Looking back, it seems inevitable to go through an identity crisis after having a baby, I just wish I´d known to anticipate one. And in talking to other mums, I’ve realized that almost every new mum has gone through it. Whether it hits after a few days, a few months or even a few years after becoming a mum, there is no doubt about it: motherhood causes a major shift in identity.
In fact, becoming a mother IS an identity shift, and one of the most significant physical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience. `It’s no coincidence that this shift, sometimes referred to as the matrescence, sounds like adolescence. Both are times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how you feel emotionally, and how you fit into the world´ (Sacks, 2017).
For me, working through matrescence was a long process. Going through life-threatening complications during and after birth left me bewildered, searching for myself and not being able to understand why instead of feelings of utter joy, I felt something else completely. And when it seemed the ask was to stretch, grow, birth, suffer, nurse, lose sleep, be reborn, return to work and make it look like nothing happened at all, I just knew I could not accept it. And so the dream for Lola&Lykke was born.
Motherhood ought to be about thriving, not merely surviving
Both Kati and I have spent a lot of time searching for answers to the questions surrounding us, so that we could better make sense of what was happening to our minds and our bodies. I personally find the articles about the process of becoming a mother by Alexandra Sacks*, a reproductive psychiatrist, very helpful. In Alexandra´s words: ´Being pregnant is like going through puberty all over again: your hormones go nuts, your hair and skin don’t behave the way you’d like, and you develop a new relationship with a body that seems to have a mind of its own. The difference? Everyone understands that adolescence is an awkward phase. But during matrescence, people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look and feel.´
I experienced that sense of losing myself, of disappearing completely, when I had my first baby. It was as if I was no longer important, even when I was lying in the hospital literally fighting for my life. Everyone's focus was on the new baby. But what about the person, the literal lifeblood who just gave birth to that baby? How can a mother recover and thrive when our society tells her to focus solely on the needs of her baby?
Mine and Kati´s unexpectedly perilous journeys to becoming mothers united us in the belief that, in the 21st century, motherhood ought to be about thriving, not merely surviving.
We find it astonishing that in the medical community, ´matrescence´ or the process of becoming a mother, has been largely unexplored. Instead of focusing on the woman’s identity transition, more research is focused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, is crucially important to explore too. When people have more insight into their emotions, they can be more in control of their behaviors, and this will eventually make us happier parents to happier kids.
MD Alexandra Sacks explains that ´from a neuroscientific point of view, the emotions of matrescence are as much about chemical shifts in your brain as they are about the stuff that science can’t explain. The bonding hormone oxytocin circulates through your body, and you become attached to your baby at the most basic cellular level. But, because you’re still human, your brain and body continue to send you the usual cues to take care of yourself: to sleep, to eat, to go to the bathroom. Not to mention to exercise, have sex, socialize, continue your professional, spiritual and intellectual life, and nurture your relationship. Many new mums find themselves feeling like they are in a push and pull, an emotional tug of war, as they try to figure out how to care for themselves and their baby’s needs at the same time.´
I think most mums can identify with this feeling of ambivalence; about the push and pull of wanting your child close but also craving physical and emotional space. Motherhood is a constant juggling act between giving and taking – not good or bad, but both good and bad. It´s about little by little, learning to tolerate and get comfortable with the discomfort of ambivalence (Sacks, 2017).
*Alexandra Sacks, MD is a reproductive psychiatrist affiliated with the Women’s Program at the Columbia University Medical Center. A leading expert in “matrescence,” she is known for popularizing the concept in her TED talk with over 1.9 million views worldwide, and in her New York Times article “The Birth of a Mother”.
Every Mother has a Mind of Her Own
Perinatal and postnatal mental wellness disorders and levels of anxiety have risen sharply since the start of the pandemic. Becoming a mum was never easy but now the mental challenge has become even harder to navigate. In Alexandra´s words, rather than feeling like something is “wrong with them,” let’s encourage mothers to speak more openly with each other so that the beautifully messy challenges and joys of matrescence are as accepted in our culture as the ups and downs of adolescence.
Our hope is that if more women understood the identity shift - matrescence - of becoming a mother, they might feel less guilt and more self-esteem, less isolation and more kinship, less resentment and more intimacy, less exhaustion, and more pleasure.
Still today, too many mothers are ashamed to speak openly about their complicated experiences for fear of being judged. When women find themselves feeling lost somewhere between who they were before motherhood and who they think they should be now, many worry that something is terribly wrong, when in fact this discomfort is absolutely common. Lola&Lykke´s focus is to regard every mother as an individual, with her own story into motherhood. We know that there at no two identical birth stories, but that in-between the extremes a thousand different stories of birth exist. We also know that in-between the extremes of mental health, of postpartum depression and breezing through the transition to motherhood, a thousand different feelings exist, each equally valid.
After reappearing at the other end of matrescence, I came to understand that it was ok for me to have my own dreams and to continue to pursue them, alongside my role as a mother. I came to understand that rather than viewing self-care or the pursuit of your dreams as selfish, it is actually the most selfless thing you can do. Two years after my youngest child was born, we created Lola&Lykke and I now know that it is the biggest gift I can give my kids, as my happiness will always be reflected on my children.
It is our goal to help mums thrive and dads participate
At Lola&Lykke, we are unapologetic about the female experience and champion the destigmatisation of the perils of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum wellness. Women are not always inherently strong and capable of naturally giving birth and flourishing as mothers; instead we also need attention, care and nurturing. Our goal is to provide women with the insight they need to make the best decisions about their own maternity health and wellbeing with confidence. In doing so, we refuse to reinforce traditional feminine archetypes; the 21st century woman who is a caregiver, mother, life-bringer and source of comfort has needs of her own beyond transforming chaos into domestic bliss.
In addition to engaging with modern women, our aim is to enable men to be more than passive observers. In fact, leaders at the University College London Institute for Women’s Health told us that, if we want to a have a long-term positive impact on global women’s health, then engaging men in women’s wellbeing remains one of the most significant unmet needs.
Lola&Lykke will be a global community of parents, focused on helping mums thrive, enabling dads to participate and, collectively, nurturing the welfare of young families. This blog is the first in our Female Changemakers series dedicated to women whose professional and personal passions have driven them to do something extraordinary, bringing sustainable positive change to women’s wellbeing.