It’s strange territory, this desertland between maidenhood and motherhood. I suppose it was ingrained from an early age that one stage naturally and effortlessly follows the next. Yet, here I stand, longing to make that transition, both ready and eager to enter an elusive place, the door to which remains tightly shut. So, I rest on the periphery, a wandering nomadic drifter waiting my turn. I am lost in an eternal dance of emotion, shifting between hopefulness, grief, frustration and fear. Some days I feel strongly that my time is coming soon and I will be a mother. Other days I am impatient and not so sure it will ever happen for me.
I recently came across the word ‘matrescence’. According to clinical psychologist, Aurélie Athan, matrescence, a term coined by Dana Raphael in 1973, is described as: “The process of becoming a mother”, and it is “…a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond.”
Athan adds that “the exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains –bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual– and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence. ”
It was fascinating to discover a reference that encapsulates the transitional experience that a woman goes through when she becomes a mother. Many cultures observe and honour the formative transitions that we encounter as we grow through our various life stages. There are rites of passage around birth, adolescence, marriage and death. The repertoire of significant developmental passages expands as our society progresses. Yet, even within these encapsulations, there are still certain micro-experiences or life stages that remain overlooked. As a result, we find ourselves on the periphery of a defined life stage that we had expected to step into, but haven’t been able to. Our identities become confused, we feel displaced in a society that rarely reflects the space we see ourselves in and thus struggle with our sense of worth and belonging. I’ve found that this is particularly true when you grapple with subfertility and pregnancy loss. It raises a burning question:
What happens when you are stuck in the process of becoming, but never actually become (at least not yet)?
You desire to be a mother. You embody some of the attributes described within the definition of matrescence (i.e. immersed in your pre-conception journey, or you’ve experienced a pregnancy followed by the loss of that pregnancy). Though you may not have physically become a mother with live babies yet, you have entered that space mentally, emotionally and psycho-spiritually. It’s honestly such a complex space to inhabit, particularly when you’ve lost a pregnancy and although you see yourself as a mother to that angel baby, society tells you that you are not. It becomes especially difficult to make sense of what your identity is and which spaces you fit into as you mature as a childless woman who is still trying to conceive. For instance, I am swiftly approaching 40, and I’ve begun to question whether I am still entitled to my desire to experience a healthy full-term pregnancy and have a baby of my own. There is this underlying fear that somehow I will have skipped a stage in the feminine lifecycle, going from being the young married woman straight to becoming the childless crone, and the years in between these two stages being rendered invisible because they have not been defined by motherhood in the way that I’d expected. It is a weird thought to reconcile in my mind, being fully aware that I am no longer a younger woman and may soon enter a stage of my life where I shift into perimenopause and then menopause.
So, I’ve been asking myself – How does one navigate this territory in the interim? This tricky place of peripheral connection to motherhood? Also, considering that the partial or what I’ve taken to calling ‘perimatrescence’ triggers not only the desire to have a baby, but also awakens the need to express and share your nurturing or mothering qualities – How do you give yourself permission to nurture or embody your ‘mothering heart’, so to speak? In other words, how do you express the energy of the wild mother archetype in daily life while you are still journeying towards motherhood?
When I speak of the ‘mothering heart’, I refer to your inner mother, the part of you that feels called to tend to and nurture life. I wasn’t sure how to articulate this feeling in the initial years of my fertility journey, but with experience and education along the way, I’ve learnt that mothering is not limited to the physical gestation of a child, but also emerges on an intuitive and emotional level. The desire to mother, nurture and act as caregiver manifests differently for each individual – e.g. playing a loving role in a child’s life, sharing your wisdom and insight through guiding or mentoring others, as well as through the desire to uplift and help people or things (animals, plants, projects) to grow and thrive. When a woman has a baby, she expresses those things naturally, offering her child the love, care and guidance that they need to grow up happy and healthy. However, when you’re struggling to conceive, you don’t have the opportunity to embody these aspects of yourself in the manner you’d wished to. So sometimes, because of the uncertainty around such roles, feelings of shame, fear of judgement or because of the emotional pain of not having your own baby, there is a tendency to suppress some of these qualities and the underlying emotions that accompany them. I noticed this tendency in myself during those early years of trying to conceive when I harden myself out of fear. Ironically, the inner work that came with years of struggling and overcoming the grief of pregnancy loss taught me how to soften, surrender to and embrace my inner mother.
Exploring questions around how to embody that motherly energy while navigating perimatrescence has revealed some profound insights to me. It has enabled me to consciously create the space to allow aspects of myself to emerge and to channel the somewhat latent mothering energy constructively. Giving context to the archetypal inner mother and recognizing how she shows up in my life at present despite me not having children yet has been a healing exercise for me. I discovered that doing so connects me more deeply with life because I am affirming parts of myself that would otherwise be discarded or exiled. There is so much power in acknowledging, loving and nurturing these wounded parts of ourselves, giving them life and a place to transform and exist in different ways.
