Matrescence: Why Listening To A New Mom’s Needs Is Critical, Not Just The Baby’s!

We often see motherhood as a switch that changes women. But it is a developmental passage called Matrescence that is far more complex.

“I feel extremely anxious, and uneasy. It seems like I can never be prepared enough.”, said Preeti, a close friend of mine who was 37 weeks pregnant. She was due to deliver her baby anytime now.

As I read it, I remembered the last few weeks of my pregnancy. People kept telling me to “enjoy this phase” while it lasts and to sleep as much as I could now. It felt like strange advice but was the most common thing I heard.

But I remember the message that one friend forwarded to me. It read –

“Nobody told me that I was going to meet a whole new person after giving birth. And that person wasn’t my baby.”

This was the most accurate quote I read about what happens to a woman after motherhood. And this is what I wish people spoke more about, to expectant and new mothers. I later discovered that this was a huge phenomenon that had a name – Matrescence.

What is Matrescence?

The term Matrescence was coined by American anthropologist Dana Raphael. She defines it as the developmental passage of becoming a mother. It extends beyond the physical act of giving birth and encompasses the psychological and emotional changes one undergoes through motherhood. Think of it as an intensely busy phase of development, like adolescence.

But when we look at postpartum care for Indians, it typically includes massages for the mother and baby and focuses extensively on the mother’s diet. She is prohibited from eating a long list of things, even as an occasional treat, lest it affects the baby. Her food is also loaded with galactagogues whether she likes them or not.

Given that we are such a populous nation, shouldn’t we have a more nuanced understanding of what Matrescence entails? Instead, we reduce mothers to milking machines and focus solely on the baby. We are actively failing our mothers by not paying attention to their emotional needs which is extremely crucial in their vulnerable postpartum period.

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There is so much more to pregnancy beyond nutrition

When I was pregnant with my first child, the focus was largely on my nutrition, which I understand is a huge privilege in itself. But I found that anyone who spoke to me was mostly talking either about how much I should eat, or what I should do to have a “normal delivery”. Days went by, and I delivered a healthy baby girl. I had an ‘easy’ delivery, or at least that’s what people around me called it.

Postpartum is a beautiful, yet difficult period. Physically the impact varies depending on what kind of labor and delivery experience the mother had to go through. We simplify deliveries as either ‘normal’ or c-section, but how many of us talk if appropriate support is given to women during the process?

Birth trauma is very real and happens to many new mothers around the world even today. There is a multitude of factors that cause birth trauma, including a complicated delivery, and not being given agency during labor, apart from physical complications that occur during childbirth. Violence in the labor ward is a reality for many women even today. But fearing authority, most women silently suffer and go through PTSD even several months after delivering a baby.

Such experiences can alter the emotional state of a new mother, and even redefine the way she experiences motherhood. Most women who try to exercise any agency over their pregnancies are silenced, despite it being their basic right. Supporting women through Matrescence begins by giving them the space to assert their maternal rights, and ensuring they are treated with respect in every step of the way.

Not all new mothers instantly know what to do

There is no invisible “switch” that gets turned on and enables all mothers to know what to do as soon as they see their newborn babies. In reality, as I held my tiny newborn, I was clueless about how to get her to latch. Until I was in the hospital, the nurses held her and tried to help me latch her. Just as I was figuring things out, I was discharged and sent to my parent’s place.

At home, there was way too much to be done. Nobody had the time to sit with me and hold my newborn as I breastfed her every 2 hours, by the clock. I found it extremely difficult to hold her tiny, fragile body while ensuring a good latch.

My husband was not allowed to stay with me at my parents’ place, citing that it was a ritual to be followed until we named our baby. It was excruciating for both me and my husband to be away from each other. I desperately needed him around during this new, strange, and difficult phase. As parents, we wanted to spend at least small pockets of time alone with our baby. But none of that mattered to people who were excessively focusing on traditions and rituals while completely ignoring my emotional needs.

I felt extremely low and broke into tears randomly now and then. When I saw my husband the next day, I cried in his arms. All I heard from my family was how I was not thankful enough for having an uncomplicated delivery, and a healthy baby. People were irked by my “needless” crying, and I was asked to “stay positive” and keep myself happy. I was told that my milk supply would dwindle if I cried.

The invisible postpartum neuroendocrine storm

Pregnancy and childbirth cause changes in a woman that goes beyond the physical. If people could see visually what a massive storm my neurological and endocrinal system was experiencing, they might have been stunned. There is no fine-tuning between Progesterone and Estrogen, the pregnancy hormones, and Oxytocin and Prolactin, the postpartum hormones. They shift drastically, making new mothers often experience postpartum blues just like I did.

Pregnancy is also known to cause long-term neurological changes. The grey matter in a woman’s brain goes through what can be termed as a complete reorganization. The current understanding of this phenomenon is that this is an evolutionary change that happens in their brains, enabling a mother to sense her baby’s needs better.

Given that this is a completely natural and normal phenomenon, why do people still shame mothers for experiencing them? A mother can have a wonderful support system, feel very grateful for people around her, and STILL feel low. How do people assume that they are helping her by guilting her?

She is NOT a fussy mother, she is just listening to her instincts

10 days passed and it was my daughter’s naming ceremony. While the house teemed with 70-odd guests, I experienced a new type of anxiety that I’d never known.

There she was – my perfect little bundle whom I wanted to protect in every way possible. I wanted my baby to be handled only by her parents and grandparents. But I was the one person who had the least say in the events of that day. All that was expected of me was to make sure she was fed and changed, while she was passed from one hand to another. I felt powerless and watched the scene, wishing I could articulate what I was feeling.

What no one told me was this was a perfectly normal and natural maternal instinct. Even in the animal kingdom, this protective instinct is well-known and accepted. But if a new mother dares to listen to her innate feeling and express it, she is mostly labeled a fussy or a helicopter mom. I was scared to be judged and unfortunately did not voice out my concerns.

Every new mother must be given the space to voice out what she feels and to lay down boundaries around her baby’s care. Indian mothers are made to shoulder all the responsibility but are often not given any authority for decision-making.

This cripples an important part of Matrescence – the power of choosing how a mother wants to parent so that she feels empowered and connected to her child. It is time we stop seeing women as incapable of decision-making. In reality, the world would collapse without the micro-organization that women around the world silently do on an everyday basis.

The best gifts to support Matrescence – Understanding, Empathy, and Encouragement

Going through Matrescence has caused a huge shift in the way I interact with expectant and new mothers around me. I remember a time before motherhood when I went to visit a cousin who had just delivered her baby. She was constantly checking if her newborn was breathing. I found it extremely strange, and even a little funny at that point.

Now I have the insight to understand the anxiety that she must have had. I wish this was mainstream knowledge that every member of the family just knew as a fact. When I talk to expectant and new mothers now, I initiate conversations about their mental health and try to check on them regularly. When I visit a family that has just had a baby, I do not just go to play with the baby. I try to talk to the mother about her needs.

The next time you see a new mother struggling to find her ground in her new role, choose to empathize with her. She has had a huge change in her life in every possible way.

Rather than projecting stale stereotypes of motherhood onto her experience, attempt to understand it from her point of view.

Encourage her to follow her instincts, and make decisions – you will see her bloom through Matrescence.

Image credit – a still from the film The Namesake

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About the Author

Jayashree Ravi

An engineer turned SAHM of two who wants to be known beyond that. Passionate about words, parenting, making eco-friendly choices, feminism and lifelong learning. read more...

26 Posts | 20,115 Views

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