Matrescence: Changes in the brain when becoming a mother

‘Matrescence’, a term coined by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973, is the massive brain transformation in a woman as she navigates the huge identity shift of becoming a mother. It occurs as a result of the hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy, birth, and early infancy. ‘Mum brain’ is usually expressed as a disadvantage, but it actually has many special abilities and strengths to make her very capable of caring for her baby.

Matrescence can be likened to the hormonal changes during adolescence as a child becomes an adult. Both are significant physicological and psychological transitions when the body is morphing, and the hormonal shift leads to an upheaval in how a person feels. Many women can feel like something is terribly wrong, when in fact this stage of adjustment and discomfort is normal.

Matrescence: The changes in the brain when you become a mother

During pregnancy, you will develop new complex brain circuits, while some brain areas shrink. Don’t worry, the brain areas that get smaller are making your brain more efficient and specialised for parenting. Research suggests that these changes are related to babies, and the areas that adapt give expecting women enhanced powers for understanding the needs and emotions of their baby, ensuring they become well-equipped for bonding, responsiveness, empathy, and the ability to sense a baby.

For some pregnant women and new mothers, the brain changes of matrescence can also increase anxiety, distress, worry, and obsessive compulsive tendencies. The purpose of these emotions and behaviours may be to enhance parenting skills, and shouldn’t last past infancy. It’s common to be anxious and imagine danger surrounding your baby, but please find a mental health professional if you feel distressed.

Importance of understanding and normalising matrescence

Knowing that these changes happen and are normal can help to validate and therefore reduce some worry about what you are going through. Some of the emotions associated with matrescence can feel like postpartum depression or anxiety. You may experience matrescence like this:

  • A change in family dynamics. You haven’t just created a baby, you’ve also created a new family, so relationships may feel strained and new stresses may arise.
  • Reflecting on how you were raised. You might almost be re-experiencing your childhood, and choosing whether you want to be the mother you had, or wished you had.
  • Ambivalence towards your baby. It can feel uncomfortable to feel two opposing things at the same time, but you may feel that you want to be close to your baby whilst simultaneously craving emotional and physical space.
  • Disappointment about reality versus fantasy. Whether it’s experiences with your own mother or mothers around you, you may have created a fantasy baby during pregnancy, and the reality doesn’t always live up to it.
  • Guilt about not being the ‘perfect’ mother. Many women compare themselves to the ideal mother, who is always happy, calm, and puts her baby’s needs first. Shame can arise when comparing oneself to an unrealistic, unattainable standard.

Early motherhood can be both pleasurable and challenging

Matrescence is like an emotional tug of war as you try to care for your needs and your baby’s needs at the same time. Thanks to oxytocin flooding your body, you will feel a love and attachment for your baby on a cellular level, but you’re human. Your brain will still let you know that you have your own physical and emotional needs that need to be met. And, that’s okay.

It’s okay if sometimes you don’t enjoy it, that you feel that you don’t have maternal instincts, that you’re bored, and even resentful. Too many mothers are ashamed to talk openly about these complicated feelings for fear of being judged. This type of social isolation may even trigger postpartum depression, so finding someone you feel comfortable with to talk to (as well as your GP) is critical to navigating this natural transition into motherhood. Messy, challenging, joyful, anxiety-inducing, complicated, and beautiful motherhood.


Note: Please seek professional support if you’re struggling. PANDA’s (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression) national hotline is Australia’s only free helpline service for women, men and their families affected by perinatal anxiety and depression. Highly trained and caring counsellors can help you work through your challenges. Phone 1300 726 306 between 9am – 7.30pm Monday to Friday (AEST/AEDT).

Athan, A.M., and Reel, H.L. “Maternal Psychology: Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of Deconstructing Developmental Psychology,” Feminism & Psychology, 25:3 (2015), 311–25.

Athan, A.M. “Maternal Flourishing: Motherhood as Potential for Positive Growth and Self-development,” Lecture Presented at the Women’s Mental Health Consortium Quarterly Meeting, October 2016.

Athan, A.M. Reviving Matrescence: The Developmental Transition to Motherhood. Unpublished Manuscript, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY, (2018).

Raphael, Dana. Being Female: Reproduction, Power, and Change. Chicago: Mouton Publishers, 1975.

Sacks, Alexandra. “The Birth of a Mother,” The New York Times, May 8, 2017.

Sacks, Alexandra. “A New Way to Think About the Transition to Motherhood,” TED Talk, May 31, 2018,

Stern, Daniel N., Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, and Alison Freeland. The Birth of a Mother: How The Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever. New York: Basic Books, 1998.