Trigger warning: For those who have lost their mother or for those experiencing pregnancy loss and infertility, please know we here at VETgirl have battled that too. Please be aware this post can trigger all types of emotions, from sadness, grief, loss, anger and frustration.
Becoming a Veterinary Mother – Matrescence Metamorphosis
By Emily Taylor Yunker, DVM, CVMRT, CVH
I was recently asked to write a short article answering the question: What happens postpartum? I was confused. Like in the first few hours? First few days? First few weeks? Or like, the entire conceptual framework of “What in the world is happening (to me) during this major transformation that I was not prepared for?”
I decided to tackle the last one. Because you can find that other stuff pretty much anywhere. Pick up any book on pregnancy or birth and you will find a little blurb on postpartum that includes factoids about bleeding, afterbirth pain, engorgement, baby blues, sleep deprivation, etc. (I recommend BabyCenter for short articles with focused topics and nice graphics and videos.)
I’m going to talk about Matrescence. Matrescence is the biological process of becoming a mother. It includes the physical, mental, and emotional changes occurring during pregnancy and through the months after birth. Basically, it is the biology that explains the major identity shift.
At the end of pregnancy, estrogen and oxytocin levels climb to over 100x normal levels. After the separation of the placenta, prolactin joins the party, as estrogen and oxytocin levels drop. Bonding with baby through skin contact, lactation, eye gazing, smelling, and body contact brings additional surges of oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and more on an ongoing basis.
The brain is bathed in this hormonal stew, creating the epigenetic environment to switch on specific genes. The process is very similar to adolescence, as hormones switch on a spectrum of genes that result in a variety of both transient and permanent changes.
One of the biggest results of matrescence is increased conceptualization of “theory of mind”, the ability to understand someone else’s experience and the ability to analyze your own internal experience. So there is suddenly a surge in self-awareness and in awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others. It can be incredibly emotional as we can become really over-analytical and judgmental about ourselves, sensitive to the opinions and emotions of others, and we can find ourselves internalizing global events in a very personal way.
The purpose of this is clear. The ability to understand what your baby needs before they can meet their own needs. This sensitivity also allows for the development of a strong sense of “what is safe” and “who is safe”, which clearly has benefits for mammals caring for young.
Alongside “theory of mind” there is also heightened sensitivity to the environment, especially sound and visual “clutter”. This can result in an increased desire to perfect the environment and to make sure everything is “right” for self and baby. Again, a pretty good thing for mammals to do.
When these new mental developments are combined with the physical aspects of healing and lactating, the fostering of a new relationship with baby, a renegotiation of previous relationships, a reassessment of priorities, and a dramatic shift in day-to-day life…. It can be truly transformative. A metamorphosis into a new version of self. You will truly never be the same.
With proper support and patient self-exploration, this can be a wonderful transformation. But like the butterfly that turns to goo in the chrysalis, it can be messy, confusing, scary, and sometimes ugly.
Without proper support, it can be dangerous. Left alone with a helpless infant, sleep deprived, undernourished, confused, and sometimes in pain, these brain changes can lead to anxiety, over-analysis, depression, obsession, compulsion, poor self-image, poor self-care, environmental hypersensitivity, social hypersensitivity, isolation, and more.
You aren’t losing your mind. But you are melting down in your chrysalis and forming a new identity. While caring for a newborn and a body that has been though a lot. While also trying to care for other people and function as an adult in the world.
You need support. More than you think. For longer than you think. In more ways that you think.
But with the right support, your metamorphosis into mother comes with some amazing superpowers like increased empathy, increased ability to pick up on subtle body language and environmental cues, and improved multitasking. The dramatic brain changes also reduce the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive dysfunction later in life. Bonus.
Becoming a mother is a transformation in identity, a true rite of passage. Matrescence is the biology that explains how it happens. Postpartum is the time period this occurs. It’s a lot. A bigger deal that people let on. But with support, you can do this, and you can do it powerfully, if not always gracefully. You are a talented, intelligent, powerful, veterinarian mom.
Dr. Emily Taylor Yunker holds a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Auburn University. She practices small animal medicine in Cary, NC. Dr. Yunker is also The Veterinarian Doula, a doula and childbirth educator, working one-on-one virtually and teaching classes for veterinarians specifically as they navigate the transition to motherhood. She also writes and speaks as an advocate for all parents within the veterinary workplace, bringing awareness to the needs of parents so we can improve workplace wellbeing and support employee retention. Dr. Yunker lives with her husband, three children, and three cats on a (non-functional) farm near Pittsboro, NC. In her non-existent spare time you can find her puttering about with herbs in the garden.