How becoming a mother is like being a teenager again — but that’s a good thing

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It’s called “matrescence” and it’s an important transition time.

I heard so much about my “maternal instinct” when I was pregnant with my first child that I started to feel like I was going to manifest some superpower. My baby and I would be so connected that I’d always know what he needed, if I listened hard enough.

Well. That did not pan out so well, as you more experienced mothers have already guessed. It turns out that a lot of women go into motherhood with this expectation, and predictably feel like incompetent failures when life proceeds normally.

Alexandra Sacks, a psychiatrist who works with pregnant and postpartum women, says she’s seen this scenario playing out in countless women:

I’ve noticed a pattern. 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?”

So I go through the symptoms of that diagnosis, and it’s clear to me that she’s not clinically depressed, and I tell her that. But she isn’t reassured. “It isn’t supposed to feel like this,” she insists. So I say, “OK. What did you expect it to feel like?” She says, “I thought motherhood would make feel whole and happy. I thought my instincts would naturally tell me what to do. I thought I’d always want to put the baby first.”

This — this is an unrealistic expectation of what the transition to motherhood feels like … And I didn’t know how to help [these women] because telling them that they weren’t sick wasn’t making them feel better. I wanted to find a way to normalize this transition, to explain that discomfort is not always the same thing as disease.

Sacks found the term “matrescence” to describe the transition. Like “adolescence,” matrescence is characterized by a push and pull — the new life and the old identity both asserting themselves. Remember being a teenager? Some days you felt all grown up and ready to face the world, and other days you were just wishing somebody else would show up and make your hard choices for you. There’s no clear line between child and adult. You don’t wake up one day, suddenly mature.

Well, motherhood is another kind of growing up, and it takes time and practice. It helps to have a word for this unique time of life, to remind you that the feeling of frustration and confusion does eventually pass. One day you’ll feel like you’ve been comfortable in your motherhood forever. You just may not know exactly when everything changed.

If you miss your old life some days, the way your body used to look, the freedoms and choices you used to be able to take for granted (seeing a movie in the theater when you have a newborn? You have to really want to see the movie) — that doesn’t mean you’re not a great mother. Matrescence is a time of transition, and transitions can be scary and painful, but at the end of it all, there’s the peace and confidence you’ve been looking for.

Matrescence can be a real rollercoaster ride, but the ups and downs are normal, and you probably won’t ever get everything figured out, but you also won’t be feeling such dramatic highs and lows forever. Be patient with yourself, because sometimes a mother has to do as much growing up as her baby does, and that’s okay.