Musings of a Midwife: The Birth of a Mother

Published on: January 29, 2019

In this month’s Bumps and Babies article, midwife Emma McNerlin examines matrescence — the anthropological term defined by Dana Rafael in 1975 to describe the process of becoming a mother.

By Emma McNerlin

Throughout my career as a midwife supporting women in pregnancy, I have observed that it is often difficult for them to see beyond the “birth wall” – how long will the labour be? How painful will it be? Will my baby be born in the back of a taxi? Little that I tell them about what to expect in the postpartum period seems to stick, it gets washed away in the amnesia of oxytocin that accompanies the arrival of their baby. 

Asking those same women after their babies are born whether motherhood was what they expected, the answer is usually a resounding “no”. That’s not to say that it’s not wonderful, but equally it can feel overwhelming. Becoming a mother challenges our very identity and it can take time to find our feet again. Artist, Sarah Walker, likens becoming a mother to finding a strange new room in your house that you already live (Lafrance, 2015).  Matrescence is a relatively new area of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists that seeks to define the common experience of entering motherhood. 

Everything changes when you become a mother, yet women rarely acknowledge their struggle with this physical, emotional, hormonal and psychological state of flux that pregnancy birth and motherhood brings. “Mummy Brain” is something that we often joke about, but in fact huge changes occur in the neural pathways of a new mother’s brain. The amygdala experiences tremendous growth in the immediate postpartum. The amygdala controls the fear centre of the brain, processes memory and drives emotional reactions such as anxiety and aggression. Oxytocin floods the amygdala making new mothers hypersensitive to their babies’ needs and switching on their mama-bear protective instinct that makes it hard to share the baby with anyone, even their partner (McKay,2018). 

You are biologically driven to obsess about whether your baby is breathing, is too hot, too cold, whether it has fed enough, pooped enough, whether that coffee you had this morning has harmed them. It’s all the amygdala! But for a new mom who doesn’t know this, these new obsessions could lead her to feel isolated, inadequate or that she is simply losing her mind. 

In his book The Motherhood Constellation Psychiatrist Daniel Stern argues that giving birth to a new identity as a mother can be as challenging as birthing a baby. In fact, this shift in identity is one of the most significant transformations a woman will ever face. It is difficult to fathom just how much a new baby changes every aspect of life for a couple. Fathers too also undergo a transition into parenthood, but with women, this process is a primal experience. It is vital that new parents acknowledge how difficult it can be to adjust to their new tiny (and let’s face it noisy and demanding) bundle. A new mum is hormonally driven to prioritize her baby, and it can be difficult as a couple to find a new equilibrium. 

Conversely new mums can also experience some ambivalence about their new identity and the reality of motherhood. What no one talks about is the crushing loneliness some women experience in life with a baby. It can seem like days meld into each other in a maelstrom of feeding and diapering and burping and settling. The primal pull of wanting to love and keep the baby close is sometimes accompanied with craving space for yourself too. I remember as a new mum wondering if I would ever shower or pee alone again. These contradicting feelings are a completely normal adjustment in motherhood, but for many it is a source of guilt for even thinking that motherhood is anything less than wonderful. Of course, acknowledging these feelings does not mean that you love your baby less. The best gift you can give to your baby is to practice the self-care to carve out even a small part of the day for yourself to achieve some balance and to take help when it’s offered. Also know that in the immortal words of my mother “this too shall pass.”

The reality of motherhood often doesn’t measure up to what we see in the glossy magazines. Postpartum mums springing back into shape physically within weeks, dressed all in white, sporting full make up gazing at their angelic pristine bundle of joy. We could all look that good with a swat team of stylists, personal trainers and a flair for photoshop. As much as we may not admit it, these unrealistic portrayals can affect our expectations of life with a new baby. We have nine months of pregnancy to construct a vision of what motherhood will be like, without any experience of what to expect. New mums will happily tell pregnant friends about their thirty-hour labour, their traumatized nipples and the hour and a half sleep they had in the past twenty-four. What they tend not to share however is how they feel about life with a baby. The reasons that women don’t share are varied. Guilt plays its part as too does fear of judgement; and who’s to say there is even any benefit to talking about it with a woman on the other side of that birth wall, would they even be receptive?

It’s time to break the silence around the emotional adjustment to motherhood. We know that fifteen percent of new mums and ten percent of new dads experience postnatal depression for which there are protocols and treatments. However, the more common experience is what an old midwifery mentor I had referred to as “postnatal realization.” Understanding the challenges of matrescence normalizes and validates the feelings of new mothers. By allowing new mothers to honestly and safely share their experiences, they can feel less alone. This virtuous circle of sharing and support mother to mother, is the purpose of our BAMBI New Moon group that meets every Wednesday morning at Antique café. We would love to welcome you along.    

Photo by Rawpixel on Unsplash

References

  • Stern, D. (1995) T Motherhood Constellation. 
  • McKay, S. (2018) Demystifying the Female Brain.
  • Sacks, A. (2017) Becoming a Mother
  • Lafrance A. (2015) What Happens to a Woman’s Brain when She Becomes a Mother
  • Raphael, D. (1975) Mothering the Mother. 

About the Author

Originally from Ireland, Emma is a UK-trained midwife who worked in the maternity unit at a busy NHS hospital just outside London. Emma moved to Bangkok with her husband in 2014; they have an 11-year-old son, Toby. Volunteering with BAMBI Bumps and Babies since August 2015, Emma regularly conducts sessions on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and Infant First Aid. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and Muay Thai, and is an active member of her son’s parent group at school.


The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.

 

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