Postpartum and Breastfeeding

A New Hat: My Personal Perspective on Postpartum Identity

Dr. Alyssa Berlin

Table of contents

  • Intro
  • What is matrescence?
  • Consider this
  • Understanding identity shifts
  • Validating emotions
  • Seek self compassion
  • Find friends
  • Reconnect with your personal identity
  • Embrace the evolution

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Intro

The journey into motherhood is a profound and transformative experience marked by a multitude of emotional, physical, and psychological shifts. As a perinatal psychologist, I have had the privilege of accompanying many women on this transformative journey, and let me emphasize that every mother’s journey is different. One of the most significant challenges that new mothers face is navigating the shifts in identity that accompany the transition to motherhood. This shift is part of what is called matrescence.

As I write this, I find it a bit comical that the word “matrescence” isn’t even recognized by my word processor as an actual word. Hint: we have a long way to go to identify, understand, and support women through this experience.


What is matrescence?

Matrescence refers to the psychological and emotional transition that women undergo as they become mothers. Similar to adolescence, matrescence is a period of profound change and growth, marked by shifts in identity, priorities, and relationships. During matrescence, women experience a wide range of emotions, from joy and fulfillment to doubt and uncertainty. This transformative process involves adapting to the new roles and responsibilities of motherhood, as well as navigating changes in self-concept and identity. Matrescence encompasses not only the physical aspects of pregnancy and childbirth but also the psychological and social dimensions of becoming a mother. It is a complex and multifaceted journey that requires support, self-reflection, and resilience.

Consider this

Imagine that for your entire life, you’ve been wearing baseball hats, and only baseball hats. Your closet is full of a diverse array of them that you can pluck off the shelf and choose to wear to compliment a mood or an event. Maybe your favorite is your athletic baseball hat, stretchy and sweat resistant, it helps you power through workouts and reminds you of your physical capabilities.

Then one day you decide to bring a new life into the world. Suddenly, the baseball hats take a back seat. A beautiful cowboy hat arrives on your doorstep. You ordered it about 9 months ago but you sort of forgot that when it came, you’d have to wear it. It’s new and different, a hat that’s being added to your wardrobe whether you were ready for it or not. It’s a different shape, a wider brim, a different color than you're used to, and embroidered on the back is “mom”. Once you put it on, you realize that this new “mom” hat is one that won’t be getting dusty in the back of your closet… 

To those who are approaching or are in the middle of a hat wardrobe shift. I promise, you can wear the old and the new, you don’t have to pick just one, and no one gets to make the choice but you! 

Understanding identity shifts

Matrescence brings about a reevaluation of one's identity as a woman. For many new mothers, the roles and responsibilities associated with motherhood can redefine their sense of self. This shift may involve renegotiating priorities, values, and aspirations in light of the new role as a caregiver. 

One of the most significant identity shifts new mothers face is the transition from being an individual to being a caregiver. This shift involves a renegotiation of personal boundaries and priorities, as the needs of the child often take precedence over one's own desires and goals. Additionally, the physical changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth can impact a woman's sense of identity, as she grapples with changes in her body and self-image. 

Back to your new cowboy hat. You’re excited about it, it’s new and different, and of course you’re going to favor the latest addition to your hat collection. 

And yet when you wear it, your mind sometimes drifts to your baseball hat collection. It’s the familiar, the comfortable, the hats that remind you of personal choices you’ve made and all of the experiences you’ve had in them, before your mom hat arrived. You may feel a pang of sadness or loss when you look at your old hats sitting in your closet as if forgotten…

Validating emotions

It is essential for new mothers to acknowledge and validate the complex array of emotions they may experience during this transition. Feelings of joy, love, and fulfillment may coexist with feelings of anxiety, doubt, and loss of identity. In my work, I encourage new mothers to express and explore these emotions in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. By acknowledging the validity of their feelings, mothers can begin to navigate the process of identity integration. 

In short, acknowledge that a new hat has been added to your wardrobe, and validate yourself by saying, “it’s ok that this is new and uncomfortable, but this is not a goodbye to my old hats, I’m just adding a new one into the rotation.” Tell your friends, your partner, whoever wants to be there for you that this whole new hat business is scary!

Once you put on the mom hat, you may feel like you almost can’t wear any other hat. “Impossible!” you think, telling yourself that your old baseball hats probably don’t even fit anymore. 

