Dr. Aurelie Athan researches, writes, and teaches about the transition to motherhood for academic and lay audiences. She applies a feminist-informed, positive psychology and spiritual wellbeing framework in addition to traditional clinical and psychoanalytic lenses to her scholarship and women's narratives.
Perhaps reviving the conceptual term matrescence, coined by and borrowed from the anthropologist Dana Raphael (1975), would be most apt within the land- scape of maternity. Much like adolescence, but nested in the niche of mid-life, it is an experience of dis-orientation and re-orientation marked by an acceleration of changes in multiple domains: physical (changes in body, hormonal fluctuations); psychological (e.g., identity, personality, defensive structure, self-esteem); social (e.g., re-evaluation of friendships, forgiveness of loved ones, gains in social status, or loss of professional status), and spiritual (e.g., existential questioning, re-commitment to faith, increased religious/spiritual practices). We are indeed indebted to the early ‘‘maternal developmentalists’’ who aptly characterized motherhood in its multi-dimension and dynamism, both the oppressive and the liberating—the dichotomous phenomena that are often the hallmark of any major life transition (Barclay, Everitt, Rogan, Schmied, & Wyllie, 1997; Barlow & Cairns, 1997; Brunton, Wiggins, & Oakley, 2011; Cohen & Slade, 2000; Lederman, 1996; Leifer, 1977; Mercer, 2004; Nelson, 2003; Nicolson, 1998; Paris & Helson, 2002; Rubin, 1967, 1975, 1984; Tilden, 1980; Valentine, 1982; Weaver & Ussher, 1997; Winson, 2009). Their perspectives equalized and served to normalize, rather than pathologize, the ‘‘mixed-feelings’’ of women.
Pregnancy and childbirth are typically associated with pleasant ideals of motherhood and positive emotions, but research has shown that under some circumstances pregnancy can be seen as a stressful life event (Geller, 2004). To capture the complexity of how or why a woman becomes pregnant is a unique challenge. Although pregnancy has been conceptualized as a unitary construct, it is in fact multidimensional, and the antecedents to pregnancy a complicated story only recently told in the psychological literature. When a woman becomes a mother, she brings with her a priori a set of attitudes based on her intentionality of the pregnancy as well as a history of fertility-related behaviors and experiences. Difficulties in the formation of a family may begin with early reproductive health issues in the life span of the mother (e.g., endometriosis, fibroids, irregular menstruation), varying levels of infertility (e.g., use of IVF or egg/sperm donation), one or more perinatal losses (e.g., abortion, early term miscarriage, late-term neonatal death, stillbirth), and threatened gestations (e.g., high-risk). The interplay of a mother’s motivation for her current pregnancy and past reproductive complications may yield a new arena for clinicians to explore, and has the potential to raise much-needed questions with regard to the changing procreative lives of 21st century women.
Although spiritual awakening has been extensively documented in those having experienced religious conversion, drug rehabilitation, a significant loss, trauma, or acute illness, there is to borrow a phrase from Hill (2000), “a strange neglect” of spiritual experiencing as a topic of research in ordinary life transitions (Cartwright, 2001; Emmons, 2003; Hamilton & Jackson, 1998; Mahoney & Pargament, 2004). Language rich in symbols of transformation, transcendence, and rebirth has been historically more available to those suffering through ‘death- defying’ experiences (Neill, 2002; Papathanassoglou & Patiraki, 2003), rather than ‘life-affirming’ ones. The transition to motherhood, a ubiquitous form of quantum change, has not been explored in depth within a spiritual framework despite being universally described as a significant achievement of adulthood for a woman marked by acute redefinitions of self, reappraisals of lifestyle choices, and dramatic shifts in ways of thinking about intimacy, love, relationships, the world, and God (Madaras, 1999).