Our society tends to play down just how huge pregnancy is. Many people think it’s just the process of growing a new human. Which is amazing, yes, but it’s SO much more than that.
You aren’t just getting a new baby, you’re getting a new you too.
I like to think of pregnancy as a portal. You won’t walk out the same woman you walked in as. It’s also like a crossroad, you have the opportunity to take advantage of the tremendous growth occurring within you (due to the plasticity of the brain during this time) and choose a path of healing, or you can choose a path of repeating old cycles.
What I mean by this is – pregnancy is one of the hugest transitions of a woman’s life. So much brain growth and activity occurs during this window – it’s comparable to the amount of brain growth that happens during adolescence. In fact, so much so that similar to adolescence, there is a term for the tremendous transformation that occurs for a woman during pregnancy, called matrescence.
“Matrescence like Adolescence“- Aurélie Athan, Ph.D.
The term matrescence was first described by Anthropologist Dr Dana Raphael in the 1970’s. She described matrescence as “the critical transition period which has been missed is matrescence, the time of mother-becoming… Giving birth does not automatically make a mother out of a woman… The amount of time it takes to become a mother needs study” – Dana Raphael. This work was then brought into mainstream psychology many years later, by clinical psychologist, Aurélie Athan.
Looking at matrescence through a more scientific lens, studies have been done comparing women’s brains, via MRI, pre, during and post pregnancy (Hoekzema et al., 2016 & Oatridge et al., 2002) They observed certain areas of the women’s brains shrunk during pregnancy and others expanded again after birth. So much so, that women who had given birth were able to be identified just based on their MRI alone. Pretty astounding!
It has been said by that these brain changes might partially occur due to a process called “synaptic pruning”, which describes the process of eliminating certain connections between brain cells to encourage the formation of new connections. The loss of connections may sound scary and like a bad thing, but in fact this is a huge window of opportunity for growth. Not only that, this rewiring of sorts, makes sense, as our bodies are incredibly intelligent and have an innate drive to reproduce and survive. The synaptic pruning is believed to help equip mothers for the role of taking care of their babies and make them more in tune with the cues of the baby.
Image of Maddison 40 weeks pregnant, photographed by Shana Makins.
It has also been said by Catherine Monk, Ph.D., that this “synaptic pruning” may be responsible for what we know as #mumbrain. This seems to be the slogan of the times when a woman becomes pregnant and for many years after. In one study, MRI images from pregnant mothers showed reductions in gray matter in the hippocampus, this is the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory (Hoekzema et al., 2016). So rather than prioritising information, your #mumbrain may in fact be prioritising the part of the brain that controls “theory of mind” – the system that helps you figure out what someone else wants and needs. This study also found that certain areas of the brain lit up when mothers looked at their babies, which may mean that the pruning might play a role in mother-baby bonding too!
“From brain changes in pregnancy, hormonal events, shifting identity, changing relationships and entering the social realm and rules of motherhood, when a woman becomes a mother she experiences intense changes during a very condensed window of time. The experience of matrescence is marked by both expansion and contraction, loss and gain.
This new research and understanding disrupts the traditional paradigm of believing becoming a mother is about creating babies. Finally we are acknowledging that when a child is born, a mother is too. Matrescence is one of the most significant transformations we may experience in our lives as women, and it deserves support and reverence.” – Nikki McCahon.
So as you can tell, the rapid growth that occurs during this enormous rite of passage in a woman’s life is a pivotal moment in time. With this growth, in our experience, it often comes with an increased awareness of what may be lurking in the shadows and holding you back. This may be attributed to the significant increase in plasticity in the brain (the brain’s ability to reorganise itself) and ultimately, your brain and body are working together to shape you into the perfect mama for your child.
More often than not, this process can bring to the surface unresolved childhood wounds or old ancestral patterns that are passed on from our mother line (our mum, her mum and her mum and so on). I believe this is illuminated to us during pregnancy so we can begin to unpack and heal this, in order to be the best parent for our child coming through. We get to decide what will be passed down and carried forward, and what will stop with us. It is a tremendous window for healing.
Pregnancy is SO much more than growing a baby, it’s also an unravelling of you and if you aren’t aware of this it can really catch you by surprise. It’s a time of immense joy, happiness and excitement, whilst also a time of deep grief, sadness, confusion and loss of identity. We believe it’s incredibly important that women are aware of matrescence as they are moving towards trying to conceive. This isn’t to try and work around this process or fight it, rather it’s simply having the awareness and reverence of the tremendous portal you are about to enter and begin to create some practises, rituals and tools that you can turn to when the waves get big.
So what are some anchors that you can start to implement today, to prepare you for when you’re deep in this transformation?
Some tools that we lean on and teach in our Conscious Conception course are:
- ~ journaling
- ~ pracitsing mindfulness / meditation
- ~ yoga
- ~ community!
- ~ flower essences as an additional lay of support
But this can look different for absolutely everyone!
What makes you feel deeply connected to yourself?
If you’re looking for some support along your preconception journey, we will be opening the doors to our Conscious Conception course for our 2022 intake soon. Be sure to be on the waitlist to get first access.
Women’s Health Dietitian
Women’s Wisdom Co
Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García-García, D., Soliva, J., Tobeña, A., Desco, M., Crone, E., Ballesteros, A., Carmona, S. and Vilarroya, O., 2016. Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience, 20(2), pp.287-296.
Oatridge, A., Holdcroft, A., Saeed, N., Hajnal, J. V., Puri, B. K., Fusi, L. and Bydder, G. M., 2002. Change in Brain Size during and after Pregnancy: Study in Healthy Women and Women with Preeclampsia. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 23(1), pp.19–26.