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Maternal Journal: A Radical Expression of Matrescence

In her TED talk Dr. Sacks explains that, just like adolescence, ‘matrescence’ is a time of feeling “hormonal and moody…skin breaking out…body growing in strange places and very fast, and at the same time people…expecting you to be grown-up in this new way.”

Both adolescence and matrescence are times when substantial hormonal and physical changes are occurring in a person’s body. In adolescence, at least, people are often quite considerate of the mood swings and behavioural changes that occur as the young person is learning how to navigate this large upheaval in their lives. Perhaps less often do we make these same allowances for pregnant women, often expecting women to be happy and excited for the upcoming arrival of their ‘bundle of joy’.

In their PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) lessons at school, teenagers are taught not just what bodily changes to expect, but how to control and manage their new emotions as they develop from a child into a young adult. Antenatal classes, however, focus almost exclusively on the (albeit very important) medical aspects of being pregnant and giving birth, but lack time dedicated to the discussion of the psychological transition in identity from woman to mother, or the incorporation of the ‘mother’ role into a woman’s identity.

This concept was one of the major take-home messages and largest discussion points from the Maternal Journal workshops. Maternal Journal has been described in detail in a previous InSPIre the Mind blog. In short, it is a programme of workshops set-up by Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, an artist and midwife, in collaboration with our lab’s Perinatal Psychiatry section. I and colleagues were fortunate enough to be invited to attend these sessions, aimed at supporting the mental wellbeing of pregnant women and mothers with a history of mild or moderate mental health problems. Unlike traditional antenatal classes, the aim of these journaling workshops, which explore self-expression and sharing through a variety of artistic modalities, is to discuss and reflect upon the psychological aspects of motherhood. Prominently-included in these discussions, although not termed such, is this concept of ‘matrescence’.

In the launch event, one of the most positive aspects highlighted at the launch of the Maternal Journal workshop series was the focus of discussions on mothers as individuals, rather than ‘bodies carrying babies’ in the medical sense.

The artistic aspect of the journals allowed women to share their feelings in an abstract form which made them feel more comfortable to open up. The conversations were open, honest and intimate. Attention was paid to ensure that a variety of different artistic methods were covered in a structured way, which removed the “I’m not creative” barrier that may prevent some individuals from participating. The activities ranged from collage to cartoons, and from poetry to exploring the history of female journaling. The focus was not on the quality of the art, but the art as a form of self-expression, or a way for the women to share their experiences. As Carmine Pariante said in the panel discussion, the use of art “created a sharing experience, which fostered a social connection that is often lost in modern Western culture”.
“being listened-to is as important as speaking”. Fran Burden, an artist involved in the project

The practice of sharing excerpts from their own journals at the start of each session was very powerful, as it gave the women the freedom to express themselves to an audience who are truly and intently listening and, to some extent, understanding.

The launch event was a true celebration of the success of this project. In my eyes, it is no great surprise that the project has received such great interest. Women have been journaling for hundreds of years and some female journals such as those of Fanny Burney and Anne Frank have been key political and social commentaries of their time. The word “radical” was used many times during the launch to describe this project, as women feel empowered to take time out for themselves prior to the birth of their baby, and beyond.

Women have a lot to say about the social aspects of mothering and the political environment in which mothering is occurring in this country and further afield. This space to reflect on the upcoming life change, carved out prior to birth, is important for all women but particularly those who have a history of mental health problems. It allows them to feel, as Mo Ade said, that they are an “active participant in their own care”, where their feelings are not clinical, medical or made to seem like an illness.

It allows women to take ownership of their own situation, and to understand that in many cases, their feelings, whether positive or negative, are largely understandable and even expected in the face of such a life upheaval and transition period, in the same way as we expect mood swings of teenagers going through adolescence.

Perhaps we should be acknowledging ‘matrescence’ as a life stage for women, and perhaps even ‘patrescence’ for men, and be providing more reflective spaces, like this Maternal Journal, to allow people to explore and share their feelings during such an upheaval in their emotional and practical lives as new parents.


Note from author:

Alexandra Sacks has also blogged on Medium about Matrescence, see links below:


header image Source: Mom loves best


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