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The emotional roller coaster of being a new mom

Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Updated January 22, 2024 at 15:55 PM ET

First-time mom Priscilla Koczon, 39, loved being pregnant and expected to feel much the same way about being a mother. "I fantasized that it would just be really easy, that I would instantly connect with my baby, and my maternal instinct would kick in," says Koczon, who lives with her husband and 2-month-old daughter in New Jersey. Instead, she found herself grappling with mixed emotions and a changing identity as she struggled to find her footing. "Motherhood is hard," she says, admitting a simple truth that isn't always acknowledged.

Becoming a mother is a huge, complicated life transition that can rock every fiber of a person's being. The process even has its own name: matrescence. And while this term may seem relatively new, it was actually coined in the '70s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael. "She kicks off a lot of her writings saying that in some cultures we say, 'a woman has given birth,' but here we say, 'a child is born,'" says Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist at Columbia University. "And with that, the emphasis gets shifted on the child."

The idea of focusing on the mother wasn't further developed at the time because Raphael "needed to wait a few more generations for more women to become scientists who could then study this more themselves. And make motherhood a subject of seriousness," adds Athan, who is credited with reviving the term matrescence.

Athan compares it to the awkwardness of adolescence: "It's a holistic change in multiple domains of your life. You're going to feel it perhaps bodily, psychologically. You're going to feel it with your peer groups. You're going to feel it at your job. You're going to feel it in terms of the big philosophical questions."

In other words, once you welcome home a baby, nothing is ever the same again. Yes, it is exciting and joyful, but it can also be completely overwhelming. So, as you ride the ups and downs of new motherhood, remember that this ambivalence is normal. The goal is to give yourself the time and compassion to adjust to your new role. But if you experience symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, seek help as soon as possible. Life Kit has an episode on coping with perinatal mood and disorders here.

As for matrescence, there is plenty you can do at home to make sense of this life stage. Here are five takeaways that can help moms-to-be (and moms already in the thick of it) get their footing, ​​including tips on how to manage expectations, get the support you need and prioritize time for yourself.

/ Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Let go of expectations

While the process is universal and affects moms that go through adoption and surrogacy as much as birthing mothers, it can vary a lot depending on an individual's race, culture and personal experience, says Pria Alpern, a clinical psychologist who facilitates new mom groups in New York City. She suggests sitting down and reflecting on your life, going back as early as your childhood.

Because your upbringing is bound to influence your maternal identity, she advises taking the time to really think about the way you were mothered. Ask yourself "what are the things that I want to replicate with my own child?" or "what are the things that I want to do differently?" she says. It's OK to chart your own course, she adds. It's about owning your parenting journey.

When you don't have a clear idea of what a good childhood may look like, you may try to find it on social media, says Nicole Woodcox Bolden, a perinatal therapist and doula in Chicago. If you catch yourself scrolling through other people's filtered photos and aspiring to be what Woodcox Bolden calls the "Pinterest Mom," try putting your mobile phone down. "It's a setup if you're thinking that every day is going to be perfect," she says.

/ Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Set up a game plan to ease the pressure

Crafting a vision for the kind of mother you want to be requires thoughtful planning. Woodcox Bolden suggests creating a family mission statement to define your family's goals and values. This exercise is especially helpful for couples, considering research shows that relationship satisfaction declines after a child comes into the picture.

You don't have to draft an official document, it's more about having a conversation. Start with a few simple questions, she says: What does your family stand for? How will you and your partner support each other? And define any non-negotiables, like that monthly get-together with friends.

Of course, when it comes to parenthood, you also have to think beyond your immediate family as you begin to build your village. Motherhood can feel very isolating, so it's crucial to identify the people who will show up for you.

"Maybe you're not going to talk to your mother-in-law about how you're feeling emotionally, but she's really good when it comes to getting groceries and stocking the fridge and doing your laundry," Alpern says. "Maybe your best friend lives across the country, but they're available for text support at any time."

The idea is to take some of the pressure off as you get into a rhythm. So, go ahead and ask your cousin to organize a meal train so that you don't have to think about dinner for the first few weeks. Close family and friends will be happy to pitch in.

/ Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Carve out time to connect with your body again

For birthing mothers, whether your baby is delivered vaginally or via C-section, you will need to physically heal. Studies show that women need six to nine months to fully recover from labor and delivery — not the arbitrary six-week checkup with an obstetrician or midwife. Just getting adjusted to your postpartum self in the mirror can take time.

"Some women might feel like their body doesn't belong to them anymore. It's changed so much," Alpern says. "Or if they're breastfeeding or chestfeeding, they might just feel, 'oh, my gosh, I always have a baby attached to me.' "

Leaving the house and moving your limbs a little can help. "Exercise is a way to reclaim that relationship to the body and release mood-boosting endorphins," Alpern says. She suggests something as simple as going for a walk around your neighborhood. "It's a way for us to get outside of our bubble and see that there's a bigger world out there."

And if the thought of doing anything that isn't about the baby makes you feel guilty, don't be. Creating the space to focus on your own needs is a positive thing for your child, Alpern says.

"It is good modeling for your child to show them that you are important enough to take care of yourself," she says. "Self-care is kind of like fueling up your tank. You have to do it so that you can bring your best self to parenthood."

/ Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Re-center your mind to focus on you

Your emotional well-being is just as important as your body, so take a moment every now and then to check in with yourself. Woodcox Bolden suggests setting aside five minutes in the morning and another five in the evening to pause and organize the thoughts swirling in your head. She tells her clients to write in a journal using a few prompts: "Ask yourself, 'What do I need right now? How can I remind myself that I am loved? What went well today?'" You want to counteract any negative self-talk by looking for the good in the day.

As you get more comfortable expressing your feelings, try joining a new mom group through Facebook or your local community center, Alpern says. Not only will sharing your experience with peers help you feel less isolated, but it's a way of debunking the idea that being a mother is all bliss.

"When we don't talk about it, the myth of motherhood as this idyllic oasis is perpetuated in our culture," she says. "Talking about what's happening with you with other moms is such a pillar of support."

Making these connections takes time and effort, but it's worth it. Alpern has seen firsthand how, over time, mothers begin to bond over their shared experiences. "When one person shows their vulnerability, someone else might feel safe showing their vulnerability, and then the rest of the group is like, 'Oh gosh, it's such a relief that I am not the only person who feels that way,' " she says.

/ Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

You will find yourself again

Caring for a baby day and night is particularly difficult in that first year but as you get the hang of things and become more confident, you'll start to recognize the person you were and have always been. Rather than thinking about it as a loss of identity, Alpern suggests reframing motherhood as an evolution. One that will surely empower you. Priscilla Kozcan can attest to that: "I feel like a much stronger person. I've slowed down and reprioritized things — and I think it's for the good."

What helped you navigate the first year of motherhood? Send us a note at LifeKit@npr.org. A producer may be in touch with you.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen with engineering support from Gilly Moon. Art direction and additional editorial support from Beck Harlan.

Copyright 2021 NPR

Grace Bastidas
Grace Bastidas is an editor, podcast host and multicultural market expert. Her work as a content creator focuses on giving voice to communities of color. As the founding editor and content director of Parents Latina, Bastidas is in charge of guiding the creative vision and mission of a bilingual brand that reaches 3.4 million multicultural moms and dads. She is also the host of That New Mom Life, a podcast from Parents magazine that helps mothers navigate those first few months of parenthood. In each episode, she interviews top experts in the postpartum world to get their best advice about everything from body changes to coping with sleepless nights. She covered parenting for NPR's Life Kit.
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