In the first weeks of early motherhood, I visualised one scene on repeat: an enormous, thick, purple velvet curtain in some kind of temple, ripped from top to bottom. It took a while to realise it was an image from the Bible. The curtain of the temple is torn in two just after Jesus dies. ‘The earth shook and the rocks split,’ writes Matthew, in his Gospel. Later, when I had healed a bit from the birth and we could go out walking, I found myself drawn to seedpods: dried, empty, desiccated, dead. My phone is full of photographs of these brittle, geometric shapes. (During pregnancy, it was buds about to unfold or shoots pushing through.) I didn’t expect to grow obsessed with the demise of things when faced with new life.
Really, I had no idea what becoming a mother would entail before my daughter was born. That my ‘Mom’ jeans would take on a literal sense was about the only sure bet I could make. Perhaps I expected nine months of focussed, intense care before everything went back to normal. Perhaps I thought she would become, like a little hamster or guinea pig, something to look after, to watch over. Pictures of the Madonna and child from the walls of my first bedroom suggested peace, serenity and soporific contentment. Motherhood looked chilled. After the birth, and the initial trimester of her life, I did not expect my identity to be ruptured still. I did not expect my earth to continue to shake.
I was overjoyed to be pregnant, but I found the state of being neither me, nor not-me, to quote Adrienne Rich, discombobulating. Eight months in, and I am still disorientated by matrescence—the word anthropologists use to describe the process of becoming a mother. I feel as alien to my previous life as if I’d morphed into an insect. Physically, my clothes are too tight, my fingers too big for my rings, my face years older from sleep deprivation. Psychologically, I feel that I am in a tiny box, like Alice after she ate that cookie and grew and grew and burst out of the house.
I travel to London, the first few hours apart from my daughter. Before meeting up with a friend, I browse a bookshop and sit, alone, to drink a strong coffee and try and enjoy my time. It is a strange sensation. I am never wholly comfortable or relaxed if I am not in the same room as my baby. When I am in another town or city, it is as if my intestines are stretched like elastic from me to her, over the fields and rivers and motorways and towns, and the further away I am, or the longer from her, the tauter they become. I am her daemon, or she is mine.
That afternoon, it occurs to me—crazily—that I have to go back, immediately. I can’t just head to the sea. Or jump on a plane. Or talk into the night with friends and fall asleep on a sofa. I am impelled by her, like the cockroach led by the parasitic emerald wasp. I am hijacked—by love, but still hijacked.
A few weeks later, I race home to her from the station. My stomach a flutter of butterflies, as if meeting a lover. But the next day is relentless. By the afternoon, I am exhausted, desperate to have a shower and longing for her to sleep so I can rest. Sometimes I can soothe her crying, sometimes I can’t. When she howls, my insides twist and there is an ache in my chest. We go out for a walk and are hushed by the trees and the soma of the department store, its perfect aisles of candles and towels. It is a distraction from my bewilderment at this new job, this hinterland I face without an instruction manual. Back home, I rock her for what feels like hours, but it doesn’t comfort her. I can’t wait for my husband to get home so I can have a break. Then, suddenly, the wind drops and I’m freed from the whirlpool of frantically trying to undo her malcontent. She falls asleep in my arms with her bottle, and oxytocin replaces adrenaline as I inspect her eyelashes, her nose, her slightly parted lips. I graze my nose over her cheeks and smell her, cherishing her deep, peaceful sighs.
Living in the rhythm of another life—to paraphrase Rich again—isn’t always comfortable.
Sometimes it clicks and we dance perfectly together, other days, we are off beat. I realise, later, we are getting to know each other.
The world is filled with new threats. I glance out of the train window and see rows of tall trees that could hit the carriage if they fell. I squint to estimate the distance. Yes, they definitely would. We would all die. Has anyone checked their roots? I look around: no one else seems to mind. I am on high alert, even in my sleep. The crux: if something happened to her, I’m not sure I could go on.
Yet my desire to answer her every need collides and tussles with my own, both basic (to eat, shower, sleep, work and go to the loo when I want) and indulgent (to read, write, garden, swim). I am vexed and guilty for desiring other things. I wrestle with cultural conditioning: what is expected of me, what I should be doing, how I should be as a mother and as a woman. Is this tug, this pull the ‘maternal instinct’? Is it my biological destiny to feel split? Is the guilt socially confected? Is it culturally ingrained? Or is it peptides?
I didn’t expect to feel so much. When she knitted into my body, I didn’t realise the stitches would never really loosen.
Motherhood (noun): the ‘root of female oppression’, Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone
To find my bearings, I look outwards, to books, history, science and nature.
I ground myself in literature. Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born makes me feel normal. ‘No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering and exhausting,’ she wrote, in the 1970s.
