What You'll Learn
- What Matrescence Is and Why It Impacts Us So Much
- The Big Picture of Becoming a Mom
- The Difference in Expectations and Reality When Becoming a Mom
- Intensive Mothering and Its Impact on Matrescence
- The Lack of Preparation and Training for Becoming a Mom
- Why It’s Important to Talk About Matrescence
Becoming a mom changes you in so many ways. But we are often not prepared for the shift. Matrescence, or the transition into motherhood, is complex—full of ups, downs, struggles, and a roller coaster of emotions.
Today, I’m joined by reproductive psychiatrist Dr. Catherine Birndorf, founder of The Motherhood Center, to talk about navigating matrescence and what we experience when becoming a mom.
Becoming a Mom Changed Me
For as long as I can remember, I strived for perfection. I always pushed myself to excel, to do more–a perfectionist behavior often rewarded in academics, work, and society.
But when I became a mom, everything felt like it turned sideways. No matter how hard I pushed myself, I struggled. No matter how hard I tried, it never felt like I could get it right or like I was doing a good job.
I couldn’t understand what was so hard. Wasn’t this just what every mom went through? Weren’t other moms doing this easily? Why couldn’t I just get it?
The truth was that I was far from alone in my struggles. More often than not, becoming a mom isn’t what we envision.
We talk about the joyful moments. We post photos of cuddles and kisses. But we don’t share how hard it is.
So when we do struggle, we feel like we’re the only ones not cut out for the job.
I believe that if I had entered motherhood with different expectations—understanding more about how hard it is emotionally and how difficult the invisible load is to cope with—I would have been more prepared. Perhaps my matrescence wouldn’t have been quite so much of a struggle (or at least I wouldn’t have felt so alone).
It’s important to talk about the ups and downs—not to scare moms or discourage them—but so they know that they are not alone, that it’s okay to struggle, and that it’s all right to ask for help.
I value the work that Dr. Catherine is doing. Her book, What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, captures the journey to becoming a mom and the big picture of matrescence so well. I couldn’t wait to pick her brain about this transition.
What Matrescence Is and Why It Impacts Us So Much
Dr. Catherine specialized in reproductive psychiatry after seeing how hard it is for moms to access the maternal mental health care they need and how much struggle they experience in the medical system. She founded the Motherhood Center for the same reason.
A large part of her work has centered around normalizing the struggles moms face during matrescence—the transition period of becoming a mom, building a new identity, and adapting to the role.
Dr. Catherine pointed out that moms often aren’t prepared for the rocky road into the biggest life change they’ll ever go through. One moment, we have a baby inside us, and the next minute, they’re in our arms and we’re a mom. It’s almost too big to comprehend.
Moms often aren’t prepared for the rocky road into the biggest life change they’ll ever go through.
She said that researching and talking about matrescence, and putting real words to the experience is important.
We go through so much to grow a human being and bring them into the world—it’s no wonder we become a different person afterward. But finding the balance between who we were, who we are as moms, and who we want to be is tricky.
The Big Picture of Becoming a Mom
Dr. Catherine also said that she wished she understood the big picture first. She loves being a mom, and considers it to be the most profound journey she has had the privilege to experience. But she does wish that she had considered it with more intention, rather than just becoming a mom because she thought that’s what she was supposed to do.
Dr. Catherine emphasized that motherhood is not just joy and happiness—it’s also ambivalence. It’s not perfect or horrible, but a mixed bag of the good and the bad and everything in between, often all at once.
Motherhood is a mixed bag of the good and the bad and everything in between, often all at once.
When we have romanticized ideals of motherhood, and then we experience the utter chaos of being a first-time moms, navigating struggles, and not knowing what to do can be jarring. It often becomes a shameful secret rather than something we share and talk about.
But if we can talk about everything—the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the beauty and the chaos, we can understand that what we’re going through isn’t something to be ashamed of or to keep a secret.
The Difference in Expectations and Reality When Becoming a Mom
One of the concepts Dr. Catherine talks about in her book is the “ideal baby.” When we’re expecting a baby, we start to visualize what the baby might look like, act like, and be like.
