Joined by psychotherapist, health coach, and mama wellness expert, Alyson Hempsey shares her motherhood journey and expert advice on the transition a women going through when becoming a mother.
I am a psychotherapist, mama wellness expert, coach and mama to 2 year old Ellie Jane. In December 2020, I launched my mama wellness-coaching business, The Honest Peach, after recovering from postpartum depression and anxiety. What was at first the most challenging season of my life ended up being the most transformational, and led me to the work I do today.
In November of 2019, I had my daughter, Ellie Jane. My pregnancy was a breeze (as breezy as a pregnancy can get, I should say). Her delivery was seamless. She was perfect and healthy. I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, this isn’t so bad!” (I chalk this up to the hormones.) On day three we left the hospital, and my hormones promptly crashed, making way for baby blues to set in.
As the weeks went on, I was crawling out of my skin with anxiety. I felt what I described as a “heavy fog of dread” over me. What was happening to me? Why wasn’t I enjoying these blissful moments with my new baby like everyone else? (Or so I thought.) I had previously experienced bouts of depression throughout my life, but it was nothing quite like this. Logically (and as a psychotherapist) I knew I was experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety. But it felt like there was more to it than just a chemical imbalance, or a hormonal shift.
After I experienced how difficult the transition into motherhood was, I wondered: if I, someone with a lot of support, tools, and knowledge around healing, had this difficult of a time, how were other mamas coping?
I felt in my soul that I had to help the mamas. So, I dove into the literature, I journaled and reflected on my own experience, and used social media as a platform to learn more about why motherhood was SO DANG HARD. It started to become clear to me that there was more to the story than just “mental illness.”
There were a TON of other factors at play (societal expectations, gender roles, inner child wounds, identity shifts, systemic problems like lack of affordable childcare, a pandemic…to name a few.) that made the transition into motherhood so tumultuous. How could we support mamas holistically, instead of *only* throwing medication at them, or dismissing their struggles as just a “normal” byproduct of motherhood?
In the end, I created a holistic framework based on the biopsychosocial-spiritual model named, “eMBRACe.” (Mind-Body-Resources-Add structure-Connection-Community) I wanted to help mamas embrace the changes that came physically, mentally, and emotionally with motherhood, instead of considering themselves “broken” and “mentally ill.” I wanted moms to know that they didn’t need to lose themselves in motherhood. In fact, motherhood could be the place where they could finally find themselves.
You see, there’s actually a term for the transition into motherhood: matrescence. First coined in the 1970’s, it has since had a revival of sorts. It describes the drastic change women experience hormonally, physically, emotionally, and mentally when they become mothers. While not every woman will experience perinatal depression/anxiety, every woman will experience matrescence.
Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a researcher, and reproductive psychiatrist says, “It’s no coincidence that matrescence sounds like adolescence. Being pregnant is like going through puberty all over again: your hormones go nuts, your hair and skin don’t behave the way you’d like, and you develop a new relationship with a body that seems to have a mind of its own.”
She goes on to say, “The difference? Everyone understands that adolescence is an awkward phase. But during matrescence, people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look and feel.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Sacks and countless other women that argue that what moms are experiencing is a natural, normal identity crisis. It is an incredibly vulnerable, stressful, and beautiful period of our lives. When we’re faced with something so immense, a variety of factors, like our genetic makeup, trauma history + support system can either:
- Provide a solid foundation to support us through our journey
- Create an environment that allows mom to spiral into a diagnosable mental illness.
Like a baby is born, so too is the mother.
I began to ask, “Imagine if, instead of encouraging moms to sacrifice everything for their kids, we encouraged them to nurture and explore their new identity of mom?”
“Imagine if, instead of making moms feel isolated and shameful and labeling them as “mentally ill” when they experience a (normal, natural) identity crisis in motherhood, we provided them support, validation and guidance?”
So, how do we harness the power of matrescence? One of the most impactful practices my clients are required to complete is what I call “SOULtime.” SOULtime is dedicated, purposeful (alone!) time to the SELF - to reflect, build self-awareness, tolerate stillness, and get a break from the often over-stimulating environment that accompanies motherhood.
SOULtime was born when my daughter when my daughter was around 5 months and I was in the throes of PPD. The usual tools from my “toolbox” weren’t cutting it, so I decided I needed to try something else. During her morning nap, I would go into what I lovingly referred to as my “zen den,” and meditate, journal, or practice yoga. I would disconnect from “mom” and reconnect with “Alyson.” Who was she anymore? What was important to her? What kind of mom, partner, professional, and friend was she now? I was no longer “Alyson before baby,” but I also knew I was still more than “mom.”
SOULtime can include mind-body work (like yoga or breathing practices), meditation, journaling, or simply sitting in stillness and listening to your body. SOULtime can look different for every mama, and it does take some practice and getting used to. For mamas that struggle with anxiety, particularly, the thought of sitting still even for 5 minutes can be downright scary and unsettling. The most important thing is to start small and build your way up, so you don’t give up right away if you experience significant discomfort at first!
I’ve listed the first three things you should do to ensure you have a successful SOULtime:
- Remember your room as a kid/teenager? Remember how safe it felt? It was YOUR space, you could be fully yourself there. That’s what we need in a zen den. When we have a partner, we now have to share that space in our bedroom. (Yuck! ;) Creating a space just for you is vital. I made our guest bedroom double as my zen den. If you don’t have a separate space, create a nook in your bedroom or living room! (I’ve even had a client consider her bath her zen den ;) Size doesn’t matter, how it feels for you does.
- Get creative! Hang some string lights! Light some candles! Buy a mala (prayer/meditation bead), get some crystals, or buy a cute new yoga mat. Have some soft music playing in the background (I like to use the app Insight Timer!) Create an environment that feels like YOURS, no kids toys allowed.
- As moms, we always feel rushed. Any task we start we’re frantically trying to finish so we can go on to the next. So, finding time in our day to “do SOULtime” can feel overwhelming, and we can be easily think, “I don’t have time!”
- That’s where a timer comes in. I find that using a timer really helps me relax and surrender to the moment. Saying, “I’m going to do SOULtime sounds a lot more daunting than, “I’m going to do SOULtime for 20 minutes.” A timer helps me remain present, because I know that timer’s got my back, and when it dings I’m on to the next task.
- I had a client who was doing SOULtime during her 1 year olds only nap of the day. She found she was fidgety and couldn't focus because she was just thinking about all the things she needed to do before her baby woke up. When we talked through it, it made total sense! She didn’t want to use her beloved nap time for SOULtime, she wanted to clean + get things accomplished. So, we moved her SOULtime to night time, and she was much more relaxed and able to be present.
- I have all my mamas fill out a schedule in excel so they can get a good birds eye view of their week. This also helps them wrap their head around making time for SOULtime, because they see how much white space they have in their day!
Suffice to say, growth is never easy. It’s a process that requires time, energy and intention, something moms don’t have a lot of in their first year of motherhood. But, with the right tools, support, and guidance motherhood can be a chance for empowerment. A personal revolution. A metamorphosis into the woman + mama you were always meant to become.
Motherhood doesn’t have to be the end of “you,” mama. Motherhood can actually be where you finally find or cultivate “you.”