Normalizing the Struggle of New Parenthood to Reduce Parental Death and Childhood Trauma

The period of time from the beginning of pregnancy through the first few years of your new child’s life is referred to by scientists as matrescence or patrescence (M/P), and I’m focusing on this topic because I think it could reduce the rates of maternal/paternal suicide and childhood trauma around the globe. I want to acknowledge before moving forward that I am using gendered language in this article to discuss M/P because (unfortunately) the only research we have available today is based on men and women who identify with their biological sex. I offer my compassion to anyone who finds these terms hurtful or limiting. More data is needed in these areas to provide an inclusive view. OVERVIEW OF MATRESCENCE & PATRESCENCE We are a culture still afraid to ask for help when we are suffering, especially with the pressure to be a perfect parent looming heavy over our heads. This toxic view of what it means to be a good parent or caregiver plus a lack of support from our community is killing us, quite literally. According to the latest research, “Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are the highest among developed countries, and death by suicide is the leading cause of maternal mortality.” (Chin, et al., 2022.) While maternal mortality rates are, on average, falling around the world, the rates of maternal suicide have tripled in the U.S between 2000 and 2017. The reasons for this increase are complex, and can’t be solved easily, but childhood trauma, previous mental health challenges, and being the sole provider for your children are associated with higher rates of maternal suicide, among other risk factors. This all sounds heartbreaking, and it is. However, there’s a shift coming in our perspective of new parenthood that I think could save lives and prevent childhood trauma. This shift is a recognition of the experience of matrescence and patrescence, and The profound transformation a birthing person or new parent naturally experiences, on a cellular level, from the time they become pregnant through the first year postpartum and beyond. These terms, similar to adolescence, explains the intense process of adapting to the new identity, responsibilities, and challenges that becoming a parent entails, while acknowledging the unrelenting amount of care our babies require. This experience is not only isolated in birthing people, but also anyone who becomes a new parent, including through adoption, kinship, or surrogacy. During M/P it is common for birthing and non-birthing parents to feel grief, sadness, anxiety, irritability, and overwhelm caused by the enormous physical and hormonal changes taking place in the human body. On top of that, acquiring new skills like trying to breast/chest feed, soothe a crying baby, and function without sleep can make this time especially overwhelming for babies and caregivers. Without support, and validation for what they are going through, caregivers often find themselves experiencing symptoms of trauma and blaming themselves for being “bad parents,” which only adds fuel to the fire. It’s important to note that every new parent experiences M/P, on some level, regardless of how they enter parenthood. I think of it like a continuum, with some people experiencing more distress during this phase based on the circumstances of their life, and some less. The research on matrescence is not all bad news. In the same way that adolescence brings positive change, so does bringing new life into the world. The parenthood journey is mixed with joy, hope, and awe as we welcome the the beginning of a new life and a hope for the future. Many parents gain a sense of purpose and meaning from their role as caretakers, which grounds them and brings priorities into focus. New parenthood also reflects to us how our parents cared or didn’t care for us, which brings new insight and emotional growth. According to new research the “mental load” of new motherhood improves cognitive functioning later in life. More research is needed to determine if non-birthing parents have improved cognitive functioning, but the data so far is optimistic. It is also believed that foster carers, kinship carers, and adoptive parents can and will experience M/P in their own unique way. These families are already caring for children with trauma and loss which makes new parenthood even more overwhelming. This process of M/P is not just a theory. It involves measurable hormonal and biological changes in the body and brain, redefining one’s priorities and changing the way we view life. I can’t stress enough that this is an overwhelming and stressful experience for many people, especially if they have a history of childhood trauma. The problem is, that most of us are not aware of the deep impact this transition has on our well-being, and instead, we blame ourselves when new parenthood is not pure bliss. The socially perpetuated narrative that being a new parent is supposed to be joyous time is strong, and also wildly unrealistic. Normalizing M/P as a deeply transformative experience that impacts our mental health could increase compassion and emotional support for new parents within their families, at work, and in our communities. Being surrounded by a culture that creates systems and policies that take into account the upheaval new parents are experiencing could reduce death by suicide