Matrescence – From Caterpillar to Butterfly

by | Oct 11, 2023

Samantha Salter, WOMBS Birth & Postnatal Doula, Early Years Educator and IAIM Infant Massage Instructor, introduces us to the beautiful word Matrescnence and the meaning thereof as you embrace the various stages of motherhood. An introduction that brings beautiful insight and will leave you with a profound empathy for yourself and other mothers.


Picture yourself stepping into a new job, a role you’ve longed for, brimming with excitement about this fresh journey in your career. You’ve meticulously researched, dedicating countless hours to understanding the nuances of this significant position. Despite some lingering fears and doubts, primarily due to its unfamiliarity, your overwhelming sense of preparation and eagerness prevails.


Yet, as you immerse yourself in this role, a disconcerting sensation begins to take root in your stomach. The job, you realise with a sinking heart, is far more demanding than the enticing image you had in mind. In truth, it demands an almost superhuman level of effort. Panic sets in – thoughts of escaping this situation rush through your mind. Regret looms large, and you contemplate resignation. Then reality dawns – there is no way out of this cocoon, and you are firmly ensnared within.


Emerging as Mother

For most women, the onset of motherhood mirrors this tumultuous journey. The arrival of a new baby is one of the most significant life events, a swirl of complex emotions. As Penny Simkin aptly explains, “The postnatal period is an exceedingly vulnerable time, affecting not just the mother, but also the newborn, the fledgling mother-child relationship, the spousal bond, and the stability of the nuclear family.”


Indeed, this phase is marked by a wide range of emotions – from pure joy and profound excitement to contentment, accompanied by fears, anxieties, sadness, confusion, anger, shock, and wonder. How does one navigate this intricate tapestry of emotions all at once?

Herein lies a profound transformation, a process we are seldom truly prepared for. In the words of Sr. Lynn Bluff, “This transformation unfolds slowly, well after the mess of childbirth and the beauty of that first embrace. It often involves a mix of grief, relief, disappointment, intensity, surprise, and a bittersweet recognition that this is it – from now on, we are parents.”


This is Matrescence, a term coined by Dana Raphael in 1973, a medical anthropologist who also popularised the word “doula.” Over the decades, other scholars and clinicians have delved into her research, but this term has yet to find its way into everyday conversation. Raphael made a significant observation that in Western cultures, we often announce “a baby has been born,” whereas in other cultures, it is stated that “a woman has given birth.” This subtle distinction carries profound meaning. 


Western societies tend to be child-centric, while other cultures are more attuned to the maternal aspect and the changes a woman undergoes.

Though many of us attempt to repress it, we remember the turbulent days of puberty vividly. It began with the emergence of pimples and stretch marks. Adolescents experience a flood of changes, physically and psychologically, openly on display for all to see. 


A Profound Transformation 

Society keeps us well-informed about the transformations teenagers undergo regarding their bodies, hormones, relationships, and identities. But for women, the truth is there is a profound transformation across each of these dimensions when they become mothers. Sadly, it remains a topic that has yet to be discussed.


Social media is rife with new mothers who appear to have everything under control, fostering the assumption that everyone else is managing just fine. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every mother has difficult days and moments of questioning her ability to cope, and, as Sr. Lynn Bluff aptly notes, “this is matrescence speaking once more. It starts as a whisper and escalates if we don’t listen.” New parents would do well to remember that embracing their instincts is the best approach to navigating this transition. Stubbornly clinging to what they’ve read or heard and expecting their babies to conform to a specific mould only sets them up for immense disappointment.


The Whirlwind that is Motherhood

But are we effectively conveying this message to our new mothers? What support is available for these women undergoing this profound transformation? Unfortunately, like the U.S. medical system, our South African medical system often falls short in this regard. Pregnant women undergo numerous antenatal check-ups but receive just one six-week postpartum check-up. At this juncture, life is a whirlwind. The mother is healing from childbirth, experiencing the discharge of blood, sweat, milk, and tears in a state of utter disarray. Instead of being nurtured and cared for, she’s subjected to a brief questionnaire, a few scribbles on a notepad, and a smile if she’s fortunate, only to be ushered back into the world with the expectation that she should swiftly return to “normalcy,” including resuming exercise and intimacy. 


This absence of support for new mothers is unfathomable. Where is the continuity of care they so desperately need? The outcome is profound isolation for each mother and an epidemic of postpartum neglect. If you’re struggling, know that you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. It’s a facet of matrescence and our society’s shortcomings in acknowledging the extensive changes that transpire during this period.


Navigating the Transition

So, how can you navigate this phase with a little less fragmentation? Consider asking yourself some of these questions, reflecting on them privately or discussing them with your partner:

How have your values been challenged?

How do you feel about the shift in identity and your new role?

What does your daily routine look like now?

Do you have the space to process your thoughts?

What burdens feel substantial or unwieldy?

What brings you genuine joy?

Who are you proud of?

What facets of parenthood rise to the surface?

What support do you currently have, need, or desire?


You need not have everything perfectly figured out to find solace, Mama. It’s okay to embrace the messiness and immerse yourself in the full spectrum of emotions. Engaging in open conversations with those closest to you can facilitate healing and recovery as you navigate these monumental life changes. Moreover, it plays a role in normalising matrescence in a society that scarcely acknowledges it. The more we share, converse, vent, and unburden ourselves, the more people will awaken to the fact that being discharged from hospital care is not the end of the journey but merely the beginning.


While matrescence may be overwhelming and challenging, it is far from a negative phenomenon. If, as a society, we could offer more comprehensive and substantial support to our new mothers, maternal mental health would witness an upswing. Maybe if we acknowledged this beautiful yet arduous process of “becoming,” we would have more comprehensive systems to support our vulnerable new mothers. By embracing and normalising this metamorphosis, our women would transform from caterpillars into butterflies right before our eyes, and matrescence would be celebrated and honoured as the rite of passage it truly is.


Samantha Salter

WOMBS Birth & Postnatal Doula, Early years educator, and IAIM Infant Massage Instructor

Co-founder of the Bub Club Baby Clinic, Bub Club Antenatal, and the Bub Club Mother & Baby Enrichment Programme

Contact – 076 329 0217; [email protected]