Almost half a century later, the psychic crisis is still taboo. Matrescence ‘has been largely unexplored in the medical community’, wrote Dr Alexandra Sacks in the New York Times in May. I am embarrassed to write of my ambivalent feelings and fight the urge to pre-empt every paragraph with ‘obviously, I love her more than anything, but...’ Considering women comprise over half the species, there isn’t a lot of non-academic writing out there about the psychic experience of becoming a mother. The seminal fictional text on women’s perinatal mental health, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is over 100 years old. Today, the popular, best-selling books about honest parenting or maternal ambivalence are virulently attacked (usually by other women and Daily Mail bozos). Much contemporary literature focuses on the baby, rather than the mother. ‘Maternal ambivalence’ is often interpreted in the binary, simplistic sense of loving and/or hating your child. Even the very likely states of stress, isolation, sleep deprivation, ill health and anxiety can be brushed under the carpet. But, surely, as a Mumsnet commenter put it, ‘Not everyone will be pissing rainbows about attending to the endless needs of a newborn.’
I look to the past, to the construction of motherhood as an institution, to try and untangle internalised ideas from what I actually want to believe. I consider what it would have been like for my grandmothers’ grandmothers’ grandmothers, well, those that didn’t die in childbirth. Before industrialisation, the home was a busy hub of work and communal activity. As Rich points out, there were dyes to mix, fats to boil, herbs to grow, skins to tan, soap to be made, clothes to be stitched, walls to be built, floors to be maintained, candles to be dipped. The home wasn’t a private refuge. Woman at home, isolated, with baby, geographically separate from wider family, is a relatively new phenomenon. We are lucky to have close family nearby who help and support us, but there are days when I don’t speak to another adult until my husband comes home from work. I’m not surprised one in four new mothers is said to suffer from loneliness.
Although I know loving and caring for my newborn is the most important role of my life, I have struggled to see it as work or action worthy of true esteem. So far, it doesn’t involve the things I thought I was good at. To love, I felt, was just a basic instinct. And while society exerts pressure on women to have children, and be perfect mothers when they do, it doesn’t confer much value on the role itself. Looking ‘mumsy’, for example, is not a thing to aspire to. ‘The woman at home with children is not believed to be doing serious work,’ writes Rich. This attitudes still exists, 40 years on, even though we now know that love, care, touch and attention are crucial to brain development in the early months and years. And for society to function well, and not to be run by baby-men like Trump, that work is incredibly serious.
Through her work, American anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy flies the flag for more complex portrayals of motherhood. She is a leading voice on family structure and maternal instinct, has likely studied infanticide more than anyone else, and challenges cultural archetypes of the good mother, taking on the patriarchal institution of motherhood brilliantly and sensibly. She says humans are ‘cooperative breeders’, which means that shared child rearing is the ideal set-up and higher quality childcare is a public need.
‘Institutionalised motherhood demands of women maternal “instinct” rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realisation, relation to others rather than the creation of self,’ wrote Rich. Then motherhood, unshackled from institution, could mean the creation of a new self, a rebirth? Well, that sounds promising.
That week, I dream again for the first time in months: of accidentally killing a man, a David Bowie concert, watching waxwings. I cut my hair very short. I am starting again.
Matrescence, becoming a mother (noun): the activation of new levels of emotions, such as fear, resentment, anger and love.
Although the study of matrescence is in its infancy, I turn to science to see if it can shed any light on my identity crisis. I know my neuroendocrine system and hormones will have changed dramatically. In pregnancy, there is a huge increase in progesterone and oestrogen, the biggest since puberty, which might explain my vivid flashbacks to early adolescence.
I am intrigued to discover that my daughter’s cells are still somewhere in my body. Researchers recently found that fetal cells cross the placenta and can lodge themselves into the tissues of the mother. Little is yet known about the relationship between the cells and the mother, or why it evolved, but scientists think they may travel to the brain, where they can ‘influence neural circuity and maternal attachment to the child’.
I also find out that my brain structure is now different. A neuroscientist called Elseline Hoekzema of Leiden University recently led a study that tracked brain changes during pregnancy and in the postnatal period. She found that the brains of new mothers changed significantly, with reductions in grey matter in regions associated with social cognition. It is the first study to show that pregnancy alters the brain in long-lasting ways, which suggests we have a lot more to learn.
A study of women’s lived experience of postnatal depression is illuminating. It discusses the process of turning from a ‘known person in a known world to an unknown person in an unknown world’. To accept their new self as a mother, the women interviewed experienced a cycle of grief, triggered by a loss of self-concept and self-esteem. The women reported a state of shock and the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, depression and acceptance. ‘They felt they had to experience death of their former self before giving birth to their new persona,’ wrote the author, Denise Lawler. My psychic state starts to make a lot more sense.
My maternity leave is coming to an end, and my husband and I will soon both work and look after our daughter. Although many couples live this way, it feels like we’re headed for uncharted terrain in shared parenthood. Our parents were of the generation when most fathers didn’t even attend births, after all; a lot has changed. As we don’t have immediate templates to draw from, and I still have this nagging instinct that I should be the primary caregiver, I investigate how non-human animals raise their young for something akin to inspiration, or affirmation, perhaps.
The first thing I do each day with my daughter is look at the birds in the garden. I open the curtains and we see if we can spot starlings or sparrows or blackbirds or, if we’re lucky, a goldfinch. It turns out birds, so different from us in most ways, are quite similar in their parenting. Most avian species share childcare duties and rear their young together.
At the other end of the scale, loads of species abandon their young to get on with it. But some are sacrificial to the extreme. Mother caecilians—tropical amphibians that look like massive worms—allow their babies to tear off bits of their skin for food. When food is scarce, the mother black lace weaver spider will shake her web to activate a protective, predatory instinct in her young spiderlings. Her final act is to push down on top of her babies, who will eat her for breakfast.
The other animals we watch in the garden are snails. I’ve noticed two adults and their young sliming around the grass a few times. It turns out one species of snail boasts the most devoted fathers in the world. They carry the babies on their backs until they’re ready for independence. The male dwarf hamster is basically a doula. He helps his mate give birth and then eats the placenta. Scientists believe this could trigger a mechanism that makes him more responsive to his young. Males in some species of fruit bats actually lactate and feed their young (Darwin thought human male nipples were an evolutionary leftover from a time when we may have shared breastfeeding duties).
In other words, there are many ways of parenting in non-human species, just as there are many human ways of parenting. In animals, as well as humans, paternal care helps babies develop to be strong and healthy. I realise that I have been socially conditioned to believe there is something mysterious related to the ‘maternal instinct’—that I can do things that my husband can’t. Logically, I know that my husband is just as loving, caring, sweet and patient with my daughter as I am, if not more so.
There is an argument that the ‘maternal instinct’ is unique to women. Naomi Stadlen, a psychotherapist and the author of the bestselling What Mothers Do, writes this: ‘I see a mother’s role as unique, not interchangeable with a father’s, and one that needs to be better understood. The much-used word ‘parenting’ often blankets over the crucial contribution of mothers.’
And there may be some truth in that. According to Mindlab, which examined brain activity during sleep, women are most likely to wake up at the sound of a baby crying. While the cry of a baby didn’t even make the list of top ten noises that might rouse men. However, researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel found that hands-on parenting could rewire a male brain similarly to the effect of pregnancy and childbirth on a female’s. ‘What we thought of as a purely maternal circuit can also be turned on just by being a parent—which is neat, given the way our culture is changing with respect to shared responsibility and marriage equality,’ neuroscientist Kevin Pelphrey told Science magazine. Researchers compared heterosexual couples in traditional roles with the mother as primary caregiver and homosexual two-father couples. The parenting neural pathways were stronger in the mother and two-father couples, suggesting that hands-on parenting can reconfigure the brain and instinct can develop. My husband says when he has longer patches of looking after our daughter, he is more in sync with her, and better able to respond to her needs.
At the end of 2016, the novelist and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wrote a letter to a friend about how to raise a feminist daughter. ‘A father is as much a verb as a mother,’ she writes. ‘Chudi should do everything that biology allows—which is everything but breastfeeding. Sometimes mothers, so conditioned to be all and do all, are complicit in diminishing the role of fathers.’
As I reconfigure my belief systems, and shake off my conditioning, other acts help me find my bearings and rearrange my identity—watching plants grow, reading novels and listening to music in an almost adolescent way: trying on lyrics, keys, moods to see if they fit or help make sense of life. I’m playing songs that excited me as I was becoming an adult. Teardrop by Massive Attack is one. I must have listened to that song a thousand times but, till now, I did not hear the opening lyric: ‘Love, love is a verb, love is a doing word,’ written and sung by Elizabeth Fraser. Now I am more confident in reading my daughter and knowing how to make her happy, I realise that to love a child was never going to be easy. Of course it was going to be frightening. To love is big stuff, to love is a verb. I’m grounding myself in my love for her. I want to be her constant safety, the one she need not impress or do anything for; the one with whom she doesn’t hide who she is or watch what she says; a harbour where she can just be herself and be loved, always. And so maybe it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, to lose oneself psychically and physically, to begin anew in matrescence. I guess Kübler-Ross would call this acceptance.
Lucy Jones is the author of Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain, which is out now in paperback (Elliott & Thompson, 2017).
Photograph by Lucy Jones