new mom

The Identity Transformation of Becoming a Mom

Collage: Stevie Remsberg

NEW MOM explores the brilliant, terrible, wonderful, confusing realities of first-time motherhood. It’s for anybody who wants to be a new mom, is a new mom, was a new mom, or wants really good reasons to never be a new mom.

When I was 11 years old, I woke up from minor abdominal surgery and noticed spidery purple lines running up my hip. I assumed they were somehow caused by the surgery, but, being a self-conscious preteen, didn’t want to look stupid by asking. It scared me a bit that they didn’t go away as the weeks passed following my hospital stay, but they didn’t hurt, so I never told anyone. It was years before I finally realized that they were stretch marks — just the first of all kinds of adolescent changes, physical and emotional, that no one had prepared me for. I, like my friends, was mostly left to figure it out for myself, and try not to embarrass myself too much in the process; all of us, at least, took comfort in the fact that we were doing so in a culture that’s fully aware of adolescence as a difficult, awkward time in a young person’s life. I could find some sympathy for my more ridiculous missteps.

My preteen stretch marks had long since faded to a silvery white whisper by the time I had my first child. Like becoming an adult, that experience was replete with bodily changes I hadn’t been warned about (hello, clogged milk ducts; hello, weird dark line down my stomach). This time around, though, there didn’t seem to be a lot of understanding from the world around me about what I was going through. The late nights and diaper blowouts, yes, but not the sensation of feeling like I inhabited a body that wasn’t my own, or the moments of deep ambivalence about what I had taken on. “Enjoy your baby,” people told me. “These times go by so fast.” True. But what about me? Where did I go?

The term “matrescence,” coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the mid-’70s and brought into common use in psychology by clinical psychologist Aurelie Athan, head of the maternal psychology lab at Columbia University, describes a woman’s transition into parenthood. The term deliberately evokes the passage into adulthood — adolescence — though the two aren’t exactly on equal footing in our collective consciousness.

“We’re familiar with the hormonal, body, and emotional changes that have been described in teenagers, and that they can create discomfort, and we have conversations and normalizing and support around this transition,” says reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, a co-author of a forthcoming book on the emotions of pregnancy and new motherhood. But we don’t really have those same conversations about “the analogous transition that happens to a woman when she becomes a mother” — or at least, not in a way that reflects reality.

Sacks, who urges women to talk about their motherhood experiences on social media using the hashtag #matrescence, notes that in our current dialogue, we have only two opposing ways of talking about motherhood. “There are these two poles. There’s this idealized, unrealistic myth… not human, not nuanced in the way that human experiences are. And then there’s postpartum depression.”

It’s a dichotomy, she says, that leaves many women unable to articulate or understand their own experiences: “It’s really empowering for women to have language, because then they can talk about what they’re feeling.” Without that language, it’s easy to feel lost.

As Athan describes it, “I think [the concept of matrescence] would bring some of the magic back into adult development. It can bring curiosity and intrigue back to our own stories of self-development. It doesn’t stop after adolescence … it continues on.”

Nor does matrescence end after the early months of caring for a first baby. It evolves with each child, and carries on throughout a mother’s life with her children. “Mothering changes with experience. With every child, there’s a layer-cake effect,” says Athan. “And there are different stories in mothering young babies or children age zero to 3 than there are in how to raise young children or adolescents, and then also emerging adults, and then the empty-nest experience. There are mothers of now-grown children who continue to wrestle with the very same questions. The story just deepens and becomes all the more fascinating.”

Without the vocabulary to describe what I was experiencing, I was left feeling like a stranger in my own body, both literally and metaphorically; my body had changed, but I didn’t really know my life anymore, either. I loved my daughter — so much it scared me — but chafed at the loss of so many freedoms. I needed, instinctively, to be near her, but got bored at the banal acts of care-taking and found myself wanting to be somewhere else. I wanted to give her everything, but missed not having someone constantly needing me. All the images of motherhood I saw around me told me I was supposed to love every second of this, not fantasize about running away to a hotel to get a hot meal and a good night’s sleep.

“It’s really a dance where you lean in to take care of your baby, but you have to lean out to take care of yourself,” says Sacks. “Because you’re still a human being, and you still have to care for your own body, your own emotions, your relationship with your partner, with your friends, your intellectual life, your spiritual life, your hobbies … all these other aspects of your identity and your basic needs. Even if you want to just give unconditionally to your child, you can’t, because we’re humans, we’re not robots.”

It wasn’t until my next child arrived that I really learned to accept the harder parts of early motherhood, and to stop feeling during it like I was living someone else’s life. My second daughter was a colicky, restless baby whose only relief came from being bounced on a big plastic exercise ball. Her need for it was relentless, and I hated being tied to that ball, my back aching, for hours each day. But sometime around the millionth bounce or so, bleary-eyed in the dead of night, wrapped around this writhing ball of misery, something clicked, and I stopped fighting it. Stopped fighting all of it. The part of me that wanted to be elsewhere — usually sleeping, but sometimes just anywhere else at all — quieted. I could just be there, doing these little services for the well-being of someone I loved, feeling my back ache and knowing it would be all right.

I still have moments of missing the total freedom of movement I once had, but I can see the fruits of these cumulative daily tasks, each a minuscule gift I give my children, part of the much bigger gift of a good childhood. I wouldn’t say I love all of it, but I’ve found a perspective on it that gives me peace.

“A colleague of mine once said, women might celebrate going to a yoga class, but not breastfeeding in the middle of the night, staying up all night, as having the same sort of value. I think [kids are] teaching you things like mindfulness and patience,”Athan says. “Think about the repetitive tasks [of parenthood] … they force you to be very present.”

Athan likens the monotonous daily tasks of motherhood to ascetic exercises that allow us to put aside our egos: “If you were to invert the notion that we somehow raise our children and think about the influence of children on our development … it would be a number of things. People pay a lot of money to travel to an ashram or to go through some kind of spiritual practice, and I think if they reframe or reconceptualize parenting in those terms, they could get it at home for free.”

“Probably more than they want,” she laughs. “A lot of moms talk about finding a patience they didn’t have before.”

Athan likes to compare matrescence to the classical hero’s journey of literature. The protagonist is called upon, willingly or unwillingly, to embark upon an adventure, a journey. She faces many difficulties and trials along the way, but ultimately emerges victorious, and returns home with a new way of looking at the world, having grown from her experience.

“You hear the call, and the adventure is not going to be an easy one,” she says. “It’s really the moment when a mother psychologically conceives that she’s a mother, and it might not be an ‘a-ha’ moment. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s when you bring the baby home from the hospital, or your adopted child lands in your arms. Other times, it’s more of an unfolding of the responsibilities, and that is where the mother confronts, in that kind of heroic sense, what is really being asked here. And that’s where I think each of us individually has to embark on that alone.”

“When I hear a mother come out of that process, that early reckoning, she comes out with a real shift,” Athan adds. “That’s what the hero’s journey is … there’s no going back, in the same way.”

Three years into my own matrescence, it’s clear to me that there is indeed no going back. Not for my body, which has changed, subtly and unsubtly, in a thousand different ways, and not for my mind, which has reorganized itself around shepherding and caring for three different people at all times, at the occasional cost of knowing why I walked into a room or where my keys have gone. The occasional pangs of wishing for who I was will probably always be with me, but it’s comforting to think of myself that way: on a journey, moving toward something greater than the sum of the faces I clean or the lullabies I sing.

The Identity Transformation of Becoming a Mom