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MATRESCENCE - a must-read for understanding and navigating motherhood in the modern age

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

When a book has you making notes in the margin… it’s got to be a sign, right?

The last time I found myself doing this, it was in 2010 with Eat, Pray Love, and before that, with Stephen Covey’s 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.'

The fact that I’ve so rarely been actively engrossed by a book, is either a sign that I’ve not read enough (probably true,) but it could also be taken as a testament to 'Matrascence,' that it has succeeded where a history of other hard-backs has failed.

Quite why this particular reading experience differed from the more passive page-turning ones of my past…well, it probably had a lot to do with the subject matter.

The ‘metamorphosis of motherhood’ was a topic that resonated with part of me that, for the last 8 years, has felt like something fundamental has shifted, but never quite known what, or why.

The book’s Author, Lucy Jones, goes into much detail about how the process of pregnancy, birth and motherhood can and does cause significant (and often permanent) changes in the brain’s structure and chemistry.

She highlights how little reference is given in mainstream maternal education, to these drastic and irreversible changes, and also how impervious the expectations imposed on women (both by themselves… and society) are to this very real science.

I feel like, had I known about this phenomenon sooner, I not only might have been able to reconcile the symptoms I was experiencing as ‘normal’ and natural, but I also might have been able to cope better with the so-called 'nurture shock' of this new life era.

This would have (in turn) helped avoid at least some of these ‘issues’ becoming a stick that I could use to beat myself with, during what was already a very vulnerable and fraught time.

Among the notes I hurriedly scrawled during my ravenous digestion of this book, was the thought-provoking (and sense-making) reference to the institution of ‘intensive mothering.’ It talked about the psychological, emotional and physical toll that often comes from adopting this ‘uber-devotional’ and ‘self-denying’ parenting style.

A style which is at odds with the trope of ‘it takes a village’, the likes of which so many other countries and cultures (except ours) seem to whole-heartedly subscribe to, and with beneficial effects for both maternal mental health and the national ‘happiness index’.

Jones described how (as a symptom of living in a country which mandates a comparatively isolated, emotionally-sensored maternal existence,) there was a risk for significant inner turmoil that could be avoided or at least abetted, if only the ‘modern maternal straight jacket’ (as Siri Husvedt called it) were loosened slightly - by way of better maternal mental health support, if nothing else.

Jones recalls in one particularly emotive chapter, equating her ‘absence with deprivation' - something which echoed my own sentiments when it came to making decisions on matters such as childcare, self-care, hobbies, work and socialising during those early I-can’t-possibly-leave-them-for-more-than-ten-minutes days.

It was fed by the narrative that time away from the baby was selfish at best… potentially damaging at worst.

Jones says how she wasn’t really sure, initially, if this thinking was a symptom of her ‘new brain’ or, if it was a side-effect of having internalisation too much of the societal ideals.

It resulted in a ‘theme park of emotions,’ many of which were rooted in the challenge — and perhaps existential crisis - of being suddenly being unable to see anything, except through ‘the gauze of another’s needs.’

The book explores how this unconquerable stumbling-block to self-actualisation can actually significantly impact the mother’s psyche, often with ‘madness-invoking’ results.

Interestingly, there are chapters of this book that also look at the parallels that matrascence has with nature and the natural world, thereby reinforcing the core message that there are deeper, more complex systems in play in the pre- and post-natal period, than the popular portrait of pregnancy-birth-then-back-to-normal gives credit for.

Beyond the biology of motherhood, this book examines the bigger-picture of cultural and societal issues surrounding maternity leave, paternity leave, childcare costs… and of care-work being invisibalised in the 'valuable work' rankings.

It also touches on how matrascence ultimately offers unique opportunities for joy (the micro-awe of ‘marzipan cheeks’) fulfilment and strength - the proof of which Jones evidenced via reference to the headline-making mother who was able (against all odds) to lift a car off a trapped child in 1980s!

When I eventually reached the end of this book, for the first time, I understood that popular saying which likens the experience to the sadness of losing a friend.

I had spent a month or so immersed in Lucy's voice and knowledge. I had found myself consoled and buoyed in equal measure, by the validation each page gave to an experience that, until-that-point, had been unfathomable.

The take-homes were many and varied, but aside from the aftertaste of something close to anger (much change needs to happen, that's for sure!), I am left with the same overwhelming sentiments that the author has seemingly landed upon.

That is, that the annexing of self, the disorientation, the intrusive thoughts... the eventual 'recombobulation' which casts ‘children as the main actors, and mothers as the audience’ - it is all part of the process of 'allostasis' (achieving stability through change.)

This is something that we can't help but be at the mercy of - or in awe of - whether we realise it yet, or not.

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