Take a breath, you’ve got this. Your head is still the same size. All the hats still fit. Nothing has been taken away from your hat wardrobe, only added.

Seek self compassion

Self-compassion is a crucial component of navigating identity shifts in motherhood. New mothers often place high expectations on themselves to fulfill societal norms and ideals of motherhood. It's essential to recognize that perfection is unattainable and mistakes are inevitable. I encourage mothers to practice self-compassion, allowing them to embrace their imperfections and cultivate a sense of acceptance and self-worth.

The first time you have to take off the cowboy hat and put on an old baseball cap for a trip to the store, you may get that sneaky feeling of guilt. We’re all familiar with mom guilt and shame. We tell ourselves that we have no business wearing our old hats, convinced we have to sell them or pack them away. This is not a healthy mindset, and it’s one that's perpetuated by our societal expectations of new mothers. Think about yourself with compassion, and speak to yourself like you would your closest friend. Would you shame them for wearing their favorite old hat even though they just got a new one? It makes no sense.

Find friends

Building a network of supportive relationships is instrumental in navigating the shifts in identity as a new mother. Whether it be partners, family members, friends, or fellow mothers, having a support system can provide validation, guidance, and encouragement during times of uncertainty. 

It’s time to seek out the cowboy hat crew. When you come together with others living through the same experience, imagine the support and happiness that you can give and receive as you relish together in the beauty of your new cowboy hats. And just as important, you can talk about all your old hats together. Communication with likeminded people can be comforting.

I want to emphasize not only the importance of seeking out individuals who offer understanding and empathy, but also seeking professional support when needed. Sometimes, new mothers need someone specially trained to guide them through matrescence, and help them figure out how to wear and style their new hat in the way best suited for them. The postpartum period can be notoriously difficult and lonely. For help for you or a loved one, resources can be found at the end of this essay. 

Reconnect with your personal identity

While motherhood is a central aspect of a woman's identity, it is essential not to lose sight of other dimensions of the self. I like new moms to reconnect with their pre-motherhood interests, hobbies, and passions which can foster a sense of continuity and wholeness. Whether it be through pursuing creative endeavors, engaging in physical activity, or connecting with community groups, maintaining a sense of personal identity outside of motherhood is vital for overall well-being.

You don’t want the mom hat to be glued to your head, as much as it may feel like you have to, and you’re the only one in control of that. Who wants glue on their hair and scalp? This is certainly an undesirable outcome! Just remember:

  • Your cowboy hat doesn’t overshadow your other hats.

  • You’re still a woman, a partner, and a human. You’ve still got occasions where a beret, a bucket hat, or an old baseball hat is much more fitting than the cowboy hat.

  • Continue wearing all the ones you love, understanding that your fashion selections just got better and they all compliment your unique self.

Embrace the evolution

Finally, it is crucial for new mothers to embrace the evolutionary nature of identity. Just as motherhood brings about profound changes, identity is a fluid and dynamic construct that continues to evolve over time. I want to empower moms to approach identity shifts with curiosity and openness which can lead to greater self-discovery and growth. I want to tell them that it’s ok to let go of rigid expectations and embrace the ebb and flow of motherhood.

  • Embrace the new hat, knowing you’re not giving any other hats up.

  • There’s room for all the hats, I promise!

  • Consider this mantra: not better, not worse, just different.

Navigating the shifts in identity as a new mother is a multifaceted and deeply personal journey. As a perinatal psychologist, I strive to provide support, guidance, and validation to women as they navigate this transformative experience. By understanding identity shifts, validating your emotions and practicing self compassion, finding friends, reconnecting with your former identity, and embracing the evolution of matrescence, new mothers can embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment amidst the challenges and joys of motherhood. And maybe wear that new cowboy hat with pride.

Perinatal period resources from The Office on Women's Health:

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Dr. Alyssa Berlin, PsyD

Dr. Alyssa Berlin is a clinical psychologist specializing in pregnancy, postpartum, and parenting. She offers private counseling for women individually and with their partners. She is the creator of The AfterBirth Plan™, a program that prepares couples for what to expect after a baby is born. The workshop teaches couples how to prepare for a healthy postpartum transition for the baby, for each partner, and for the evolving relationship.