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I needed a do-over. I had given birth just two days earlier, and I wanted to try again. “Let’s have another baby,” I told my husband. My newborn son, Max, and I were healthy, but the delivery had gone badly, and I knew I could do a better job. Next time I would push harder. Then they wouldn’t have to use forceps, and I wouldn’t have a third-degree tear. Or maybe next time I’d just ask for a cesarean. The second time around I’d definitely remember to do skin-to-skin as soon as my newborn was placed in my arms. And I’d know how to breastfeed. Next time I wouldn’t have a breakdown trying to get the baby into the car seat so we could take him home from the hospital. And I wouldn’t yell at my mother for suggesting we get a nurse to help fasten him in. “I just wanted it to be perfect!” I told her through tears.
While my intense desire to re-do the delivery faded along with the post-partum hormones, the feeling that I wasn’t very good at being a very good mom stuck with me throughout my year-long maternity leave. For a decade, building my career was my priority, and when I was pregnant I looked forward to both the hiatus from work and to nurturing a baby. But much of the time during my mat leave, I felt simultaneously overwhelmed, under-stimulated, and not at home in my own skin. Some of the changes were expected (darker nipples, fuller breasts, duller hair), and some were not. I couldn’t tolerate seeing violence on TV, I stopped listening to my regular pop-culture and news podcasts, which were either irrelevant or infuriating (Donald Trump had defeated Hilary Clinton five days before Max was born), and I went from checking my Twitter feed hourly to a full withdrawal from the platform (I was in the new-mom bubble; the Toronto media bubble was insignificant). And while I knew that my daily routine would change dramatically, I didn’t anticipate how that would destabilize me.
I suddenly went from killing it at work to feeling like there was a distinct possibility I could kill my baby — I had zero confidence in taking care of an infant. Which is not uncommon. “For many women who work outside of home and are then removed from that atmosphere, they may not get the type of self-esteem boosts they would normally,” says Dr. Simone Vigod, the chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “Especially when you’re a new mom and you have no idea if you’re doing anything right. It can be very confusing when you come from a life before where you were actually pretty good at doing things.” I had been pretty good at doing things before. Now: not so much. I didn’t have the symptoms of post-partum depression, but shouldn’t I be happier? I felt, for a long time, like I didn’t know who I was. One of my journal entries from that time reads: “How can I be a person who also happens to be a mom?”
Not everyone struggles with figuring out who they are when they become a parent. But the transition is a profound one — so much so that it’s considered a developmental stage similar to adolescence. Like those challenging teen years, matrescence — by definition, the transition into motherhood — is marked by mental, physical, social, and hormonal changes that can leave you feeling like you don’t even know who you are anymore. Unlike adolescence, most people haven’t heard of matrescence, a term coined in the ’70s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael. (She also came up with “doula.”) When women are in matrescence there’s a see-saw of emotions that can be confusing to sort through: There’s so much beauty and joy in becoming a new mom, partially thanks to the hormonal rush of feel-good oxytocin that helps bond us to our babies and shifts our focus to caring for them. (Twitter, what?) At the same time, women (and all new parents) experience changes in their sleep, bodies, relationships, finances, sex lives, and pretty much everything else, including their ability to find time to shower. “It's this awkward transition — you're entering a stage of life you've never been in before and it's not just emotional, it's physical too,” says Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a New York–based reproductive psychiatrist who’s a leading expert on matrescence, a term she says is inclusive of anyone who identifies with a motherhood journey.
With a Ted Talk and podcast, Motherhood Sessions, Sacks uncovers this complex emotional terrain we navigate as new moms. Having a label like matrescence is important because it encompasses the wide range of experiences and emotions tied to becoming a mom. We tend to have a very black-or-white view of motherhood. There’s the snuggly mom-and-baby pics on Instagram and in advertising, and every scene of a woman giving birth in a movie or on TV has her weeping with joy when she meets her baby. Or there’s awareness campaigns for post-partum depression. Even prenatal classes only talk about the few weeks of “baby blues” or clinical PPD. The reality for most of us, says Sacks, is somewhere between those two poles. “Most human relationships are a combination of gratifying and challenging and satisfying and disappointing — that's true for people’s relationships with their careers, relationships with themselves, and with their children, too.” Many of us experience negative emotions as parents that don’t meet a clinical diagnosis of post-partum depression or anxiety, which is why an understanding of matrescence is helpful. “There is an epidemic of shame and guilt where mothers may be falling in the wide range of normal and natural feelings that are other than bliss, and wonder if they're alone,” says Sacks. This means they “may not be speaking openly about what ultimately are very natural feelings and the downside of this is that social isolation can actually lead to depression.” I’ll always be grateful to the friend who took me aside while I was pregnant and told me how she felt like she was in a fog for much of her maternity leave. “Sometimes it’s really hard,” she said. At the time, her honesty scared me, but when I was struggling, those words were a comfort.
Speaking openly is harder than it seems. While we talk about some of the sucky parts of parenthood (sleep deprivation and even breastfeeding struggles are on the table), there are taboos around how it should feel to be a parent. (Apparently it should feel hard but rewarding.) “There has been a misconception in our culture that if you say that you don't like motherhood, it is synonymous with you don’t like your child,” says Sacks. “And that's not okay, you can not like the world of motherhood sometimes and still love your child all the time.”
For any mother who doesn’t feel the way they think they’re supposed to — maybe you didn’t have that instant maternal bond, maybe you don’t find your newborn particularly interesting, or maybe you don’t feel much of anything — opening the conversation around matrescence is vital. And I mean that literally. One of the best ways to not feel so alone or like you’re failing at everything, according to experts, is to talk with other parents IRL — to be brave enough to share what you’re going through.
Equally important is releasing the tremendous amount of pressure put on women to reach some kind of ideal of motherhood. That pressure starts in the delivery room and never lets up. Breastfeeding, tummy time, the baby’s development, baby food, your weight — it’s all loaded with expectations. And it doesn’t help that being on mat or pat leave means you’re tethered to social media, looking for community and connection, but often just comparing yourself and your baby to others. In a Refinery29 survey of Canadian moms about their social media habits, 82% said they compare themselves to other mothers at least some of the time. The top two ways they felt they were falling short of other moms: In the way their bodies looked and in having fun family activities. My own therapist is blunt about mommy influencers: Don’t follow them; most of it is bull-shit.
Both Sacks and Vigod say what we should strive for is not Instagram-worthy flawlessness but for being a “good-enough mother,” a term coined by British pediatrician Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. “We shouldn’t try to be perfect parents for our kids,” says Vigod. “What they really need to see is that we are good enough and when we do something that isn’t quite right, we are able to still feel like we have value.” This sounds reasonable, but also nearly impossible for many of us to put into practice, as a parent or as a person. Up until I became a mom, I had done pretty well by holding myself to high standards. (My therapist would call them unrelenting.) But when you’re a mom, there’s no such thing as being a high-achiever. We can only do our best. And that’s good enough.