Why Matrescence Matters: the importance of a Mother’s Work

In this blog Maggie Gordon-Walker, the founder of Mothers Uncovered, explores the word matrescence and why it should be more commonly accepted and used.

I am highlighting the need for greater maternal care and specifically championing ‘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 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 postnatal depression. This is a label that comes with a certain stigma; it is negative, prescriptive and limiting. It is also diagnostic, a ‘condition’, not a state of being. It in no way embraces the complexity and depth of this time.

Just because women have been having babies for centuries and seem to be managing, doesn’t mean they should have to.

I founded Mothers Uncovered in 2008 for my charity Livestock, for women to talk openly and honestly about the joys and challenges of motherhood. We run creative peer support groups, facilitated by past participants, to help mothers reconnect with the women they’ve always been.

Our charity works hard to get funding to run groups and we have supported nearly two thousand women to date, but it’s much harder to get money for advocacy, which is why I feel so privileged to be taking part in The Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson programme. Our cohort of fourteen are advocating for such a wide range of underrepresented groups. I can see already from our online meetings how we will be able to share knowledge and ideas and support each other and am looking forward to meeting everyone in person next month.

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, often leading them to a state of desperation. We run several groups a year and while there would be many tears shed in the groups, we only occasionally felt seriously concerned about a mother’s mental wellbeing. Now that has escalated worryingly, from about one woman every eighteen months, to almost one per group. The pandemic and cost of living crisis have escalated an already precarious situation. What were once routine appointments with health professionals have been slashed to the bone and we see a procession of broken new mothers.

It is time we took this seriously and championed matrescence.

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.

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 have 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. Every single person on this planet has, or had, a mother. There are countless studies that point to the impact of upbringing in later life. I received an email the other day asking did we carry 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 and bodily changes, when a new identity emerges and emotions run riot, 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.

About the Author:

Maggie is an arts professional, having worked as a performer, writer and director. She is the founder of Mothers Uncovered, set up for her registered charity Livestock in 2008. The Brighton-based creative support courses are facilitated by past participants, celebrating the woman behind the mother, while allowing feelings to be explored honestly, without judgement. She co-edited an anthology of past participants’ stories ‘The Secret Life of Mothers’ (2018). She is an advocate for mothers’ rights, believing their wishes around pregnancy, birth and postpartum are often ignored or marginalised and investment in this area would improve thousands of families’ lives. She is part of a growing national network to recognise the word ‘matrescence’ as the period of time when a woman becomes a mother.
@mgordonwalker  @mothersuncoverd   https://mothersuncovered.com/www.maggiegordon-walker.com

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