Matrescence: Navigating New Motherhood & Postpartum Health

by | Oct 29, 2023 | Feminine Leadership, Motherhood and Parenting, Personal, Somatic Mental Health, Women's Health and Fitness

Have you heard the debate about which transition into motherhood is harder? Is it going from zero to one kid? One to two? Two to three?

In my opinion, it’s always going from zero to one for one very specific reason: matrescence.

Matrescence is the physical, psychological, emotional (and therefore, lifestyle) changes that happen after birthing your child. 

We can definitely say that you go through an episode of matrescence after each birth, however, the initial transition from maiden to mother is the most profound.

I really struggled after the birth of my daughter (my first born), and I had the added pleasure of birthing her in 2020 during COVID. The transition of maiden to mother on top of all of the physiological changes was a major contributing factor to my postpartum depression (PPD).

The years following that first year postpartum taught me so much about myself, and I want to give some of the knowledge back to you today. I think if I had simply known about matrescence before I was living it, it would have been easier for me to access self-compassion and know other tools to use to help navigate through such a huge life transition. That’s what I hope this article will help you with today.

 

Understanding Matrescence

 

The experience we know as matrescence was first named in the 1970’s by Dana Rapahel, but wasn’t researched further until recently. During this research, it was Dr. Aurelie Athan’s explanation of “matrescence is like adolscence” that brought much more context and understanding to the transition period. 

Adolescence is the process of moving from child to adult – and it takes years and many awkward and uncomfortable changes spanning the areas of hormonal, social, physical, and more. The same holds true for the transition from maiden to mother, the only difference is that it’s not given as much grace.

As new mothers, joy and overwhelming love seem to be the only emotions that are allowed to exist. If you are feeling resentment, exhaustion, anger, sadness, guilt, or a myriad of other things…well…keep it to yourself.

Thankfully, science is now showing us that this transition is so much more difficult and complex than just feeling the joy of a new baby. Not only has the baby been birthed, but a mother has been birthed as well.

 

Pregnancy, Postpartum, Maternity

Photo by Jill Barrile

During pregnancy and postpartum not only are hormones changing constantly, but the brain of the mother actually changes as well. Neuroplasticity is increased (the ability for your brain to adapt to change and learn new things) which allows for a greater capacity to grow into a new role and be more alert for your baby. Additionally, oxytocin production and receptors increase as well. This is the love hormone and aids in the bonding of mother and baby as well as helping to keep the mother relaxed.

While oxytocin is increased, estrogen and progesterone dramatically decrease after giving birth. This can result in what is known as the “baby blues”. Baby blues should only last for a few days – but if you are finding that mood swings are more prevalent or increasing in frequency and intensity, greater support may be needed.

Even though all these really cool changes are happening, just like adolescence, it can feel awkward and scary to travel this new unknown path – only this time you aren’t learning how to navigate the world as an adult, you are learning to care for an entire other human in addition to the new needs of yourself.

It’s natural to feel a range of emotions a this time, but there are signs to look for that may indicate additional support is needed if you are traveling down the path of postpartum health disorders. Read on to learn what those are and how you can find support.

Recognizing Postpartum Mental Health Challenges

 

So what happens after giving birth?

  • You have just gone through an intense physical challenge – not just pregnancy, but labor, vaginal and cesarean births are all physical traumas that require recovery.
  • Intense hormonal changes that effect your emotions and cognitive function
  • Exhaustion
  • Immediate and dramatic changes to daily living which will require adjustment
  • Shift in responsibilities and identity
  • Potential isolation if there is a lack of support or “village” to help mother and baby
  • Changes in relationship to spouse, friends, family, and work environment
  • Changes to societal perceptions
  • Physical body changes and personal body image

Just one of these conditions can impact the possibility of increased mental health challenges, and mothers go through all of them….with very little support.

I don’t want to get on my soapbox and channel my sacred rage to the HORRIBLE treatment and support of mothers – even worse for those in the BIPOC community – so I will leave this little tidbit here: get support. Make it part of your prenatal plan to research and plan for as much support as you think you may need, and even some you don’t. We’ll dive into what kind of support you can look for a bit later in the article.  For now, let’s get back to recognizing symptoms.

