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Celebrating International Women’s Day: From matrescence to reproductive identity

Written by Dr. Aurélie Athan

It is hard to believe that two decades have passed since the beginning of my journey listening to mothers. It started with very open-ended interviews such as, “What brought you to become a mother, and what surprised you?”. These seemingly innocent questions led to deeper discoveries about the big and small life changes of their transition to motherhood.

But even more intriguing than their answers were how often they struggled to capture their experiences with adequate language. “I can’t put it into words,” they told me.

Most mothers had never been asked to reflect on their own personal development in the larger culture. The focus was usually on their children’s growth. And since parenthood was often an unquestioned given, shame and bewilderment were their reactions when the reality so often did not live up to expectation.

I knew I had to find a way out of this lack of vocabulary and with it a widespread phenomenon of voicelessness.

My research evolved slowly until the 1970s work of medical anthropologist Dr. Dana Raphael came into the picture and transformed everything. I will always remember the moment I came across her term matrescence and the clear path forward it presented. We had a word!

“Words create worlds. When we have a lack of language and don’t know how to articulate our feelings, it makes the process incredibly difficult. We need words to heal.”

Together with the students in my classroom and laboratory, we picked up where she left off and applied it to the field of maternal mental health. The challenge was to disseminate a more compassionate, person-centered, and developmental framework to shift the conversation. Most importantly, we had to boil down the concept down to its essence, so it could be easily understood and pronounced! Thus was born our public health campaign:

“Matrescence Like Adolescence”.

Remarkably, it seemed to do the trick. You could see a visible change come over the faces of those who heard it. Whether it was a student, mother, or practitioner, the proverbial light bulb would click on. I likened it to a quick, yet effective chiropractic adjustment for the psychology of mothers. Technically, this is known as “concept testing” and we quickly realized we were on to something. The diaspora of matrescence across the world has since been breathtaking. It has inspired a Ted Talk, scholarly and popular books, countless mother circles, and even a skincare brand!

“More than just a slogan, this is the power of paradigms. If they do their job right, they can explain the world better than previous models…and once seen, they can not be unseen. I call that healing at the collective level.”

Now we know mothering as a holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual endeavor that can not be reduced to any one domain. It is multi-faceted and intersectional. It continues to change fluidly over the course of the lifespan. It has many potential pathways with lots of diverse outcomes. The vast differences of mothers are just as interesting as the commonalities they share.

Getting to know each mother’s individuality and evolving selfhood has been a gift that keeps on giving. Fast forward a few years later and I have focused my work even more on the identity explorations that are so obviously an integral part of reproductive transitions.

Today, on International Women’s Day, it is worthwhile remembering that these life-altering journeys are everywhere and not just the plight of mothers. Thanks to advances in technology and social norms, people of all genders and sexualities now build their families creatively, with or without partners. More and more people are also delaying, choosing to be childless, or facing unwanted infertility.

I would like to argue that all of the above are valid reproductive identities and compelling in their own right. Each story is as unique as a fingerprint, no two are alike, and must be acknowledged. This is the hallmark of identity.

Like age, ability, race, gender, or sexuality — our reproductive identity is a fundamental aspect of who we are and deserves equal standing and protection. Yet still, too many people make reproductive decisions with limited literacy, vast health inequities, and outdated information. This once again leaves individuals without the proper language, frameworks, or tools to optimize their potential.

So my hope is that with your help, much like with matrescence, you will spread this concept wherever you are and let it do its good work. So say it with me: Reproductive Identity. Use it on the street, in the workplace, with your family and friends. Normalize it as another identity in the list of traditional identities worthy of including— and then shout out a warm welcome and long-overdue invitation to every single one of us to rest under its roomy, big umbrella.

To find out more, keep up to date, and share your reproductive identity story visit www.reproductiveidentity.com

To sign up for our March Monthly Provider Seminar, “Reproductive Identity: What is it & Why is it Important?” click here.

About Author:

Dr. Aurélie Athan is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University where she created the first graduate-level courses and certificate program in reproductive and maternal wellbeing. Her academic laboratory focuses on evolving theoretical models, such as matrescence, to better understand the psychology and diversity of reproductive life. She takes a holistic approach in her private practice, supporting both clients and educating providers to recognize the transition to motherhood as a developmental process. Her newest contribution, Reproductive Identity: An Emerging Concept was published in 2020 in The American Psychologist, and has been adapted to train sexual health professionals in schools and clinics.

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