Lucy Jones on the "gnarly and hardcore" reality of motherhood

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 6 July 2024
Author Lucy Jones alongside the cover of her book Matrescence.

Photo: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

When science writer Lucy Jones had a baby, she found herself in an unexpectedly frightening and lonely new world.

In her new book Matrescence, she takes a deep dive into the profound psychological and physiological effects of motherhood.

"Early parenthood is depicted as this banal, ordinary, pastel-hued, calm, passive experience... but actually it's gnarly and hardcore and I found it terrifying.

"I couldn't find myself in any of these parenting manuals. The one book that I kept going back to was Franz Kafka's 1915 fantasy novel The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa turns into an insect - possibly a cockroach - overnight and then he's isolated in a room, away from his family.

"[Early motherhood] was like that for me. I just felt so bizarre. And one of the aspects of that was feeling like my brain was different.

"In pregnancy, I thought my body was like a box or a pot and the baby would grow inside it and then be born, and I would be myself again, I'd go back to who I was… But actually I felt completely different and that was quite discombobulating and bewildering."

Thanks to "an amazing raft of research" over the last decade, we now understand a lot more about how pregnancy renders significant and pronounced changes to the mother's brain, Jones says.

"We all know that people going through adolescence feel weird and ... need support, but the science is telling us that matrescence - the transition into motherhood - can be similarly vulnerable.

"This new brain research is ... showing how vulnerable this time can be and that it is a transitional stage which we've neglected and it's a massive deal for the mother."

Up to 60 percent of mothers find childbirth traumatic, she says, and her own "quite frightening" three-day labour came as an unpleasant surprise.

"I was told that if I did all my breathing properly and all my exercises, that it wouldn't hurt very much and it would be all be fine as long as I was in the right state of mind. That was the messaging that I had absorbed, and that was just so not the case … I felt in my moment of the worst pain of birth quite betrayed by the messages that I had received."

In Western society, new parenthood is a very isolating and lonely experience, Jones says.

Public places are often designed in a way that is "hostile" for people with babies, and there's a lack of infrastructure, family-friendly spaces and transport accessibility.

"The way we neglect and we don't support new mothers, new parents, infants and any caregivers in our individualistic neoliberal societies is really wrong."

Like many new mothers, Jones was diagnosed with postnatal depression and for a long time thought there was something really wrong with her.

Since publishing Matrescence she's heard from many other new parents who've also felt "strange or immoral" in being overwhelmed by the experience.

While there is a biological aspect to parenthood that can precipitate mental illness, Jones says, there's also a "massive social problem" to address.

Isolation seems to be the norm in the maternal experience, with some studies suggesting up to 100 percent of new mothers feel lonely.

"[As a parent] feeling lonely, feeling isolated, feeling anxious, feeling depressed in a society which doesn't value care is probably quite an understandable and normal response."

For Jones, one of the most helpful ways to view motherhood is with an existential perspective, which acknowledges how inherently and deeply frightening it is.

"It's a huge risk. It involves a lot of choice every day. It involves a loss of freedom. It involves more confrontation with mortality, with time...

"Any relationship, even a relationship with a beloved animal where you love them so much, makes you very vulnerable. I think that is just a difficult, profoundly human experience that we don't give space to breathe."