During pregnancy and early motherhood, women undergo seismic psychological and physiological changes, yet this life-altering transition is neglected by society. Now the emerging concept of ‘matrescence’, like adolescence, is opening up a new conversation about the bind of modern motherhood, helping to birth a new mothering culture
Before I had my first child, I had little idea about what becoming a mother would entail. I thought pregnancy was a straightforward physical process with a few ‘hormonal’ days. I thought that I would still be the same person when she was born. The experience of motherhood from a mother’s perspective hadn’t interested me before, I thought it was boring, banal. The proper work happened in an office. Most of us regard it this way: just look at that prefix in “just a stay-at-home mum”. I was overjoyed to be pregnant, but I realised, as the baby grew, that I had picked up strange notions about the value of the work of mothering. It’s no surprise: care work in our society is undervalued, unsupported and disavowed.
In fact, it would be the wildest, hardest, most enlivening and extreme psychological, existential, social, physical and socio-political experience of my life.
When the baby was born, I had an uncanny sense that the old me was dead. I found this disturbing. I had gone, but I didn’t know where. My brain and patterns of thought felt different, as if I had been rewired. I was expected to breeze through new motherhood, to ‘bounce back’ and crack on as normal. But I felt as if I’d been cracked open. After a gnarly birth and struggles with breastfeeding, hardcore sleep deprivation and the stress of looking after a newborn, mostly on my own – as is the way in our society – began to take a toll on my mind. But I was told to enjoy every minute. What on earth was wrong with me?
Around that time, I happened upon a word in an article written by a reproductive psychiatrist called Alexandra Sacks. It brought together everything I was feeling. Matrescence.
“The process of becoming a mother, which anthropologists call ‘matrescence’, has been largely unexplored in the medical community,” Sacks wrote. The word was like adolescence, and described the emotional, physical and identity changes having a child triggers.
The idea that what I was feeling was normal filled me with relief. As a science journalist, I started to research the new and growing field of the parental brain. I was shocked by what I found.
Neuroscientists have found that the impact of pregnancy on the brain is as significant as the impact of adolescence
After childhood and adolescence, there is no other time in an adult human’s life course which entails such dramatic psychological and physical change as matrescence.
In a landmark study published in Nature in 2016, researchers provided evidence, for the first time, that pregnancy renders pronounced changes in brain structure. Soon after, neuroscientists found that the impact of pregnancy on the brain is as significant as the impact of adolescence.
I learned about ‘zombie cells’. During pregnancy, cells are exchanged between mother and foetus via the placenta. When the baby is born, some of those cells remain intact in the mother’s body. For decades. Perhaps for ever. The phenomenon is called microchimerism. The exchange creates what leading geneticist Dr Diana Bianchi calls a “permanent connection which contributes to the survival of both individuals.”
The impossible institution of modern motherhood
Partly because of all this biological change, the perinatal period is a vulnerable time. As many as 20 per cent of women develop a mental health problem in the first year of new motherhood – including mild and moderate to severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and psychosis. The likelihood of depressive episodes doubles during matrescence. The figure rises for women of colour and those in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.
Many new mothers I know have had a significant systemic response to childbirth and becoming a parent, including the most life-threatening conditions: psychosis, sepsis, severe depression. Many new mothers are lonely, anxious, depressed, burnt out and blame themselves for it. But the more I researched, the more I realised how impossible the institution of modern motherhood is today.
Unlike other cultures, western societies don’t recognise matrescence as a major transition that can make women ill. Yes, women are still expected to have children, glorified for reproducing, and judged if they don’t, but it is hollow lip service and comes with oppressive pressures to be perfect and ever-giving, rather than what’s really needed: adequate healthcare, social infrastructure and support.
Motherhood is the wildest, hardest, most enlivening and extreme experience of my life
I wanted to work out why many mothers around me were in crisis. I discovered the concept of ‘intensive mothering’, coined to describe the unprecedented cultural expectations heaped on mothers, ignorant to the role wider society has in bringing up a child. The demands on primary caregivers, most often mothers, to nurture children’s emotional health have never been higher, yet most mothers work and raise children without wider family support. It’s an impossible bind.
