We recently held an online sharing session, similar to ones we often run, but with a slight difference. This was a group of eight different women, all mothers, and in one case a grandmother, reflecting on their time as a mother, what it revealed about them and their lives. We were all considering our matrescence.
Matrescence is the process of becoming a mother. The word was coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973, but is not well known, unlike the very familiar adolescence. Both are times of hormonal and bodily changes, when a new identity emerges and emotions run riot. In America, psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks did a Tedx talk on this subject in 2017. Consequently, there is a small band of academics, mostly East coast based, who are helping to spread the word. There are small ripples of usage in France. In the UK though, the term is not known outside of medical circles.
Why is this word important? What’s in a name, after all? Quite a lot, I think. Currently there is no term in common usage to describe this point in a woman’s life. The offerings are diagnostic: ‘post-natal depression’ or the incredibly belittling ‘baby blues’, the latter only covering the short-term period following the birth of a child. Even leaving aside the fact that APNI (The Association for Post Natal Illness) continually exhort changing the term from PND to PNI, arguing that the condition is larger than just depression, it is stuck in people’s consciousnesses in much the same way as PMT. PND is a label that comes with a certain stigma; it is negative, medical, prescriptive and limiting. It in no way embraces the complexity and depth of this time.
Mothers Uncovered has been running peer support groups since 2008. We are wanting to expand our work and connect with other support groups online, raising awareness of this word and creating a database of maternal peer support services, accessible to the public and health professionals. Through Mothers Uncovered we have met several hundred women. Some say they were diagnosed with PND, many more didn’t go to their doctor, feeling they could or should battle on regardless. A significant amount say they don’t feel depressed exactly; but they are shocked, fearful, angry, excited, sad, grateful, full of overwhelming love….The list of emotions is endless, which is why there needs to be a word that encompasses this time, gives it weight and dignity, that normalises the full gamut of experiences and feelings on offer. That signals to both the woman, and everyone else around her, that she is valued.
Several thousand babies are born every day, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that it is extraordinary. Where once there was one person, now there are two (or more if it’s a multiple birth). Many people feel that women should just pipe down on the topic. In fact, many people feel women should pipe down on ALL topics, but that is a bigger and thornier problem. Mothers Uncovered was quoted in a letter to The Times last year as an example of a service helping women and someone searched for us online and went to our website, simply to send an email that read, ’When did women lose the plot so badly? Babies have been born for millennia. Just get on with it. No-one said it was easy.’
Why is asking for help and understanding seen as so despicable and weak? Do people really not understand the importance of supporting women at this critical time? Every single person on this planet has, or had, a mother. To see this as a niche issue affecting a few, privileged women is reductive and absurd. Your upbringing affects you – there are many studies showing the detrimental effect of an uncared for mother on her partner and children. If women are supported, they will relate better to their children and this will benefit them and the society as a whole. End of story.