Where Did I Go?
Words by Shanthy Milne
We live in a society that romanticises the myth of the perfect mother: unconditionally devoted, self-sacrificing and infinitely capable. I went into motherhood idealising this myth and anticipating the arrival of an all-powerful new layer to my identity. I used to pride myself on my ability to adapt to change and I presumed these strengths were woven into the fabric of my DNA. But when reality hit, the arsenal of weaponry I’d been relying on to get me through motherhood was empty and I found myself exposed and vulnerable. Somehow, in becoming a mother I had become both the victim and perpetrator of my own identity theft.
My mind became the home of an imposter who opened the doors to unwelcome sentiments: anxiety, fear, loss and shame came flooding in. Meanwhile, the once defined boundaries of my body faded until it was unclear where I ended and my son began, leaving him tethered to me despite our umbilical cord having been severed. I existed solely for him. I suppressed aversions to this state of being that sometimes made my skin crawl. At the same time another part of me fought back with a love for him so deep it swelled like an ocean inside me, rocking me with waves of vertigo and causing my heart to ache for him.
Scrolling through Instagram, the posts I’ve most related to over the past two years since I’ve become a mother have been tagged with #speakthesecret or #postnataldepression. Yet in clinical terms, I known I am not ill. Although I am often still lost and struggling, I’m also often happy and always, always deeply in love with my son.
In the middle of the night, when I’m finally able to extract my nipple from his mouth and ever so carefully creep out of bed to scour the internet for reassurances over yet another parental anxiety, I’m most often confronted with one of two dialogues. First come the words of the flourishing mother, who knows herself and is joyfully nurturing a contented child. Then come the words of the mother whose struggles are the result of post-natal depression. In the void created by these binaries, my own experience was lost. I occupied a grey space from which I didn’t dare voice my feelings for fear of being judged—either for being ungrateful for the huge blessing I have in being a mother, or for admitting to difficulties that weren’t rooted in an illness.
Finally, after two years of searching I stumbled across something profound—a single word, powerful enough to gift me with the understanding and affirmation I so desperately needed: matrescence.
First coined in 1973 by the medical-anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also popularised the word Doula), matrescence describes, “the time of mother-becoming”. The term is deliberately evocative of adolescence and like adolescence it seeks to examine a transitional time in human development involving physical, psychological, social and spiritual disorientation and change. As Aurélie Athan, Head of the Maternal Psychology Lab at Columbia University explains; “Matrescence provides a destigmatizing and agentic lens for mothers of all kinds to identify, explore, cope with, and shape their destinies according to their own individual differences.”
Through her many conversations with mothers, Athan identifies what she calls the “hero’s journey” in which women, having made the decision to mother a child, become heroines. They are called to battle in a series of daunting trials, facing fears, anxieties and dangers that only the individual mother is equipped to overcome. Rarely is she aware of her own capabilities until she is put on trial and the survival of the mother and child are threatened. Emerging from her duals—maybe a little scathed—she is transformed into a richer, more mature version of herself. Such journeys are unique to each mother; complex and multifaceted in their design, yet all of them can be deciphered through the language and framework of matrescence.
For all the dissonance I felt between my body and mind, matrescence reminded me that on a cellular level they were still working together, unconsciously doing the evolutionary dance foretold to them. The rushes of oxytocin and prolactin my body and brain were producing and synchronizing had allowed me to breastfeed and respond to my sons needs; but studies also suggest those same hormones could well have triggered my anxieties. At no other point in life is a body called upon to sustain human life, and through the lens of matrescence, it makes sense that this hormonal activity was one of many factors that left me so disorientated.
Historically, the study of childbirth has always focused on the foetus and as is too often the case, the female experience has been sidelined. Whilst there is a cross-cultural acceptance of the seismic upheaval brought on by adolescence and multiple avenues of support exist for those in its grasp, the same consideration is not afforded to mothers, despite hormonal activity during matrescence outweighing that of adolescence.
Motherhood transforms women on a neurobiological level, affecting the very mechanisms that control who we are and how we act. Our minds, bodies, relationships and friendships have been realigned—even our wider view of the world and our place within it has shifted, permanently. Despite this, we expect mothers to emerge from childbirth as glowing versions of their former selves with newly awakened mothering instincts suddenly engaged. Through its ability to encompass all fields of maternal study; from biology and psychology through to midwifery and complimentary therapy, matrescence provides logical explanations for why, conversely, my mothering instincts played out via fear and anxiety and my old self was someone I could no longer recognise or live up to.
As a society we are accustomed to suppressing the lived stories of women despite all our origin stories beginning with mothers. Consequently, many mothers find themselves alone and unprotected at a time when they are most vulnerable and most needed.
It’s only with the language of matrescence and its affirmation of what mothers go through —particularly the silent majority who are neither flourishing nor ill—that we can begin to reconcile the loss of our former selves with our new identities. Not just as mothers, but also as individuals.