In the minutes after giving birth to my first child, I realized that I – and my life – would never, ever be the same. After all, I was a mother now and totally responsible for the safety and wellbeing of this tiny, helpless human being.
I’m not the type of person who takes things one step at a time; rather, I tend to see the whole picture at once, oftentimes panicking about the shifts that can occur with any life event – big or small.
In this case, it was motherhood: I knew I would be responsible for parenting and guiding this growing little person for years to come; and I knew I would keep on worrying about them for the rest of my life.
Amid these overwhelming thoughts and feelings, I received two beautiful presents: a necklace that read “Haute Mom” (cute, I know) and a charm bracelet with a baby in a buggy dangling from it. Both pieces were lovely, but as I put them on, the meaning behind them hit me HARD. THIS was my identity now: Mom. The old me – the life she lived, her own hobbies and passions – was all in the past, gone?
As women and mothers, we often hear about the loss of our pre-pregnancy figure; but what about the loss of our pre-mothering identity / personality / mind / life…? Nothing and no one can really prepare you for that.
I remember the tears torrenting heavily down my cheeks. I was suffering severe pangs of identity loss. As elated as I was to be a mom to this precious, sweet baby girl that I’d wanted for so long, I was also grieving the person I once was – and at the same time feeling tremendous shame and guilt for having these feelings.
This internal battle was brutal, and the hardest part was that I felt like I couldn’t/shouldn’t share those thoughts with anyone. After all, what kind of mother feels sorrow after the birth of their baby? And so I put on a happy face and pretended that, even though I wasn’t sure I’d ever be myself again, I was purely and wholly overjoyed… because that’s what new mothers are “supposed to be.”
My story isn’t unique. Many women – even those, like myself, who have always dreamed of being a mother – feel this way. The moment our babies are born, our purposes and responsibilities shift suddenly and dramatically. One day, we only have to fend for ourselves; the next, we are responsible for the survival of someone else… #nopressure. And so all the other parts of our lives suddenly dwindle in comparison: relationships, careers, personal time, passions.
In this article we are going to discuss the concept of matrescence, what it means and why it’s so helpful to our wellbeing to understand and acknowledge this transitional period in our lives; the myriad of ways we lose ourselves to new motherhood; and some suggestions for how to rediscover yourself after becoming a mother.
According to reproductive psychiatrist Dr. Alexandra Sacks, this feeling of grief and loss after having a baby is quite normal. In fact, there’s even a name for it: Matrescence.
This term was coined in the 1970’s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael and encompasses the physical, psychological and emotional changes women go through when they become mothers. In her 2017 Ted Talk and New York Times article, The Birth of a Mother, Sacks explains that in the same way adolescence is the time of transition from childhood to adulthood, matrescence is the transitional period to motherhood.
Except that adolescence is a well known phenomenon, and during that period of life, we expect a teen’s body to change, their identity to shift, and moods and hormones to be a roller coaster; as such, we make room for the ups and downs of teenagehood. But, unfortunately, matrescence is not a well-known concept (among lay people or the medical community) and thus, women are not afforded the right to go through such mental and emotional turbulence.
Why is no one talking about this? And most importantly, why aren’t mothers offered support, understanding and grace? Could it be that, when babies are born, everyone’s focus turns to their wellbeing? Once mothers, women are expected to live and breathe for their babies, and to embrace this new life purpose while putting themselves and their own wellbeing on the backburner.
According to Orlando-based ob-gyn Megan Gray, M.D. in this article in Shape Magazine, “as women strive to understand their new role in life, it makes sense that many lose their identity in the upheaval of it all.”
Push-Pull of Motherhood
According to Dr. Sacks, when mothers look at their new babies, their bodies produce oxytocin (the feel-good, ooey gooey, “I want to hug and love you” hormone). This is an amazing feature of evolution that occurs so new mothers feel a deep sense of love for and connection to their new babies, making them emotionally and physically compelled to bond with and take care of them.
But, as Sacks explains, there is also a “pull away” that occurs after becoming a mother. While the mother’s physiology is helping her focus solely on caring for her newborn, her mind may also be thinking about other things, such as her own identity, needs, emotions, career, sex life, friendships, and so on. This is common, and does not mean she has a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, but rather, that she’s experiencing the very normal “push-pull” of new motherhood. (Please note, however, that if you do think you or someone you know may be suffering from a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, such as postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, etc., you are not alone, and it’s very important to reach out for help. Postpartum Support International is a wonderful resource.)
