You’ve just given birth to a healthy, beautiful baby and somehow what’s supposed to be the happiest moment of your life turns out to be just the opposite. You’re not ecstatic about being a new mom and the worst part of it all is you feel doubt, guilt, shame, and confusion and you’re not sure if this is something you can talk to someone about. There’s a term for what you’re feeling, and it’s not called postpartum depression.
In her TEDx talk titled, “A New Way to Think About the Transition to Motherhood,” reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks explores the roller coaster of emotions that new moms feel right after giving birth. Many moms feel postpartum blues, but they wonder if it is not depression. In Sacks' case, she calls it maltrescence.
Not postpartum depression but maltrescence
Sacks compares maltrescence to adolescence, the time when a teenager’s body changes. A woman's hormones go haywire, the mood is unpredictable, and her skin starts breaking out while everyone still expects her to act grown up after she gives birth. “Well, these same changes happen to a woman when she's having a baby,” says Sacks.
She narrates how she noticed the pattern among new moms in her years as a reproductive psychiatrist. “It goes something like this: a woman calls me up, she's just had a baby, and she's concerned. She says, "I'm not good at this. I'm not enjoying this. Do I have postpartum depression?"
More often than not, Sacks tells her clients they are not clinically depressed, but they are not assured of Sacks’ ‘lack of diagnosis.’ In her search about the psychology of motherhood, Sacks says she found an out-of-print essay written in 1973 by Dana Raphael and found the condition called matrescence as a helpful way to frame this conversation.
She explains that like adolescence, matrescence is when the physical and hormonal changes lead to an upheaval in a person's emotions. “And like adolescence, matrescence is not a disease, but since it's not in the medical vocabulary, since doctors aren't educating people about it, it's being confused with a more serious condition called postpartum depression,” she adds.
Sacks relates matrescence to the concept of “push and pull.” She describes ‘pull’ as that part of motherhood where the baby becomes the center of the mother’s world, thanks to the help of the hormone oxytocin.
“As humans, our babies are uniquely dependent. Unlike other animals, our babies can't walk, they can't feed themselves, they're very hard to take care of. So evolution has helped us out with this hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin helps a human mother's brain zoom in, pulling her attention in.”
The push part, she says, is when new mothers long for the other parts of her identity. “Her mind is pushing away because she remembers...other relationships, her work, hobbies, a spiritual and intellectual life, not to mention physical needs: to sleep, to eat, to exercise, to have sex, to go to the bathroom, alone if possible,” she says.
Talk therapy as support
Sacks says that understanding the natural progression of matrescence will help women cope better. “If they knew that most people found it hard to live inside this push and pull, if they knew that under these circumstances, ambivalence was normal and nothing to be ashamed of, they would feel less alone, they would feel less stigmatized, and I think it would even reduce rates of postpartum depression.”
Sacks’ advice is for women going through matrescence is to seek women in similar situations. “I'm a believer in talk therapy, so if we're going to change the way our culture understands this transition to motherhood, women need to be talking to each other, not just me. So mothers, talk about your matrescence with other mothers, with your friends, and, if you have one, with your partner, so that they can understand their own transition and better support you,” Sacks concludes.