and suicide attempts in early parenthood, thus reducing more trauma to children. When we understand that our feelings and behaviors are due to a natural process happening in our bodies, and are not individual failures as a parent, it lets some of the “steam out of the pot.” Perhaps this increased self-compassion and awareness could prevent a parent from harming themselves or their loved ones, and seek mental health care instead. Normalizing M/P in our culture will acknowledge the often pathologized internal shifts, struggles, and anxieties that are a natural part of parenthood, highlighting the significance of emotional well-being and support during this transformative phase in a human’s life. BOTTOM LINE There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel sad, anxious, or irritable as a new parent! This is a natural process your body and brain are going through. However, if these feelings are interfering with your ability to care for yourself, or your baby, or you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, than it is critical that you get mental health support from a licensed professional. The mental health crisis line is available 24/7 in U.S. by dialing or texting 988 on your phone. Some people find medication helpful to get through this phase in their life, and I’m here to say there’s nothing wrong with that either! In fact, there is a new pill for postpartum depression that begins working in three days and you only need to take it for two weeks. You can read what the FDA has to say about it here. I don’t have any affiliation with this new form of treatment, I’m simply spreading awareness for a tool that might help. HOW TO SUPPORT NEW PARENTS
    • Validate their thoughts and feelings with reflective listening and offer your time. “You are dealing with so much as a new mom. I am amazed at all you are able to handle, but I also know you need support. Please let me watch the baby while you go for a walk or take a nap. It would be my pleasure.”
    • Connect them with a support group for new parents in the local area, and encourage them to attend. Connections help us through this difficult time. Find out when the meeting is and set a reminder on your phone to remind them to go. Offer to watch the baby, if possible.
    • Run errands and take care of household chores they doesn’t have time to do. Set up a meal train with neighbors and friends.
    • Offer to go to the first doctor’s appointments with her and the baby. If time does not permit that, then at least help her get the baby in the car seat and into the car. You would be surprised how stressful and anxiety provoking that process can be for a new mom. I know I felt like a total failure the first time I did it.
    • Listen without trying to fix the problem. Deeply listen. Reflect what she is feeling and don’t offer solutions. Be a non-judgmental person she knows she can tell her real thoughts and feelings too. “I know you put on a happy face for everyone, but you don’t have to do that with me. You can tell me the truth. How are you really feeling?”
    • Respect the parent’s wishes and needs around the baby’s sleep schedule. Do not pressure them to attend events during the baby’s nap times or bedtime, which can be very early for newborns (5:30-7:00 pm during the first year).
    • Do not pressure a new parent to travel in the first few years of the child’s life. Traveling with a new baby can be one of the most stressful experiences for new parents. Young children need structure and routine in order to feel safe, and when schedules and time zones change it can increase bouts of crying and whining. If you want to spend time with the baby, go where it’s easiest for them.
    • Normalize the experience of M/P, but if they are feeling unusually sad or anxious, or the symptoms of anxiety or depression interfere with their functioning, encourage them to seek mental health support immediately. Everyone needs help during hard times. If you have a trusting relationship with the parents go the extra mile and locate a few trauma-informed therapists for them to call.
New parenthood is a delicate and vulnerable time for everyone involved. Lower your expectations as a new parent, and put your needs and your child’s needs above all else. RESOURCES ON M/P
***To learn more about healing and preventing childhood trauma, please join my private Facebook group, Emotiminds. It’s an educational support group on children’s emotional health. We’d love to see you there! For more free resources, trauma-informed guidance, and events, please subscribe to receive my monthly Childhood Trauma Newsletter. * Maternal Suicide Reference: Chin K, Wendt A, Bennett IM, Bhat A. Suicide and Maternal Mortality. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2022 Apr;24(4):239-275. doi: 10.1007/s11920-022-01334-3. Epub 2022 Apr 2. PMID: 35366195; PMCID: PMC8976222.
Beth Tyson, MA, is a childhood trauma consultant, 3x best-selling author, and former trauma therapist for kinship, foster, and adoptive families. Her business, Beth Tyson Trauma Consulting, provides training and caregiver education on childhood trauma, ambiguous loss, and trauma-informed parenting. We also offer a comprehensive suite of services to help your organization become trauma-informed and healing-centered. Contact us today to gain the skills you need to prevent and heal childhood trauma.   Contact Us
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