We start to form a fantasy about who are baby will be and what our relationship will look like. It's completely natural to think about the future—and it makes sense that we will form these ideas.
But in reality, we have no way of knowing what our baby’s temperament or appearance will be like. So when the baby is born and the expectations don’t align with reality, it can feel disconcerting.
If the reality is drastically different, it can lead to a lot of distress.
There is a lot of value in understanding how to be flexible in our expectations—not just about who our baby will be but about many aspects of motherhood, such as feeding, sleeping, or even whether we want more children.
There is a lot of value in understanding how to be flexible in our expectations.
What we envisioned doesn’t always align with reality. But when we’re presented with new data or new information, we can reevaluate and recalibrate our expectations and ideals. This is particularly difficult for moms with perfectionistic personalities (I certainly experienced it myself)!
But there is so much about motherhood that is not in our control. If we cling to our expectations despite reality, it becomes a form of self-torture.
Intensive Mothering and Its Impact on Matrescence
We’re also mothering in a unique time in history—the era of intensive mothering. This ideology tells us that in order to be “perfect moms,” we must sacrifice every bit of our time, energy, and resources, and attend to our children’s every need at each moment.
But the pressure that comes with those expectations can be harmful to moms, leading us to constantly be seeking an impossible standard of perfection.
In parenting, there is often no “rightness.” There is no point of mastery. There is no moment where we can say, “Oh, I’ve nailed this, I’ll never make another mistake.”
If we can’t accept our own humanity, we’re going to continue to struggle with our reality as moms.
If we can’t accept our own humanity, we’re going to continue to struggle with our reality as moms.
Intensive mothering ideology can also leave us feeling unsure of our own identity. Before becoming a mom, we might identify ourselves as any number of things. A career-focused person. An artist. Someone who cares about helping other people.
When we become moms, though, we often struggle to know who we are. Our responsibilities, values, and priorities can shift. And yet, we still might want to hold onto pieces of who we were, or to seek new passions or interests outside of motherhood.
But intensive mothering ideology tells us that we shouldn’t seek anything outside of motherhood—that the role of “mom” should fulfill us entirely. This can leave us feeling confused, struggling with identity loss during our matrescence, and experiencing guilt for wanting more.
The Lack of Preparation and Training for Becoming a Mom
There is often an expectation that we will have “mother’s intuition” or naturally be good at parenting. However, in reality, parenting isn’t innate—it’s a collection of skills that need to be learned and developed.
But nobody trains us or prepares us for the role. I often reflect on the fact that when I was in university working as a Starbucks barista I received so much more training than I ever did to prepare me for becoming a mom.
Parenting has no manual—we’re thrown into the deep end in this very important, high-stakes role.
Dr. Catherine pointed out that when she had a baby they only verified that she had a car seat (even though she didn’t even have a car). Other than that, they sent her home with no help or guidance.
It makes sense that we struggle. We’re tossed into a new role—one that is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding—with no preparation and often without support.
Why It’s Important to Talk About Matrescence
More than anything, Dr. Catherine wants moms to be prepared and understand that they are not alone.
We can’t necessarily overload moms with everything that they are going to expect—every difficult task, every bit of invisible labor, and every emotional upheaval. It’s a lot to take in.
But we can normalize the difficulty. We can encourage realistic expectations. And we can emphasize the need for support.
Dr. Catherine pointed out that moms are tough—we can handle being told that the role is difficult. And when we are prepared, we can enter motherhood with more open eyes, ready to notice our emotional changes and shifts, ready to face a sometimes difficult matrescence, and ready to navigate all the ups and downs of becoming a mom.
The more we equip moms with information, the more they can also understand what is part of a typical postpartum experience, and what might be a sign that they need more help.
If we stop staying silent about things like postpartum depression and anxiety, then we can prepare moms to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms. We can reduce blaming and shaming and secrecy and encourage moms to break stigmas, seek help, and advocate for themselves.
If you’re struggling with the transition into becoming a mom, our maternal mental health therapists are here to help! Book a free 15 minute virtual consult today!