Motherhood and its fourth trimester

The term “fourth trimester” is often used to refer to the months post birth, where babies adjust to the world outside the womb and continue to develop and grow at an astounding rate. Since having children myself, it’s become glaringly apparently that the term also applies to mothers. As Osho* so poignantly phrased it: “The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new.”

Absolutely new indeed. And newly, or additionally, responsible for a small and highly dependent human being and their round-the-clock schedule of demands. We’re sleep-deprived and dealing with the myriad of changes that have rippled – be it gently or forcibly – across our bodies, minds, emotions and relationships. In addition to the practicality of meal trains and much needed breaks, new mothers need to know it is completely OK to feel like their old life doesn’t fit any more. It won’t. It can’t. Perhaps a highly obvious concept for others, getting this into my bones was somewhat of a revelation for me.

I suspect, however, that I was far from alone in preparing to have a baby but not to become a mother. There seems to be a current collective yearning to address this, because the number of articles, books and discussions on this topic is rising swiftly. The Fourth Trimesterby Kimberly Ann Johnson is an excellent example. She compares the postnatal experience for women across cultures and acknowledges that, while each woman has her own unique experience, there are five universal things a woman needs postpartum: an extended rest period, nourishing food, loving touch, the presence of wise women and spiritual companionship, and contact with nature. It’s a call to action for recognising the preciousness of the lives of both baby and mother.

While the needs of babies are oft discussed in our society, the concept of a woman being born anew through birthing a child is not. “Matrescence” is a wonderful word describing the transition of a woman into motherhood, a time in which the sheer level of hormonal and identity changes experienced is comparable to that of adolescence. 

Reproductive psychologist Dr Alexandra Sacksis spearheading a push to popularise this anthropological term and get mothers talking to one another about their #matrescence experience. She believes there are universal elements to the psychological experience of matrescence. These include: feelings of ambivalence in our close relationships; tension between our fantasy of motherhood and its reality; guilt, shame and a complicated relationship with the concept of the “good enough” mother; intergenerational mothering patterns and their repetition or disruption; and feeling competing demands on our time, energy and resources. With a book coming out in 2019, plus a popular TED Talk and New York Times article under her belt, she’s taking strong strides to get us talking about #motherhoodunfiltered in the hope to normalise the emotional tug-of-war of matrescence.

As Johnson so beautifully writes: “We all know it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise a mother!” So how can we rally better around new mothers in our communities? Feeding this conversation is a start. So is continuing this conversation beyond the point of physically healing post-birth, past the three months often considered to be the fourth trimester. Let’s give ourselves the grace to not have it all figured out, to get to know ourselves all over again, as many times as needed. And – if and when it empowers us – let’s ask whether we let ourselves crack open enough and be fully reborn in the way we feel is right and true and valid. Let’s celebrate our own journeys into motherhood, however that may look and feel right now, and acknowledge just how far we’ve come. 

By Sarah Davies De Paola

Sarah is a writer, communications consultant, and sound and breath therapy practitioner based in Zurich. She is Australian and has lived in Switzerland since 2005 with her Swiss husband. She’s also a mother to two small children. @sarahdaviesdepaola

Illustration by Susana Gutierrez

Susana is a project manager and freelance illustrator. She lives in Zurich and is the mother of two girls. She can be reached at:

*Osho was an Indian spiritual guru and philosopher.

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