoming. Don’t underestimate the importance of the relationship you have with yourself.

Career in Matrescence

Work priorities can drastically shift during this period, but the ability to make choices often feels out of reach. Understanding your priorities and how these align with goals / values can be overwhelming, especially if you’re feeling unsupported at work or struggling with returning to work.

Parental Leave. One in four women in the US are forced to return to work within two weeks of giving birth due to lack of paid leave. Stigma often impacts paternity leave, causing pressure on fathers to return to work sooner than they would choose. In my therapy practice, return to work timelines are a major source of stress / distress.

Changes in Workforce Participation. There are many factors influencing a decision not to return or to reduce work: for some, the cost of childcare is too burdensome; for others, the ability to choose to focus on family can feel empowering.

How to Cope

Whenever possible, take a moment to focus on your priorities and goals, and keep in mind this can — and likely will! — change again in the future.

Advocate for workplace support. Employers can do a great deal to create a supportive work environment —advocating for benefits and asking about maternal / paternal health benefits when interviewing can help prevent surprises. Don’t shy away from taking full advantage of whatever is available to you.

Breastfeeding mamas at work. There are new laws for nursing mothers in the workplace, regarding break time and private spaces for pumping. Know your rights to avoid excess stress and hassle.

Recognize unpaid work at home is work too. Our culture and society severely under-appreciate unpaid labor in the home. When I was home with my daughter before returning to work, I felt like I had a 24/7 job with no income, title, benefits, sick days, bonus, etc etc! I love this research breaking down what a salary would look like for a stay at home parent.

Identity & World View in Matrescence

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably see how the transformations in matrescence are complex, intense, and far reaching. Every area of our lives and bodies are impacted, so of course how we see ourselves and the world around us is impacted too.

Shifts in Identity: For mothers and parents, our identities are likely to change in enormous ways after having a baby. Demands and limitations suddenly increase, our priorities change, and there can be grief that comes along with this. It’s not just the baby that is s born — a new version of ourselves is birthed too.

Shifts in Worldview: Remember the changes above about empathy and bonding? This doesn’t stop within our own families. Many new parents describe feeling more connected to humanity as a whole. Those brain changes listed above can spark broader shifts in social understanding and emotional processing. This may also lead to shifts in our political and spiritual lives.

How to Cope

Becoming a parent is a complex, all encompassing process. It may feel impossible to grasp sometimes, and other times it may feel like the simplest thing in the world.

Recognize it’s normal to have mixed emotions. Losing old versions of ourselves is hard. Our society often focuses on the joy and elation aspects of motherhood, and not the grief, loss, and confusion that accompanies it. Don’t shame yourself for those harder feelings — it does not make you a bad parent, just a more aware one.

Share how you’re feeling. Existential identity shifts may feel heavy to bring up, but you’ll be surprised how many have experienced this — fellow new parents, your partner, and probably even your own parents! Connecting on these topics reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness.

We are always a work in progress. Identities are fluid, and yours is likely to change again, and again, and again still. Embrace the person you’re becoming, and know you will continue to expand and evolve throughout your life. Sometimes that’s overwhelming, but it’s also comforting and can help us let go, breathe, and appreciate the present.

To Wrap Things Up…

When I was planning this piece, I certainly did not expect it to turn into a mini dissertation! A main motivating factor for writing this was to have a comprehensive resource for my therapy clients on the far reaching changes in matrescence. But while researching, I found myself reflecting often on my own journey, and feeling so profoundly in awe of how much our minds and bodies go through, in such a relatively short period of time, all while taking care of tiny, lovely little beings entirely dependent on us.

Another goal was to normalize the feeling of being on a roller coaster of constant changes, and shed some light on why this period can feel so disorienting. It’s not recognized enough, and I believe this plays an outsize role in mental health struggles. My hope is that by learning more about this unique developmental phase, we can have more grace and patience for ourselves and fellow new parents — and hopefully see some changes in our policies, laws, and culture, too.

More Resources

If you’re hungry for more info on matrescence, here are a few resources:

The first episode in the Netflix series Babies is chock-full of fascinating facts on postpartum brain and hormone changes.

There’s lots of fascinating research on the changes in fathers and partners. Take a look here and here for brain / body changes, and here for mental health resources for dads.

Aurelie Athan’s website has many more research articles and resources; Alexandra Sacks gave a TED Talk on matrescence.



Gauri Saxena

I'm a psychologist, consultant, and mother writing about maternal health, mental health, and digital solutions. Learn more about me at