It’s important for women to acknowledge these feelings, to know they’re normal, and to understand that when you allow yourself to have an identity outside of just “Mom”, you’re also giving room for your child to develop their own identity, too.
Losing Yourself to Motherhood
Motherhood, though absolutely incredible and amazing, is also all-consuming. After having a baby, it’s normal to grieve your old life and pre-mom identity. While every woman’s experience is unique, here are some areas in which many new moms feel a sense of loss after having a baby.
- No more me-time. This can be anything from quiet time alone, to using the bathroom without a little one right next to you, to the ability to leisurely lie in bed and read a book or watch a movie, and so on. After becoming a mom, it’s much harder to find these moments just for yourself. (Note: Are you an introvert who needs time alone, but now has a baby around 24/7 to tend to? You’re not alone. Check out our article for highly sensitive parents.)
- Loss of routine. For those who thrive off routine, the unpredictability of life with a newborn can be triggering. I struggled immensely with this; life felt chaotic – never knowing when my baby would eat, sleep, need a diaper change, etc. I felt like I couldn’t organize my days (or nights!) and this made me feel anxious and overwhelmed.
- Relationships fall to the wayside. New motherhood can leave very little time for tending to any other relationships, such as friends, family, or a romantic partner. Suddenly this little person is the center of your universe, and while that’s incredible, it can really erode your other relationships. This can also lead new moms to feel lonely and isolated.
- Sex drive. Physically, emotionally and mentally, you’ve just gone through a tremendous ordeal, and it’s normal not to feel like having sex after having a baby. Not to mention, many new moms spend much of their days (and nights!) physically close to their babies, from snuggling, feeding, rocking and soothing. Thus, come the end of the day when their partner is ready for physical connection, they may feel totally “touched out.” On a personal note, I remember getting the go-ahead for sex after my 6-week postpartum check-up. I pretended to be thrilled, but inwardly, I was… not. Not only did I have ZERO libido, but also I honestly felt horrified by the thought of actually “doing it.” I kept thinking to myself, “I’m a Mom now, and Moms just don’t do that.” (Yes, I know better now…)
- Shift in marital relationship – After giving birth, it’s common for couples to feel like the baby, not their relationship, is the top priority. While this is perfectly normal and appropriate ( those maternal instincts kick in strong), many couples struggle with the sudden lack of connection.
- Body changes. Obviously women’s bodies completely and miraculously transform during pregnancy, but after the baby is born they don’t just snap back to the way they were. Not to mention, between the little free time and energy postpartum, working out isn’t exactly the easiest thing to squeeze in. It can be really hard to accept our postpartum bodies, and it’s normal to grieve your pre-baby physique.
- Brain changes. Research shows that after having a baby, women’s brains experience significant reductions in grey matter that persist for at least two years! Yes – childbirth literally changes your brain! According to The Washington Post, this “brain rewiring” is actually an evolutionarily adaptive process that helps new moms bond with their babies and adjust to their role as parents, thus creating a more secure and healthy attachment between mama and child.
- Professional Identity. Are you a working woman whose career has, in part, defined her? It’s no secret that it can be challenging to balance career and parenthood (and America simply does not really value working mothers or set them up for success). If this is you, you’re not alone. Many women struggle with this type of seemingly impossible multitasking – always feeling like they’re dropping the ball at work and/or at home – and the professional identity crisis that can ensue after becoming a mother.
- Loss of Freedom. Once you become a parent, spontaneous activities are no longer (or rarely) possible (especially at the beginning). Parents’ lives revolve around their children’s schedules and needs. Parents of newborns and infants are often stuck in “nap jail” and plan the entire day around their babies’ predictably unpredictable feeding routine. It’s easy and normal to feel trapped and tethered, and to grieve your old freedom and sense of spontaneity.
8 Ways to Rediscover and Rebuild Yourself After Becoming a Mom
Though it might feel impossible at the moment, you will find yourself again – with both old, familiar patterns and new aspects of who you are as a parent.
But in the meantime, the following tactics can help you cope with those painful feelings of loss and remind you that it’s still important to meet your own needs while also caring for your baby.
