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18 June 2023

There will be blood

Motherhood is the most profound metamorphosis most women will go through. Why is this process so overlooked?

By Sophie McBain

Once her spiderlings have hatched, the black lace weaver spider – a species native to Europe, smaller than a thumbnail – feeds them with regurgitated fluid and then her own body. At least six species of spider practise matriphagy, as do some other insects and snake-like amphibians called caecilians, the journalist and nature writer Lucy Jones notes. Giving birth is the most natural process in the world, but nature is violent, brutal and strange, awe-inspiring and sometimes awful.

When women speak of wanting a “natural birth”, they often imagine a gentle process, scented candles and whale sounds, a warm bath and contractions they can ride like waves. The British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read, the godfather of the natural childbirth movement, argued in the mid 20th century that the pain of childbirth was a product of modern women’s fear: if only women could learn to relax and trust their bodies, he suggested, they wouldn’t feel such pain.

Dick-Read’s ideas offered a corrective to an over-medicalised, disempowering birth culture, but have left generations of mothers feeling that the pain and trauma of childbirth was their fault, and created dangerous, even deadly expectations. We enter motherhood expecting the warmth, the love, the sweet-smelling snuggles – not the blood and shock and terror.

Jones, who has three young children, writes that her first labour was “textbook” and “normal” – and also 41 hours long, and so agonising and exhausting that she hallucinated. Towards the end, her daughter’s heart rate suddenly dropped, and Jones was worried her baby would die. Afterwards, as Jones struggled with a complicated physical recovery, sleep deprivation, breastfeeding troubles and intense anxiety, she felt angry that she had been left so ill-prepared, that there was little acknowledgement that what was “normal” could nonetheless be brutalising. Why was so little said of the intense pains and bloody aftermath of childbirth?

NHS surveys have shown that anal and perineal injuries that lead to problems such as incontinence are often dismissed by clinicians attending births; a TV advert by the company Frida Mom that depicted a typical postpartum recovery – a mother wincing in pain on the toilet and as she hoists herself out of bed to attend to a crying infant, waddling in her gauze pants and thick sanitary towel – was banned as too graphic. The taboo means many new mothers are shocked by the ongoing pain and blood. Why, Jones asks, do the materials promoting breastfeeding pretend that problems such as low milk supply simply don’t exist, or that the huge demands placed on breastfeeding women – who might nurse their babies over a dozen times in 24 hours, or hourly through the night – are no big deal? British mothers are bombarded with “breast is best” messaging, and yet we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

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And why, Jones wonders, had she expected that motherhood would not fundamentally change her personality and identity? The reality was that becoming a mother had transformed her, both physically and emotionally.

At mother-and-baby groups Jones felt adrift and lonely. The existential struggles and anxieties of new motherhood were left unspoken. “I’m hoping she might sleep through the night soon but she’s so little,” the mothers might say to one another, not “I love the baby so much it hurts, it actually hurts (how will I ever be OK?)” or “every day I think, she could die”. Reading this I felt a jolt of recognition, remembering how I spent the first weeks of motherhood feeling like a human-shaped wound, raw and vulnerable, haunted by vivid intrusive thoughts of the many ways my daughter could die.

“Don’t you just love being a mum?” another new mother asked me at that time, although her eyes were as dark-rimmed as mine, and more than six years later I can still feel the searing, silencing shame. I wish someone could have handed me Matrescence, Jones’s latest book.

[See also: Why young mothers terrify me]

Mattrescence is an anthropological term, referring to the process of becoming a mother. Motherhood transforms a woman biologically and emotionally. It alters her social status, her identity and her relationships, and redirects the focus of her days. It is perhaps the most profound metamorphosis most women will go through and yet, Jones observes, this process remains largely overlooked in our culture and by science. You will not even find the word matrescence in the dictionary. We recognise that adolescence, another period of rapid physical and emotional change, can be painful and awkward, and yet expect women to slip effortlessly into their new roles and their new bodies. The first step is to start talking about this metamorphosis, the highs and lows and growing pains.

In recent years there has been a surge in novels and non-fiction books that grapple with the contradictions and strains of motherhood. Women hunger for them, perhaps because the dominant ideal of perfectionist, intensive, child-centred parenting throws into sharp relief liberal feminism’s failure to make sense of the demands of motherhood.

Scientists are also only now discovering how profoundly and permanently pregnancy changes a mother’s physiology: scans show that a mother’s brain is structurally different from the brain of someone who hasn’t borne a child. Multiple parts of the brain’s grey matter shrink, but this isn’t evidence of “baby brain” – memory loss and mental deterioration – but rather, scientists suggest, evidence of fine-tuned connections and enhanced efficiency in areas associated with caregiving and attachment. The changes are not driven solely by biology but are also a product of parenting: men’s brains also change after parenthood, as do the brains of non-biological mothers.

During pregnancy a foetus’s cells mingle with those of its mother, spreading its DNA throughout her body. Scientists are still trying to understand the dynamics of this cellular interaction. These so-called microchimeric cells – which carry the baby’s DNA – have been found concentrated at the site of the C-section, suggesting they can aid healing, but they have also been linked to a variety of diseases. The contradictions of motherhood run deep.

Jones’s 2020 book Losing Eden explored our psychological dependence on the natural world and how reconnecting with nature helped her recover from drug and alcohol dependence in her late twenties. Matrescence is a similarly wild and beautiful book, a blend of memoir, science, psychoanalytical thinking and nature writing with a poetic sensibility and a strong sense of political purpose. Between chapters, she riffs on tadpoles, volcanoes, the aurora borealis, eels, looking to place her own experiences in ecological context and reflecting on the strangeness of the natural world, its remarkable capacity for change and metamorphosis. After a caterpillar spins itself into a cocoon it dissolves into goo, so that if you were to pierce the cocoon its contents would spill out, but it retains a group of cells known as imaginal discs, one for each body part, and it holds onto its memories.

When scientists trained a group of caterpillars to avoid the odour of ethyl acetate using electric shocks, they retained this aversion after their bodies had dissolved and reconstituted as butterflies. Even during her second year of motherhood, Jones writes, she felt as though her imaginal disks were suspended in goo, only just ready to reform.

Some animals exhibit remarkable cooperation: female vampire bats have been observed to care for orphaned young as their own, while gorillas look after orphaned infants as a group. The Portuguese man o’war, known as the most poisonous jellyfish in the sea, is in fact a colony of organisms that operate as one creature. We are all interdependent and the modern, Western culture of guilty, intensive parenting in atomised nuclear families is a historical anomaly, one that places immense pressure on mothers in particular. It might help explain why it is estimated that one in five new mothers experiences a form of mental illness, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.

We need, and deserve, new “ecologies of care”, Jones writes. This is a book that will be passed among friends and will no doubt bring solace to those reeling from a loss of self, still grappling with their maternal ambivalence and a postpartum universe of fear. For there is nothing “natural” about our idealised image of the selfless, nurturing earth mother – and matrescence can be joyful, painful, creative, destructive, exciting, tedious, liberating, restrictive, life-affirming and utterly, savagely wild.

Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood
Lucy Jones
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25

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[See also: The parent trap: how to fix Britain’s childcare crisis]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars