Motherhood Is a Political Category
And you’re not wrong to feel disenfranchised by it
There’s a word I love, “matrescence,” which describes the psychological process of becoming a mother. Psychologist Aurélie Athan brought it into the mainstream after discovering anthropologist Dana Raphael’s work; both women had seen the need for research about a mother’s interior state when functioning as a person, rather than only as a carer for a child.
What I like about the word is that it teases out the fragile, private metamorphosis of self from the glom of “childbearing” and “mothering” and “motherhood” that takes up so much psychic space. My child is nearly seven; every cell in my body is supposed to have regenerated since I gave birth, but I still feel in transit, like a planet or a bus.
At the same time, the world seems to trundle along. Despite a wave of books about the challenges of motherhood crashing on the shore of publishing these past few years, little seems to have changed materially for the mothers I know. And the more I talk to people, the more unyielding the challenges appear to be. The self may transform, but the system stays the same.
It’s a generative system of unpaid labor that props up capitalism, which would no longer work without it.
You meet your child and you are entranced by the smell of their neck, their tiny ears. Without knowing it, you step over the threshold of a thing called “motherhood,” and it will govern your life from now on—the way it governs the mothers around you who live in a vast invisible world of the utterly mundane, which you with your new eyes can now see.
Suddenly the architecture of your neighborhood is hostile to you. The women have disappeared from the workplace; the higher income-earner returns to work. Strangers comment on your baby or your body or anything but your mind, which is presumed missing, and everything is bathed in an aureole of sentiment. The baby never sleeps, and you tell yourself it is just the adjustment period. It is your matrescence. It is a change in yourself.
If you don’t go mad, it is because you have found a way to make yourself smaller, or to disappear.