Common Postpartum Mental Health Disorders

We already discussed baby blues which occurs a few days after giving birth due to the sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen. This should only last for a few days or maybe a week. Approximately 70-80% of mothers experience baby blues to some degree. If you feel like baby blues are lasting longer than 2 weeks, it may be time to consider one of the following conditions and work with a physician:

Postpartum Depression (PPD), Postpartum Anxiety (PPA), Postpartum OCD, Postpartum PTSD, Bipolar Mood Disorders, and Postpartum Psychosis (this is very rare).

All of which you can read more about here.

Signs & Symptoms to Watch For

If you are struggling to get past the baby blues, feel disconnected from your baby, have racing thoughts about your baby or your birth – these are all signs that it may be time to seek additional support. The above link has symptoms and risk facts listed for every condition.

Some symptoms to watch for are:

  • Anger & irritability
  • Racing and/or intrusive thoughts
  • Lack of interest in the baby
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Inability to sit still
  • Hyper-vigilance in protecting the infant
  • Flashbacks or nightmares pertaining to the birth
  • Rapid mood swings

Personally, I struggled with postpartum rage (a symptom of postpartum depression). This is how I knew it was time for me to seek help. 

Prior to my first pregnancy, my nervous system had a low tolerance for stress. I had struggled with depression before but no one ever talked to me about my nervous system. I was managing my small window of tolerance by withdrawing and appeasing. Withdrawing was my preferred method – and I would veg out on TV shows and have “do nothing” days. Well, this wasn’t a possible coping mechanism anymore with a newborn in the middle of COVID, and my body just snapped. My nervous system couldn’t handle the pressure because my coping mechanisms weren’t available to me anymore – so I frequently broke down with fits of rage because I was trying so hard to hold all of my frustrations inside like I used to.

I started therapy 6 months postpartum but didn’t start medication until 18 months postpartum because I wasn’t given accurate information on how to utilize medication for healing and not become dependent on it (which is what I didn’t want). The medication has helped me really be able to ground into the tools of nervous system regulation and stretch my tolerance over time – something I would not have been able to do without it.

 

Empowered pregnancy

Photos by Jill Barrile

Navigating Postpartum & Matrescence with Empowerment

 

Now that you know that there is a process to becoming a mother that you can expect, how do you prepare for it?

1. Acknowledge the Transition

Simply accepting and naming that you are going through matrescence – and / or postpartum mental health struggles – can give you a sense of relief. Why? Validation. All of us desire to be seen and heard – acknowledgement and validation of your own experience is seeing yourself. Additionally, you cannot move forward with a helpful support plan if you don’t acknowledge the situation you are in.

2. Embrace Self-Compassion

So many of us are way too hard on ourselves, when the fact is: as a new mom, you should have WAY more support than you are guarenteed to have. This lack of support is NOT your fault! Over generations, we have moved away from community-based living and it’s hurting mothers and families. Giving yourself grace through this process is key. You are not going to know what to do, in fact, you are going to fuck up a lot. You are learning, and a lot of us are learning under high stress. Be kind to yourself. If you are struggling, try this exercise I do with clients.

3. Prioritize Self-Care & Well-Being

We are going to talk about establishing your support network in a moment, but that support system should reflect your needs. Without question, your needs for health and well-being should be top priority alongside your baby’s. You cannot take care of your baby if you are not well. You deserve to have this transition be as easy and supportive as possible, and your baby deserves a happy, healthy mother. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself….read that again: IT IS NOT SELFISH TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. In fact, I would argue that it’s the work of a stubborn martyr to neglect their own health and well-being for the well-being of everyone else in their household.

 

 

Strategies for Supporting Postpartum Mental Health

 

Building a Support System

Any time I’m working with a new mom or mom-to-be and she asks me what she should know or prepare for postpartum, my number one answer without question is always: get support!

But, what does this mean?

Support is going to look different for every mother depending on her medical history, birth history and personal needs and desires. Needed support will also change as she enters matresence and learns more about herself and her baby and what support for them might look like.

When my daughter was born, we had zero support. None (thanks COVID). I was drowning. In hindsight I would have tried to have my mom stay with us for a while, but COVID was still so new and we didn’t want to chance any visitors with a newborn.

When my son was born this past June of 2023, I knew the kind of support I needed based on how I had grown as a mother (and a woman) over the past 3 years. I could base my support off of my own values and goals for motherhood and personal health and wellness, and the knowledge I gained from my struggle the first time around.

