Why Mothers Need Matrescence
A developmental approach to maternal mental health
By Allison Davis
When I became a mother I was an adolescent psychotherapist supporting young people in the often disorienting process of becoming an adult. I understood adolescence as a time when young people face physical, psychological, behavioral, social, and ecological challenges as they mature into adulthood. I also understood this developmental period as a vulnerable time requiring specialized support that, if lacking, could lead to significant problems later in life. What I did not understand, however, was that my transition into motherhood was a comparable transitional process.
In 1973, Dana Raphael, a medical anthropologist who studied breastfeeding and birth, coined the term matrescence and described this life stage as fundamental to the physical and social standing of a woman. Matrescence was later applied to the field of maternal mental health to emphasize its psychosocial aspects and to give primacy to mothers’ felt experiences, particularly changes in their identity and worldview (Athan & Reel, 2015). Yet another way to describe matrescence is to understand it as a holistic change across many interrelated domains, or the bio-psycho-social-ecological-spiritual realities of an individual, to name a few (Athan, 2022; Athan & Reel, 2015; Davis & Athan, 2023). Matrescence is the process of becoming a mother: a developmental passage encompassing pre-conception, pregnancy, birth, surrogacy, adoption, and the postnatal period and beyond and everyone who cares for a child within the social construction of motherhood.
Why Matrescence Matters
After I gave birth the first time, I needed mental health support. I experienced a range of symptoms similar to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) such as sadness, anger, guilt, lack of interest and motivation, worry and hypervigilance, and self-doubt. So it made some sense that my therapist focused on helping me adapt to my new role. Unfortunately, conventional perinatal mental health models left me feeling disempowered, overwhelmed, and a bit lost. When I went searching for a developmental way to understand my postpartum experience in alignment with the work I did with young people, I realized just how much matrescence shares with adolescence, including the disorientation and reorientation experience of a major life transition. Bringing a developmental approach to my own life, I could see that matrescence was a time ripe with potential for personal growth if understood as such and provided with specialized support to help navigate the transition.
Contributions to Maternal Mental Health
From Doing to Being
Matrescence centers mothers’ experiences, challenging the child-centeredness that has problematically defined many maternal health interventions. Upon reflection as a new mother, I realized that I had objectified mothers in my adolescent work, as mothers are often reduced to objects in their children’s psychological history as the cause of mental health challenges. To ask mothers who they are becoming, rather than what they are doing to or for a child, is an important shift in perspective. Centering mothers in their own experience helps mothers develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to more effectively support their mental health in a vulnerable life transition. At the same time, attuning to who a mother is becoming more deeply honors the ways that both mother and child dynamically shape one another through their intimate relationship rather than imagine that development is only ever happening from adult to child (Athan & Reel, 2015).
Matrescence represents a significant departure from conventional clinical approaches to perinatal distress, as it focuses on how mothers develop as they take on caring for children. Research is fast highlighting the transformations in brain structure, cognitive strengths, relational thinking, core values, and even spiritual experience that occur through the transition into motherhood. The changes happen quickly and reshape a person in foundational and often surprising ways. However, if unrecognized as such, these rapid changes can contribute to a distressful and disorienting postpartum experience. I’ve had mothers tell me their values seemed to change so much in a matter of weeks that they could not return to the work they did prior to becoming a mother. Alternatively, naming the transitional experiences and accompanying distress as a part of the developmental process can open up strategies to work with the growth inevitable in this period.
Growth and Growing Pains
Matrescence approaches the perinatal and postpartum period as one ripe with opportunities for personal growth. From the dynamic neural changes in mothers’ brains that supports caregiver-infant relationships (Kim, 2016) to a broadened spiritual perspective as a result of the commitment to caring for a child through adoption, marriage, or conception (Athan & Miller, 2013), we are just beginning to understand the psychological transformation mothers experience. A focus on biomedical symptoms divorced from the underlying development happening can undermine this potential by leaving out the deeper underpinnings of early parenting. While I was initially avoidant of exploring my grief around dramatic lifestyle changes because of a taboo to explore sadness in motherhood, matrescence helped me to understand the growing pains I was experiencing were meaningful—actually attuning me to exciting changes in my relationships.
Continuum of Distress
Matrescence helps us better understand distress as existing along a continuum. Motherhood is often presented as extremes of soap opera happiness or pathologized as “postpartum,” a term used as shorthand for a clinical diagnosis rather than a period after giving birth. However, maternal distress can be better understood along a bell curve, with mothers on one end meeting criteria for clinically significant perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, those in the middle experiencing average and manageable stress, and on the other end, psychological flourishing (Athan, 2022). Indeed, exciting research in maternal mental health demonstrates that a high level of stress and emotional intensity may actually be a prerequisite for the positive, growth-producing impact of this transition (Taubman-Ben-Ari et al., 2021).
Focus of Support
Recognizing the specialized support mothers require in matrescence can empower mothers as they are rapidly becoming new versions of themselves. Unfortunately, the parenting industry tends to focus on children’s needs and wellbeing while relegating mothers’ desires, needs, and experiences to the background. As a result, all too often motherhood represents a loss of agency and self expression for people along with the difficulty of self-recognition that can happen when social identity subsumes individual identity. Rather than expert-driven, external, and prescriptive ideas of mothering, with matrescence mothers can lean into the developmental drive of their transition to create the mothering role as unique reflections of their most authentic selves in relation to the needs of their children.
Having matrescence theory transformed my experience of becoming a mother. This mother-centered psychological interpretation offered me a vital shift from the perspective of “something is wrong with me” to “what I’m feeling is a valid response to the transition into motherhood.” It helped me recognize that challenging emotional experiences were already adaptive to the disorienting attempt to transform myself into a completely new way of being without the same recognition and support we offer other developmental life events like adolescence (Davis & Athan, 2023). And with this reframe, matrescence continues to help me better identify and advocate for the holistic support I need on my developmental path towards becoming the mother I want to become.
Allison Davis, PhD, is a counselor, educator, and researcher of maternal mental health. She’s in private practice in Santa Fe where she specializes in treating perinatal and postpartum environmental distress, teaches in the masters clinical counseling program at Alliant International University, and is the matrescence research fellow in the maternal psychology lab at Teachers College, Columbia University. For questions and inquiries you can reach Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Athan, A. (2022). Matrescence like adolescence: Developmental and clinical implications. Unpublished manuscript.
Athan, A., & Reel, H. L. (2015). Maternal psychology: Reflections on the 20th anniversary of deconstructing developmental psychology. Feminism & Psychology, 25(3), 311-325. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0959353514562804
Athan, A. & Miller, L. (2013.) Motherhood as opportunity to learn spiritual values: Experiences and insights of new mothers. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 27(4), 220-253.
Davis, A. & Athan, A. (2023). “Mothers’ psychoecological development and maternal ecodistress.” Ecopsychology.
Kim P. (2016). Human Maternal Brain Plasticity: Adaptation to Parenting. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2016(153), 47–58. https://doi.org/10.1002/cad.20168
Taubman-Ben-Ari, O., Chasson, M., Horowitz, E., Azuri, J., & Davidi, O. (2021). Personal growth in early pregnancy: the role of perceived stress and emotion regulation. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 1–13. Advance online publication. https:// doi.org/ 10.1080/02646838.2021.1925096