I started to see that the way caregivers are devoured by late capitalist society is similar to how we treat the living world – as a resource without limits, in the pursuit of growth at any cost. By naturalising the work of caregiving and raising children, and portraying it as a condition of femininity and womanhood, society can obscure and mystify what it actually is: the infrastructure propping up capitalism. Without workers, there is no work. In a society where money is power, splitting off care work into the domestic sphere without pay or proper societal investment contributes to the care crisis.
Signs of a new mothering culture
In the absence of the village in the global north, however, there are signs of a new mothering culture – and society is starting to catch up.
Informal meetings that bring new mothers together are growing in number across the UK. The first of its kind – Mothers Talking – run by psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen, brings women together to talk honestly and freely about their experiences. The Motherhood Group, a community for black mothers in London, is a safe space where members don’t have to police their tone. Mothers Uncovered, in Brighton, uses guided writing, art and singing to explore mothers’ emotional landscape. Bluebell, a charity in Bristol, supports parents with their emotional wellbeing. The Motherkind Cafe, in Oxford, is a peer-support group.
A growing number of matrescence activists and coaches are part of a global movement to focus on the wellbeing of mothers at this transitional moment.
The experience of being part of another being has much to teach us about our fundamental interdependence
The science of the maternal brain tells us that mothers in this vulnerable period need protective social policies and infrastructure, such as libraries, childcare centres, child-friendly transport networks, affordable childcare and investment in perinatal healthcare.
This is illustrated by the success of Mom Power, a ground-breaking psychotherapeutic initiative in Michigan, US. It was set up in 2009 to help new mothers who were facing severe stress, or had histories of trauma. Not only did participants in the programme show reductions in depression and PTSD, their brains also showed greater activity in the circuitry involved in empathy, an essential ability for parenting.
In Europe, the Netherlands has a programme called Kraamzorg, which gives new mothers up to 80 hours of postnatal assistance from a maternity nurse at home. The rate of postnatal depression is just 8 per cent. In Berlin, there is a network of spaces for families – kindercafes – where children have public places indoors to play. In Sweden, parents who need to look after a sick child can receive compensation for up to 120 days a year until children turn 12. In Finland, both mothers and fathers receive nearly seven months of paid leave. Use-it-or-lose-it family leave makes parenting more equitable from the beginning.
In the UK, there are positive signs of change. After sterling work by the charity Pregnant then Screwed, the government’s spring budget announced plans for new funded childcare hours. Currently, most parents are eligible for up to 30 hours of childcare only after a child turns three, which leaves many women unable to return to work. The new plans will extend this to parents of children from nine months old. It seems the motherhood penalty – the systemic disadvantages to mothers in the workplace – is finally being taken seriously.
NHS pelvic health clinics – which provide treatment for the many who suffer childbirth-related injuries – will be available to all by 2024. Five years ago, 40 per cent of the country did not have access to maternal mental health services. Today there are specialist teams in all 44 local NHS areas in England, thanks to an injection of funding, and 33 maternal mental health clinics have opened, with more to come.
A 2022 report commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance sets out the economic case for expanding access to mental health care during the perinatal period. “Without treatment, these problems can have a devastating impact on women and their families,” says Dr Alain Gregoire, President of the MMHA. Investing in parental health is a no-brainer for a healthy society.
I started writing my book Matrescence on my phone while pushing my baby in a pram – the place she would nap – in 2016. Since then, it feels that this is a moment where maternal mental health is being properly considered – and the concept of matrescence is helping.
Perhaps our society could learn something important from an experience which has been downplayed in western culture and thought for so long. An experience – one we have all had – of being part of another being has much to teach us about our fundamental interdependence at a time of planetary crisis. An experience of interconnectedness, which, if we remember in our time of disconnection from each other and the earth, might even save us.
Illustrations: Sol Cotti
Help us break the bad news bias
Positive News is helping more people than ever to get a balanced and uplifting view of the world. While doom and gloom dominates other news outlets, our solutions journalism exists to support your wellbeing and empower you to make a difference towards a better future. And as Positive News’ audience and impact grows, we’re showing the rest of the media that good news matters.
But our reporting has a cost and, as an independent, not-for-profit media organisation, we rely on the financial backing of our readers. If you value what we do and can afford to, please consider making a one-off or regular contribution as a Positive News supporter. Give once from just £1, or join 1,000+ others who contribute an average of £3 or more per month. You’ll be directly funding the production and sharing of our stories – helping our solutions journalism to benefit many more people.
Join our community today, and together, we’ll change the news for good.