In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, the hero, delivers a rousing speech to the floundering army of Gondor. In an attempt to boost their morale, he says, “A day may come when the courage of men fails. But it is not this day.” Aragorn continues, emphatically: “This day we fight!”
It is a dialogue that, during my time as a new mother, became a mantra – one that I would often repeat when I was at my weakest.
“It is not this day.”
“Itis not this day”.
I would remind myself that this is not the day I give up, I would remember that all the mothers and grandmothers who came before me fought, not once, but through several “mother-becomings”.
The fact that I needed a battle-cry to take me through motherhood says a lot about society and societal expectations of motherhood.
I had a fairly easy pregnancy and childbirth. No C-section scars, a support system at home, the privileges of having my husband, mother, and mother-in-law to help. Even then, motherhood was hard, breastfeeding was harder, and I never could share how difficult it was even with my closest ones. Somehow, all of us mothers put on a stoic face and act like all is well.
Science journalist and author Lucy Jones, however, does not. In her new book Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood, Jones comes right out and talks about just how hard motherhood is. This is one of those rare books, from which almost every sentence rings true. It is as if Jones has held a mouthpiece in front of thousands of new mothers and the answers are all free of shame or prejudice.
The first time Jones came across the term ‘matrescence’ from an article in The New York Times, written by reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks. “The process of becoming a mother, which anthropologists call ‘matrescence’, has been largely unexplored in the medical community,” read the 2017 article. It talked about the normal emotions every new mother experiences – joy, worry, disappointment, guilt and even anger and fear. It talked about how women were vulnerable to postpartum depression.
When she read this, Jones had just became a new mother, and was realising that there was a huge discrepancy between the stylized, lace-trimmed picture of motherhood and the bloody, gritty reality. With Sacks’ article, Jones finally felt heard. She implemented the suggestion that even talking about our individual experiences of matrescence might be enough to prevent women from getting ill.
In the book therefore, through the story of her own matrescence as well as an inquiry into the scientific, medical, and philosophical studies of motherhood, Jones examines how the experience of mother-becoming, imprints upon the mind, body and psyche of a woman.
Jones talks not only about the nausea, the pangs of childbirth, and breastfeeding, but also the stresses – right from watching the baby as it sleeps to make sure there is a heartbeat, to taking the baby for a walk and wondering if the loud traffic would hurt the baby’s delicate ears. She talks about the shame and guilt every new mother feels.
“Somehow I had been programmed to believe that it would be unthinkable to not breastfeed, almost a moral failing”, she says in the book. She recounts a breastfeeding support group where a woman complained about her bleeding nipples and the consultant nonchalantly advised a painkiller. Another puffy-eyed, sleep-deprived mother whose partner asked whether they could do just one nightly bottle-feed, was simply told the reasons why formula was not a good idea for the baby.
The book’s message is that it is not the failure of the woman, but the failure of society, patriarchy, medicine and even feminism—in not speaking about motherhood, by pushing it under the rug and delegating it to yet another household-y task, even feminism has not done justice to mothers, she contends.
Jones calls motherhood “the most political experience of her life – rife with conflict, domination, drama, struggle and power”. From my own experience of motherhood, I felt the truth of the statement. Every stage of becoming a mother is a power struggle. A new mother has to constantly stand up for herself. There is the fear of being judged for having an epidural or a C-section, the shame of formula feeding, the pressure of doing every single thing right, because somehow a single wrong move by the mother could irrevocably damage the wellbeing of the baby.
In one section of the book, Jones laments that Western society has no rituals of motherhood, no “rite-of-passage” despite motherhood being a difficult transition, and that there is no support system consisting of mothers and sisters. She compares it with Eastern cultures where there are rituals, massages, foods that a new mother must have, and older women who help the new mother.
However, it is these very rituals in my context as a new mother in India, that made motherhood an unpleasant political experience for me. The problem is that not all of these rituals are necessarily designed for the comfort of the woman. They are also often outdated, sometimes medically irrelevant and many a time downright uncomfortable.
At a time when a new mother is sleep-deprived, breastfeeding on demand, tired to the point of collapsing, it grates to be told, for example, to compulsorily eat a bitter laddoo, or to not be allowed to eat a healthy balanced meal because the cauliflower-potato sabzi may give the baby gas. Policing the new mother’s every move makes a woman feel controlled and subjugated. In this way, it turns into a different sort of power struggle. The rituals, even the support system can easily feel intrusive, and I often longed for my own space and pre-pregnancy independence. Unquestionably, new mothers need help and support, not in the form of stringent rituals but on the mother’s own terms; in a way that never downplays her independence or self-respect.
Jones rounds up the book with a chapter beautifully titled ‘Matroreform’. She talks about matricentric feminism and feminist mothering, a process of taking charge and reclaiming motherhood; a newer, gentler way of parenting, a way of keeping both mothers and children at the center of the parenting experience. While we need scientific research into matrescence, as well as governmental and societal support structures, we also need discourse, a better and respectful lexicon which does not have words like “lactation failure” and “hostile uterus”.
“We need to see the structures we have inherited in order to tear them down,” says Jones – and truly, we need to unlearn internalised ideas about selfless motherhood and finally see a mother as an individual with her own feelings, dreams, desires, and fears.
Yashodhara Sirur is a Mumbai-based part-time writer, full-time IT professional.