Normalizing the Moods of Motherhood with Dr. Alexandra Sacks

Newly crowned TED speaker Alexandra Sacks, M.D. wants moms to know that all those overwhelming thoughts swirling around in your head are to be expected when you’re expecting–and acclimating to motherhood.

“Am I cut out for this?” is one of the most common questions Dr. Sacks hears from moms who assume that such closed-door confessions will lead to a diagnosis of postpartum depression.

“I realized that part of what was contributing to people feeling like a lower mood, and feeling better after they spoke to me, is that they weren’t talking to each other,” she says.

That’s why Dr. Sacks recently took to the stage at TED Residency with an important message around the concept of “matrescence,” a transformative developmental stage that occurs as women become mothers.

“Shifting the focus from the baby to the mother is a pretty radical idea, globally,” she says.

“I’ve been getting letters, emails from people all over the world,” she says, including a mental health worker in Zimbabwe raising funds for a women’s health conference, and women in Pakistan, Malaysia, Australia and beyond.

“Matrescence” started to take off when Dr. Sacks penned “The Birth of Mother” in The New York Times in 2017. She was blown away by the response when the story went viral, which solidified the need for a broader public health push.

“I thought it was pretty straight forward stuff that everybody knew, so I was really surprised that it got passed around so much. Then I thought we have to keep going,” she says about the steps that led to the TED talk.

Dr. Sacks has also co-authored a book coming out in 2019, What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, which features “the most common psychological challenges that we’ve seen in our patient population” along with Dr. Catherine Birndorf.

“The book is really supposed to be a how-to guide to get through pregnancy and your first year of motherhood in a way that helps you really understand the terrain of the psychological transition,” she says.

It Takes a Village

There are signs the medical industry is beginning to embrace “matrescence.” In fact, Dr. Sacks says the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is changing their guidelines to encourage postpartum moms to see their doctors before 6 weeks.

As for those whispers of postpartum depression?

“The medical community is shifting to a broader umbrella term called PMAD (postpartum mood and anxiety disorder),” she says. “Some people feel more anxiety than depression…I don’t even think of them as two separate conditions; I think of it more as a spectrum.”

Dr. Sacks believes that treating this spectrum is a “community exercise” that requires partners, friends, family and/or hired help to allow mom to get out of the house and take a break.

“Cutting off self-care will also lead to anxiety,” she says. “We need to rest. We need to be able to relax, to calm our nervous system, to have social interaction, to not work 24/7 which is essentially what the job of caring for an infant is.”

“Sometimes people just need a good night’s sleep and then they feel better,” says Dr. Sacks. “It’s really just about sleep deprivation sometimes.”

(There aren’t enough emojis for me to convey how relevant this is for me and so many moms I know.)

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Photo credit: TED/Ryan Lash

“If you stop doing the things that make you feel like you, you’re going to stop feeling like you,” she says.

Plus, the whole family benefits when mom carves out time for herself.

“When you preserve a part of your identity, you’re also leaving room for your child to develop their own,” says Dr. Sacks, in my favorite line from her TED talk.

Women Helping Women Succeed

“I want the definition of matrescence–and what will best support a woman when she’s going through matrescence–I want that conversation to be guided by mothers,” she says.

“In order for that to happen we need to reduce shame and stigma. Talking and putting your feelings into words is one of the most helpful things you can do to protect yourself against social isolation and depression.”

Dr. Sacks wants moms out there to take up this challenge. Confess something you’re struggling with to another mom. Take time out to do something that you used to do.

For more information about matrescence and Dr. Sacks, visit AlexandraSacksMD.com.

Photos courtesy of TED/Ryan Lash.

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