How to Embody Your Inner Mother
With this in mind, here are a few ideas that I’ve found helpful with regards to embodying the inner mother as you journey through perimatrescence:
Mothering Yourself First: This is one of the key lessons that subfertility has taught me. Mother yourself, tend to your own needs and practice self-care. Listen to your body. What is it asking for? What does your soul crave? And what is the most healing thing that you can do for yourself right now? Nurturing yourself is a good way to tap into your inner mother. Remind yourself that you are your future baby’s mother, so caring for yourself is one way of working on becoming the kind of parent you wish to be to them. Connecting with your inner mother also deepens your relationship with your inner child. This creates the opportunity to re-parent yourself, address unhealed wounds and to give yourself the love, experiences and things that you feel were missing from your own childhood.
Affirmation: “I am a mother to myself first. My inner mother lovingly cares for and supports my soul’s needs. When I connect with this gentle mothering energy, my inner child heals.”
Playing a Positive Role in Children’s Lives: I’ll start with the disclaimer that being around children affects each person differently depending on the circumstance or the emotional space you may be in. There will be times when you are okay with it, when you are super excited to be an aunt or be asked to be a child’s godparent or guardian. And there will be times when you feel triggered because it reminds you that you don’t have your own. There is no shame in that and it is okay to set boundaries whenever you are feeling vulnerable.
That said, if this is something that you’re comfortable with, then enjoy your opportunities to play a positive role in a child’s life. Spend time with your nieces and nephews. Enjoy the chance to babysit for friends. Volunteer at a children’s home. Sponsor a child’s education.
I personally love getting to interact with children. I love being called ‘Auntie Jodi’. I love listening to their stories. Their curious questions, ponderings and the interesting conversations that they spark can make me laugh for hours. I love getting to spoil the kids in my life too. Babysitting is always a fun adventure for my husband and I, and it is also good to know that it is one small way that we can support the parents who in many cases have very full lives, demanding careers and are doing all they can to keep the balance and raise their kids at the same time. It also feels special to know that there will be a time when that child will call on me for support or advice and I would have something of value to offer them.
Mentoring Younger Women: If perhaps you find yourself at a stage of your life where you have amassed a body of knowledge, life experience and feel fairly empowered and confident in most areas of your life, then there’s a good likelihood that you have an incredible amount of insight that younger women who are still finding their feet could benefit from. Is contributing to a younger woman’s development by mentoring them something that you would consider? There are various ways you can do this – Formally or informally. Offering career guidance or moral and personal development advice. Spending time with an individual or working with a group of young ladies. Dedicating time and expertise or sponsoring courses and resources. Choose something that resonates with you. I often think of the kinds of things that I wish someone had told me or helped me prepare better for when I was younger. It feels good to be able to offer that to someone else who is still learning and building the foundation for their future. Women still face unfortunate barriers in both their professional and personal lives due to unequal gender biases. It is so necessary for girls and young women to have as much support as possible to dismantle inequalities and encourage them to progress to their fullest potential. You may be in a unique position to contribute that vision.
Nurturing Life in General: When I was recovering after my ectopic pregnancy loss in 2019, I saw just how beneficial it was for my mental health to surround myself with life and things that were thriving. During that time, spending time in nature and turning to horticulture therapy formed part of the practices that nourished my wellbeing. Writing about this in my book, Mending Softly – Finding Hope and Healing After Ectopic Pregnancy Loss, I highlighted that:
“… tending to garden life brings with it a sense of inner peace and joy that my life would be empty of otherwise. Perhaps it feeds that natural desire to create new life and the satisfaction of seeing things growing and thriving. It offers the breathing space to anchor oneself in the present moment and to feel held by the mothering energy of nature.”
Nature, plants, pets and fur babies reinforce a life-affirming connection to something beyond ourselves. In addition to that, ask yourself – What is thriving in my life right now? What answers come to mind? Your marriage, your work life, your friendships? Make space for whatever makes you feel alive and fulfilled. Pay attention to what and who makes you feel like you are growing as a person. Appreciate, celebrate and nurture those things.
Balancing the Mothering Energy
As you give yourself permission to embody this mothering energy, it is also important to be discerning about how you do so and to protect your space. Be mindful not to mother others in an unbalanced way. When we give too much of ourselves we end up depleted, burnt out or feeling used. Set healthy boundaries for yourself, and always lean back into the practice of mothering yourself first when you are feeling out of sorts. We have to remind ourselves not to become an emotional dumping ground for others. There will be times when people may feel entitled to have access to you, your space and time simply because you do not have your own children yet. Remember that your responsibilities, stresses and interests may look different to that of someone else, but they are yours. You don’t have to feel guilty for focusing your time on what is important to you, for rest when you are tired and for prioritising your goals and interests when the moment calls for it. Balance is key to maintaining your mental healthy and general wellbeing.
Journaling Prompts: What has your experience of perimatrescence been like? What gives you a sense of place or belonging in the context of this transitional life stage? How do you express mothering energy or embody your inner mother?