Central to this article is the concept of ‘Matresence’, which highlights the experience of the female as a biological sex becoming a mother. While a significant proportion of the research looking at the transition to parenting rests in this area, we look forward to publishing more articles that explore other experiences of mothering, fathering and parenthood.
Recently a portrait of a breastfeeding servicewoman won the Napier Waller Art Prize for 2022. The artist, retired servicewoman, Anneeke Jamieson commented that the work was reflective of the conflicts that she and other women had faced in returning to work and navigating their new identities after welcoming a baby. She had imagined her return to work after maternity leave, but described being “blind to the person I would become when promoted to mother.”
Matresence refers to the “process of becoming a mother” (a term coined by Dana Raphael), which takes place during the perinatal period and highlights the push and pull of identity reformation described by Jamieson. It is considered a discrete developmental stage, akin to what adolescents experience with physical changes and shifts in mood. It is a time of increased vulnerability, reflection, and opportunity. Becoming a mother leads to changes across several personal and life domains and demands a reimagining of the self, and how one relates in, and with the world.
In line with this, and in their seminal work of the 90’s, Daniel Stern highlights the “motherhood constellation” that is developed in pregnancy and maintained post birth. The constellation refers to three related but distinct discourses. The first is how she was motherered, and what elements she will either leave behind or integrate into her own mothering. The second, how she thinks of herself as a mother – she may ask herself what sort of mother do I want to be? What are my strengths and concerns? Third, how she gestates the baby in her mind, which is said to strengthen and shift across pregnancy.
Stern also identified four key themes or ‘ordinary concerns’ that inhabit a mother’s mind during this transition. The first two relate to the baby – first, about their physical safety and second, their emotional needs. Mothers therefore question such things as their capacity to keep their babies safe and foster secure attachment. The third relates to whether one’s social network can provide adequate support during this transition. The last, and of particular importance here, is identity reorganisation. Under this theme, the expectant mother questions and processes how becoming a parent will shape their lives, how their intimate partner relationship will shift from a dyad to a triad, and how they themselves will shift from being someone’s child to becoming someone’s mother.
Taken together, these concepts highlight that, as Stern and Bruschweiler-Stern write, the “psychological birth of a mother takes longer and has many more phases than just labour and delivery”. As was highlighted in Anneeke’s portrait, this period can be fraught with discomfort as new mothers reorganise their identities. Opportunities for active reflection, processing, and reimagining are important, as well as practising self-kindness and acceptance for the discomfort that one can expect. Ultimately, one needs to make space for the mother they are becoming, whoever she might be.
- Make time for reflection.
- This could either be done internally (e.g., during a slow morning with a cup of tea and a journal), or through discussions with a partner, loved one or a counsellor.
- You might reflect on thoughts regarding your own experiences of being mothered, fears or concerns you have for baby, your relationships, your own parenting capacity, or your hopes for the type of mother you’ll be.
- These reflections and cognitive preparations may also relate to more practical things, such as the resources and supports you feel you will need to best navigate your transition into motherhood.
- Practice self-compassion.
- Approach yourself as you would a friend navigating a big life transition: with self-kindness and understanding, rather than the criticism and judgment that we so often place on ourselves.
- Take the time and space to be present with any emotions and fears that arise, and allow yourself to really feel them. This may be as simple as an acknowledgement: “I’m feeling anxious in this moment”.
- Encourage yourself to understand your experience in the context of the human experience that it is. Remind yourself that you are not alone in these feelings of pain and uncertainty and connect with others who have been through this before you.