Getting Honest About the Transition to Motherhood

Micah Hallahan  on Unsplash

Micah Hallahan on Unsplash

Romanticizing the transition to motherhood is an ever-present custom of modern society. Too many women still have to hide the shame and angst that arises when becoming new mothers, and more often than not, they lack the adequate resources to describe their whirlwind of feelings.

Dr. Alexandra Sacks is a reproductive psychiatrist who wants to change this. Being real about motherhood and the avalanche of change it brings has been her focus for years. She’s written famous articles, presented a Ted-Talk, hosts the podcast Motherhood Sessions, and just recently co-authored the book What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood, which refers specifically to the piercing silence that continues to surround the experience of motherhood.

Dr. Sacks kindly spoke to Mindful Feminism about the significance of this topic and the numerous findings she’s encountered in her research. Read on for this urgent dose of knowledge.

The interest in women’s mental health during the transition to motherhood first arose when Dr. Sacks was pursuing her specialty training in reproductive psychiatry. She had been learning a great deal about postpartum depression, and amidst that work began to notice an interesting pattern. “I really enjoyed that work, but I felt like there was a missing category of conversation around the transition to motherhood, that was not the same thing as postpartum depression. It wasn’t a mental illness, and it didn’t require any sort of treatment. I saw this like a hole in our public health education, a hole about the natural developmental transitions to motherhood that are hormonal, emotional, and inherently stressful.” This gap illustrated a broader theme Dr. Sacks has also identified in her work, “we need to do a better job in medicine focusing on educating people about our bodies and minds, aside from treating illnesses” she mentioned.

As she expressed in her Ted Talk, A New Way to Think About the Transition to Motherhood, most medical texts refer to illnesses, which is why she turned to anthropology to learn more about the transition to motherhood. Two years into the research, in an out of print essay written in 1973 by Dana Raphael, she came across the concept “matrescence.” “It’s not a coincidence that matrescence sounds like adolescence,” Dr. Sacks says in her Ted Talk. “It really spoke to me because it spoke to the contrast in our culture being comfortable in talking about adolescence as a difficult stage in life, because there’s a transition that’s physical, hormonal, and related to identity, but that same assumption of difficulty isn’t true in our culture and the way we talk about motherhood.”

After bringing the concept of matrescence into the mainstream, Dr. Sacks has been favorably surprised to see so many women around the world connect around this one subject. “It has been moving to see a response across so many different cultures, languages, and demographics, it was quite profound to see how universal this conversation is. Women worldwide share this biologic story around motherhood, and also have similar questions around the psychology, the judgment, the guilt, and the shame.”

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One of the many underlying issues of this guilt and shame is the common belief that there is in fact “a right way” to be a mother. So we definitely had to get her professional opinion on that, “Is there a ‘right way’ to be a mother?” Her immediate answer: “No. Motherhood is just like any relationship, it’s an individual experience, and like any human relationship it’s an organic living thing that involves two people, and in a family often more than two, so there’s no one right way to have any relationship.” “I think that we do need more models that offer positive descriptions of motherhood that also leave room for the mother’s self-care, health, wellness, and identity,” she added.

Going into what that would look like in practice, we spoke about one thing women should definitely do to prepare for the identity shift that comes with motherhood. "I think if you have a partner, talk to your partner about how they can share the load, both in terms of care-taking for the baby but also helping to support you and helping to manage your domestic, social, and financial lives. I think that’s one of the most powerful things you can do, really discuss with your partner the care-taking roles, everything as detailed as when you’re going to see your friends to when you’re going to be able to exercise to when you’re going to be able to go back to work. Don’t assume that just because things have worked one way in your relationship before having children, it will continue to be that way, have those conversations and articulate what you want”, Dr. Sacks explained.

“In terms of yourself, try to do an inventory of the most important things you do to feel well and to feel like you, is it seeing your friends? Hobbies? Professional goals? Intellectual stimulation? I encourage people to make a list because I think the demands of caring for a newborn and sleep deprivation are so profound that it’s easy to go long stretches not doing the things that make you feel like an individual. Have that written down somewhere so that you can check in with it when you're in the throes of the change.”

Lastly, Dr. Sacks touched upon the importance of consulting a doctor when in doubt of your mental health. “If you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, ask your doctor for an evaluation for postpartum depression. Also, the postpartum support international hotline is a great resource that people can call to talk about what they’re going through.” For details on the hotline visit https://www.postpartum.net/

To learn more about Dr. Alexandra Sacks’ work visit https://www.alexandrasacksmd.com

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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