- Allow yourself to grieve. Though your feelings might seem confusing – both to yourself and others – they are nothing to be ashamed of. You have suffered a loss – a loss of who you were, and all the roles you played, before you became a mom. Allowing yourself to feel your feelings will help you accept them and work through them. And know this: it’s okay to feel what you feel; it doesn’t mean you don’t love your children or aren’t grateful to be a parent. If you need help working through these emotions, reach out to a therapist trained in pregnancy and postpartum mental health. Postpartum Support International is a great resource.
- Check your expectations. I assumed that after I had a baby, I’d still do all the same things I did before I became a mom, such as go on dates with my husband, write, exercise, etc., I’d just have a newborn in tow. Yeah… no. I wish I’d been more prepared for what the postpartum experience was really going to be like (e.g. I wasn’t even going to want to put a bra on, let alone leave the house!) so that I didn’t feel so let down or like I was “missing out” on my life when it actually happened.
- Create a game-plan. How are you going to carve out time for you? Who will your helpers be? If you’re still pregnant, you can do this during pregnancy. If not, take a little time to discuss with your support group – partner, family, friends – and work together to create time and space (physically and mentally) for yourself.
- Talk to other moms about how you’re feeling. Dr. Sacks encourages new moms to talk to one another about their matrescence experiences. That’s because no one else understands how you’re feeling quite like other new moms do. Plus, being open and honest about your feelings might help other new parents open up about their feelings too. (Not sure how or where to find new parent friends? We offer some ideas of how to meet other new parents here – and we also have a brand new tool called ParentQuest which allows you to search for parent groups by city and state!)
- Put yourself at the top of your priority list. This was an amazing piece of advice my own therapist gave me after I had my twins. She reminded me that even though I was a mother, I still mattered. Not only do we, moms, need to be healthy and happy and whole to care for our children, but it’s also important to model good self-care for our own children – and to teach them that THEY matter. If they don’t see you caring for yourself and meeting your own needs, how will they know to do it for themselves? Break the generational pattern of forgetting about mom’s wellbeing now!
- Pick one thing that matters to you… and do it. Just start there, with one thing. Then, over time, add back in other elements of the old you. Along the way, perhaps you’ll discover new passions and joys that make you feel happy and fulfilled. Add those in when and how you can.
- Journal. Journaling is a great way to understand and work through your feelings. Write about your process of matrescence – the good, the challenging, and everything else. For many, the process of journaling is very cathartic.
- Create a “happy list” – the things that make YOU happy. Share them with your partner, family and friends and ask them to help you incorporate some of the items from the list into your life. I felt so lost after becoming a mom, but the process of writing down the things that make me happiest – i.e. dancing, writing, being in nature, etc. – and then sharing them with my spouse helped immensely. He was my accountability partner (I would often say, “but I don’t have time!….”) , helping me carve out moments as often as possible to do the things I enjoyed most.
Becoming a mother fundamentally changes you. After having a baby, it can truly feel like the person you were before suddenly no longer exists – and this loss, which occurs during an already emotionally charged time, can feel confusing, scary and painful. I remember wondering if I’d ever get my old self back – if I’d ever have time to work, see friends, and enjoy my favorite activities again.
You will find yourself again – but perhaps, it will be a slightly (or perhaps dramatically) different version of you. It will be a “you” who has been changed by parenthood.
Here’s the thing Mamas: we are always evolving, growing and changing. The period of matrecense is no different – it’s a time of tremendous physical, emotional and mental transformation (and with every transformation inevitably comes feelings of loss, fear and anxiety). But that doesn’t mean we must give up the parts of ourselves that bring us joy. Instead, perhaps we can try to think of motherhood and all it entails as yet another new layer to our already multifaceted and vibrant selves.
So please remember, though becoming a mother is likely the biggest shift of your life thus far, you still exist and matter – and you should take the time you need to process it. Yes, you’re a mom now, but you’re also many other things too. You just have to figure out what those other things are! If you ask us, it’s pretty darn exciting!
So cheers to new motherhood; to (re)connecting with yourself; and to all the doors that parenthood may open for you.
P.S.: matrescence won’t be the last shift in your life… so it will make for good practice when the next one comes… menopause! 😉