Summer book club: Matrescence

Lucy Jones explores how motherhood changes our bodies and brains – and exposes the lack of information that women are given to prepare for it.

Matrescence book cover

 

“When a human animal grew inside my body, I started to realise that some hoodwinking had been going on. When she left my body, I noticed more.”

And so begins Lucy Jones’ Matrescence, a book that meticulously explores how motherhood changes our bodies and brains – and exposes the shocking lack of accurate information that women are given to prepare for this experience. 

Jones, a non-fiction author and a mother of three, constructs the book around her own journey through matrescence – a term thought to have been coined by a US anthropologist in the 1970s to describe the years-long, perhaps life-long, process of becoming a mother. The author charts her experiences and shows the endless “hoodwinking” that bombards mothers.

When Jones gets “morning sickness”, she soon realises that this universally-accepted term is blithe and incorrect. She finds that there is a lack of scientific research on pregnancy nausea and sickness, despite the fact that most women experience it and severe cases can be life-threatening. She does find a 2020 study that concludes that the term “morning sickness” is “inaccurate”, as pregnant women commonly experience all-day symptoms.

Jones takes a similarly forensic approach to childbirth, where potential risks and injuries are not fully explained to women in advance. Her chapter on the maternal brain is excellent – she delves into a new area of research about how parenting rewires your brain, so you can perform your new role. During this period of rewiring and plasticity, the brain is vulnerable and sensitive to stress. (How I wish I’d known this at the time, instead of fighting against how sensitive I felt.)

Matrescence thus skilfully builds the case that women are routinely given incomplete and rose-tinted “information” throughout pregnancy and motherhood, sometimes because the data doesn’t even exist. Rather than helping women to feel calm, this just leaves them vulnerable – to PTSD after birth, to postnatal depression, to feeling overwhelmed when their experience doesn’t match what they have been told.

Jones aptly describes her initial response to this mismatch: “At first, I thought that I must be going mad.”

Vampire bats and amniotic lakes

Matrescence sits in a small canon of female writers who have given us serious and unflinching accounts of their motherhood, in order to highlight the social and political issues that all mothers face. This canon includes Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book Of Woman Born, and Rachel Cusk’s 2001 memoir A Life’s Work – both of which Jones cites in her book. 

Jones is primarily known as a nature and science writer, and she is at her most brilliant when connecting her matrescence to these two topics. Her book is interspersed with short vignettes from the animal kingdom, which give snapshots of how motherhood plays out for vampire bats and spiders. Her writing is particularly beautiful when she describes how the very atoms in her pregnant body and her baby’s body are recycled from the natural world: “I was carrying inside me a pool of amniotic fluid, which was once rivers, lakes and rain.”

In later chapters, when Jones moves beyond this focus, the book can feel unwieldy. She starts to explore how mothers are affected by different parenting movements, depictions in the arts and popular culture, and a lack of flexible career options – each of which arguably merit a book in themselves. A section about mothers who run peer-support groups, while interesting, could have been briefly covered in an earlier chapter about maternal loneliness.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Matrescence is an ambitious book that captures how motherhood is complex, ever-changing, intense, and creative. The book successfully kicks against the dullness associated with that dreaded and sexist word: “mumsy.” When Jones creates an anonymous survey to ask mothers what they wish they’d known, one responds as follows:

“Insipid/idealistic portrayals of motherhood made me less interested in it as a young person. I thought it was boring when it’s been one of the most extreme socio-political experiences I have ever been through.”

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This review is part of Workingmums.co.uk’s summer book club. Check out our other summer reviews of books by Caitlin Moran, Louise Boyce and Lorraine Candy.



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