Matrescence: A Mother’s Work

I have written before about my journey to Mothers Uncovered and also the desire to shine a light on the lack of care available to women when they become mothers; but felt inspired to do so again, as the cost of living crisis and pandemic have highlighted further the cracks in the system.
I moved to Brighton and set up Mothers Uncovered in 2008. It was only meant to be a one-off project, but others heard about it and wanted to attend, so it continued and developed, with several past participants becoming facilitators and nearly two thousand women supported to date. Our charity works hard to get funding to run groups, but it’s difficult to get money for advocacy, which is why I feel so privileged to be taking part in The Sound Delivery programme, to advocate for mothers’ wellbeing and specifically to champion ‘matrescence’.

Nearly two years ago I had the classic lightbulb moment, when I heard this word matrescence for the first time, which means the process of becoming a mother. It was coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973, but is not well known in the UK outside of medical circles, despite being recently added to the Cambridge English dictionary. 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 often medical, such as perinatal, which confusingly, means both before and after birth. Leaving aside the belittling ‘baby blues’, which only covers the short-term period following the birth, and the rare but serious postpartum psychosis, there is only post-natal depression. This is a label that comes with a certain stigma and negative connotations. It is also diagnostic, limited, a ‘condition’, not a state of being: It in no way embraces the complexity and depth of this time.

Cambridge English Dictionary

Becoming a mother is a lengthy process, it doesn’t happen overnight. You could say that the journey of motherhood continues for the rest of your life. With matrescence to describe this time, women can trust that whatever they are going through, it normalises the full gamut of experiences and feelings. They can start to own their matrescence and feel they’re understood.

Mothers, contrary to what some media stories would have you believe, are very mindful of how lucky they are to have a child. They also tend to put any of their own needs to one side in those first few months, often leading them to a state of desperation. Mothers Uncovered runs several groups a year and while there would be many tears shed in the groups, we only occasionally felt very concerned about a mother’s wellbeing. Now that has escalated worryingly, from about one woman every eighteen months, to almost one per group. It’s not just the birth that is traumatic, it’s the fact that many had to give birth alone. What were once routine appointments with health professionals to assess a woman’s wellbeing, both physical and mental, have been slashed to the bare minimum and we see a procession of broken new mothers.

It’s a far worse scenario than the isolation I felt after giving birth in 2004. The midwife had said, ‘Let’s get Mum up to the ward’ and I thought, ‘my Mum’s not here, is she?’ I couldn’t get my head round the fact that I was ‘Mum’. I was conscious of being not myself, although I’d give the impression that everything was fine. The focus of my everyday life had shifted entirely to my baby. I felt invisible, lonely and like I was failing, but not failing enough to be flagged up as having post-natal depression. What would that mean anyway? Would my much loved baby be taken away from me? But at least I had groups to go to, eventually finding one that did more than scratch the surface, where mothers talked openly and honestly about the joys and challenges they were facing.

Women often feel they are ‘just a mum’ or frustrated that they can’t do many other tasks in a day. But loving, bonding with and looking after a child is work and should be treated as such. The intense period following the birth of a first child is not matched later, but there are many stages to the journey, such as school, becoming teenagers, leaving home. At each stage of your child’s life, you feel the same intensity of love and anxiety, even if you get better at handling it.

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. For most women, myself included, they do just ‘get on with it’ and the memories of that turbulent time fade. That is why the problem still continues. Just because women having been having babies for centuries and seem to be managing, doesn’t mean they should have to. As a society we could offer more than that, especially when the support is easily achievable. There are also countless studies that point to the impact of upbringing in later life, so a change in attitude would help us all.

Every single person on this planet has, or had, a mother. I received an email the other day asking if we carried out a checklist to see if a woman was ‘in matrescence’, which shows how misunderstood this time is. It’s not a medical state, it’s a rite of passage from one’s old self to the new. The words adolescence and menopause, which are also times of hormonal fluctuations, bodily changes, the emergence of a new identity and rampant emotions, are so commonly known. It is only recently that menopause is starting to be talked about more seriously. It is time we took this seriously and championed matrescence.

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