Dr Alison Mooney
MBBS FRACGP DCH Clin Dip Pall Med
They say that when a child is born so too is a mother. The path to motherhood was termed ‘matrescence’ by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the mid-1970’s. This journey is possibly the most significant transformation that a woman will undertake and so we must acknowledge and normalise the process. In the words of Maya Angelou, “we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Western culture tends to focus on the care of the baby rather than viewing the mother and child as a dyad; a unit that consists of two distinct elements, each requiring special attention.
I had always dreamt of being a mother, however the journey took a lot longer than I expected. I will never forget the pain of longing for a child. It was truly heartbreaking to see others moving on with their lives when I was experiencing disappointment after disappointment. I found it was possible to feel happiness for them but to also be devastated in my desperation. It was a lonely time. In hindsight, the struggle through fertility treatments, negative pregnancy tests, failed embryo transfers and a miscarriage strengthened my relationship. I naively thought that IVF must be one of the toughest challenges for a couple to face. All I wanted was a baby, perhaps I was too scared to think beyond that dream in case it never happened and so I was not emotionally prepared when it did! Finally, after the 6th embryo transfer, the second pregnancy, a large bleed and emergency visit at 15 weeks and a whole lot of worry later I received the greatest gift of a healthy baby boy! Little did I know that the real challenge was just beginning. I had a baby in my arms, but I felt like I had lost my husband and, in many ways, myself. I was now a mother but I’m not quite sure if I felt like one. Shouldn’t it be an instant identity shift?
Difficult thoughts and feelings
Matrescence is a highly individual process that will take varying lengths of time and while some may breeze into it, others may find it an extremely confronting experience. A woman may be facing many challenges and adjustments, including physical, mental, emotional, economical and spiritual, all the while doing her best to meet the needs of her baby. The human brain is a problem-solving machine, and it goes into overdrive during this time. You may be feeling utterly exhausted but unable to sleep while your baby is sleeping, be worrying intensely that something is wrong with your baby and just leaving the house seems like a momentous task. Your brain can give you endless unhelpful thoughts such as ‘I’m no good at this, everyone thinks I’m a bad mother as I can’t stop my baby crying, this is so easy for everyone else, there must be something wrong with me.” Most women will experience difficult thoughts and feelings, it is entirely natural to feel discomfort as your whole world turns upside down! Becoming a mother can be the best AND the worst thing that has ever happened to you. The ambivalence of this thought can be very uncomfortable to sit with.
Mothers groups can be the most wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow women also undergoing matrescence. For me, I honestly don’t think I would be the mother I am today without the friendship of so many kind, supportive and strong women However, some may find groups anxiety provoking as it is only natural to compare. We may try and pitch ourselves to impossible standards. We may put on a ‘brave face’ as you feel no one wants to hear that actually you’re not ok, this gig is really tough, and you don’t think you’re feeling how you’re supposed to. There is great shame in admitting that you are not coping but there is so much bravery in being vulnerable and the bravest act that you can do is to open up and ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to one another, you never know, that other mum that looks like she’s got her s*** together may just be having the same thoughts as you.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an exciting new form of cognitive behavioural therapy that can be extremely useful during matrescence and can be practiced anywhere at any time. It acknowledges that everything worthwhile in human life will bring with it joy AND pain and normalises the difficult thoughts and feelings that arise rather than trying to get rid of them. It allows us to accept the things that are out of our control to facilitate commitment and action towards living a rich, full and meaningful life. ACT invites you to pause and ask yourself questions to figure out your parenting values, such as, what sort of mother do I want to be? At my child’s 18th birthday party how would I like them to describe me as a mother? You can then take action in alignment with those values, to be the type of mother you want to be deep in your heart, rather than being hooked by unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Dr Kristin Neff has described self-compassion as being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. To wake in the morning and acknowledge that you are not perfect and to realise that it truly does not matter what you do or do not tick off the to do list, beneath it all you are worthy, and you are enough. You may find it helpful to talk to yourself as if you were talking to a friend who was feeling the same way. Many of us would be far kinder to a friend than we are to ourselves!
As a mother we make the greatest sacrifice of all, our sense of self. However, if we embrace matrescence we can view it as a way to rebuild ourselves. To emerge stronger, wiser and more capable of love than we could have imagined. I am writing this on Mother’s Day, my 3rd as a Mother. I am so grateful for this wonderfully exhausting privilege. As Gretchen Rubin so aptly said, the days are long but the years are short. So, eat that cake, buy those shoes, embrace your babies and be kind to yourself on those long, hard days. You’ve got this.
Originally from Scotland, Alison achieved her Medical degree at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 2008 and has lived and worked on the Central Coast since 2010. She is currently working part time as a GP at Wamberal Surgery. Alison has recently undertaken further rigorous training and is proud to be the first Neuroprotective Developmental Care (NDC/Possums) accredited practitioner on the Central Coast and is thrilled to share her knowledge with families in her new service,
The Moon Clinic. www.moonclinic.com.au