This time, my mother stayed with us for a few days, my in-laws where at our house two days after he was born to visit and help out, my neighbor came and made us dinner and I was frequently offered kind words. Another neighbor of mine, a mother of two and expecting her third just 6 weeks away at the time messaged me to ask me how it was going. I told her how loved and supported I felt. She responded with “this is what it’s supposed to be like”. I wept.

Any mother’s support system starts with her doctor or midwife. Throughout pregnancy, you should feel confident and comfortable with whatever qualified persons are taking care of you and your baby up until (and after) the birth – but we fall short in thinking about additional support after birth.

My support system looked like this with my son:

  • Mom staying with us for the first few days
  • Husband looking after my daughter the majority of the time
  • Netflix and chill in my bed for the first 2 weeks at least
  • Gift cards for take out from family and friends
  • Pelvic floor therapy during pregnancy and postpartum
  • Continued therapy throughout
  • Plan to continue my antidepressant at least until 1 year postpartum
  • Adrenal cocktails and supplements to keep my electrolytes and minerals up
  • Asking for help and letting people take the baby when I needed a little bit more sleep
  • Saying “yes” to visitors when my body said “yes”, and saying “no” when my body said “no”

Other support options may be:

  • Childcare
  • Birth and postpartum doula
  • Infant sleep consultant
  • House keeper
  • Grocery drop off
  • And more…

Open Communication with Healthcare Providers

As mentioned above, having support of healthcare providers should already be top of your list. And if your intuition tells you at any time that you are working with the wrong provider, leave!

The first OBGYN practice that I was at with my daughter had many positive reviews – and still does – but by the time I was 26 weeks pregnant, almost all of my experiences with them were negative. As a result, I changed offices and felt so much more supported through the rest of my pregnancy. Don’t hesitate to do the same! Listen to the podcast where I talk about my experience here.

I made sure I had plenty of healthcare providers that I could trust. Mainly my OB, Physical Therapist, Therapist, and Pediatrician. I know that if I started struggling with postpartum mental health I could have talked with any one of them. In fact, every single one of them asked me several times how I was doing.

Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself – your providers should always be on your side. And again, if they aren’t, find someone who is.

Holistic Self-Care Practices

Check out this blog post for my top ten self-care tips for moms. Many of these will be very relevant during postpartum. However, your top two self-care practices postpartum are to rest and know when to ask for help.

When it comes to other ways to care for your health such as nutrition and exercise, listen to your body and enter back into physical activity slowly. I highly recommend seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist for an evaluation and help with tailoring the right exercises for you.

In regards to your mental health, continue to check in with yourself. If you fear you may be struggling, please reach out to your provider. If it’s a challenge to find someone you trust, schedule a 15-30 minute discovery session with me FREE of charge so that I may help guide you in a direction that could serve your best interests. My mini coaching package would be perfect for new moms trying to establish a foundation for physical and mental health moving forward. Schedule that here.

 

How Coaching Can Support Your Transition 

Coaching vs. Therapy

Coaching and Therapy can feel very similar. Both are conversations held with qualified practitioners in an effort to help you heal and feel your best.

Much of therapy is still cognitive-based, and many “mindfulness” coaching uses the same approach. This is called a “top down” approach and can be very effective. The premise is that your thoughts and belief systems are affecting your state of stress in the body. But it’s not always as effective in really transforming and embodying a new state of being. That’s why I use somatic coaching.

Somatic coaching is a body-based, or “bottom up” approach. This style works with nervous system regulation and transformations within the body to establish that sense of embodiment of a new state of being which then affects the thoughts and belief systems. I utilize both top-down and bottom-up when necessary.

My coaching focuses on goal-oriented work and embodying the mother and person you want to become. If at any time I feel that therapy would be a better fit, I bring that to the attention to every client that therapy may apply to. It’s important to me that I always get clients connected to the optimal care for their needs.

Working Through Matrescence

To work through Matrescence, I help you figure out your needs and establish a support system and then work on regulating tools to help manage the transition and stressors as they arise. Many of my clients appreciate having me available to not only work through the transition at hand, but also my ability to suggest other providers when I notice there may be a need for additional professional support.

My focus is on mental and physical health, so I make sure that all of my clients are working through a holistic lens to address their health goals. Establishing a coaching relationship pre-natal or postpartum prior to there being any concerning issues present is a great way to work on skills when your nervous system is already in a relaxed state so you are prepared for the transition to come.

All mothers deserve a personalized support to their maiden to motherhood transition. Women have always worked in community with each other – let me be part of yours.

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