The Transition to Motherhood

Dr. Corinne Masur

Recently a young mother and trainee at my Psychoanalytic Institute and I were talking about the transition to motherhood.  She has a four month old and she had just read an article that talked about “Matrescence”.  I had never heard this term before but I was immediately taken by it!  Finally, a word to name the developmental stage that women go through when they become mothers!


There is really nothing like this transition and yet we don’t talk about it much.  Going from being an individual who can do what she wants, when she wants, responsible mostly just to herself, to being totally responsible for a new, helpless human is an enormous shift. And it can be a shock. Suddenly, everything changes.  Independence and autonomy go out the window! Now the baby’s needs have to be constantly considered.  When the baby has to feed, sleep, be comforted or cuddled has to be taken into account before the woman can decide to do anything else. Life becomes less orderly and MUCH more messy.


This is especially true for women who worked and had control over their own schedules outside of work. Staying home and caring for a baby’s needs can feel like a huge shift in every aspect of her being – her schedule, her priorities, her freedom and especially, her identity.


I remember one new mother saying to me, “No one told me how hard this would be!” and she wasn’t just talking about taking care of her baby.  She was talking about so many things. She was jealous of her partner getting to go to work each day, getting to take a half hour for lunch, getting to go to the bathroom on their own. She went from working to being at home all day and she felt hemmed in. She loved her new baby but she also felt that his needs were all encompassing. She felt she didn’t get a moment to herself.  Her partner worked long hours and for those first few months she felt quite alone and isolated. She had friends but she did not feel she had time to reach out to them.  At another time she said to me, “The responsibility for keeping my baby alive is all on me”.  She felt the weight of this and it was nothing like anything she had felt before.  She also felt the weight of her love and connection to her baby and THAT was like nothing she had felt before either.


Of course, for each new mother and each new parent, what feels hard may be different – but for all new parents, especially first time parents, the transition to motherhood/fatherhood is huge. Each parent has to adjust to who s/he is now, now that s/he is not just an individual or part of a couple but now that s/he is responsible for caring for another human being and having that human being be totally dependent on him or her.  S/he has to rethink what it means to be HER.


This shift in identity is something that we take for granted.  But we shouldn’t.  It’s difficult – and comes with mixed feelings and in some cases, considerable struggle.  An article in Psychology Today compares matrescence to adolescence, another stage of life that can be stormy.


Every phase of development in human life comes with conflict. First time mothers may love their new role – but they can also hate it.  They can hate having to stay home because the baby is napping when they would rather be out on a walk or having coffee with a friend. They can hate the long days and the lack of adult companionship.  They can hate the total dependence of the baby, or the endless routine of feeding, burping, diapering, soothing. They can feel bored and beleaguered and resentful.  They can miss work and the sense of purpose that work brings. Deeper conflicts can be stirred up including feelings about how they were parented themselves or how they feel about bodily functions, time management, productivity, independence and commitment. And all of this is completely normal.


We need to acknowledge the significance and the difficulty of transition from non-mother to mother and non-father to father.  This is a life transition that resonates with past and future identities, goals, routines and ways of being.  It is transformative. The role of parent adds new dimensions to one’s existing sense of self, to one’s repertoire of feelings and abilities – but it is often a struggle getting used to the new role and all it entails.


And becoming a mother/parent during COVID?  Reread the above and multiply by 1000. All the normal challenges, deprivations and frustrations are magnified by the current conditions. New parents often don’t know what to expect from their baby, moment to moment, but now NONE of us know what to expect from the outside world. When will the pandemic be over? Will we get sick? Will our family members get sick? Will our jobs survive? Will we survive financially? Will daycares be open or stay open? Can we even grocery shop safely and if so, how many masks do we have to wear to do so? Moreover, it’s hard to find help. Relatives and babysitters can’t come over as easily to help with child care. Friends with babies can’t get together without negotiating around COVID safety. Life for the new parent is even more uncertain and more isolated than ever.

Some mothers are “on the brink.”.  It is just TOO much – particularly for single mothers, mothers whose financial situation is unstable, mothers who have to manage working from home and childcare simultaneously. Maternal stress levels are high – life can seem scary and tedious and frustrating all at once. Some have taken to going to a local park and screaming as loud as they can. One mother said, “I feel like a ticking time bomb…but then I am unable to defuse myself”. Another said, “Some days are so busy they feel like they don’t exist. It’s like I just went through 24 hours and I don’t remember any of it because I was just go, go go.” 


It is hard to concentrate on a new baby when there are so many worries. And at the same time, that is what is needed. Some parents find it an escape to just care for their baby. Some are glad that there is little for them to fear they are missing out on while caring for their infant during this time – after all, so little else is happening.  There are fewer distractions from the baby and more time to get to know him or her – and after all, that is the job of the new parent – to get to know the baby and to get to know ourselves in our new role.

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