Matrescence, the best book I’ve ever read about motherhood, is a delightfully unusual one. For starters, brief passages that lay out the machinations of nature, and many of its horrors, sit around its chapters. We meet eels that endure five life stages and multiple habitats before breeding once and then dying, and black lace-weaver mother spiders who feed their living bodies to their infants.
“Forty spiderlings, which resemble creamy yellow sea pearls, wander over her nonchalantly, devouring, snacking, nibbling, pulling bits of her flesh into their tiny mouths,” Jones writes, watching a grisly nature video. Spotting a similar spider in her children’s toy box not long after, she’s relieved to find no babies. The whole experience has felt “close to home”. “She’s safe,” she writes. “For now.”
By exploring matrescence – the physical, physiological and psychological process of becoming a mother – within this wider context of the natural world, Jones recalibrates ideas of how women are meant to exist and behave during these fast-changing years. The book’s title comes from a 1973 essay by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, lamenting the lack of acknowledgment of “mother-becoming” in western societies. She discusses a ritual in the Pacific island of Tikopia that marks the fact that a woman has given birth, and prioritises “the sense of the newborn mother”, rather than erasing her entirely around her child. This shift of focus captivates Jones, a new mother at the start of the book, who has a daughter and two sons by its conclusion.
As in her previous book, 2020’s Losing Eden (an examination of our disconnection from nature), Jones’s writing is hungry to impart knowledge. Moving from the early stages of her pregnancy to her eldest child’s first day at school, she describes how the mother’s brain literally changes shape, retaining extra grey matter for years, processing more information, emotion and memory. She challenges the ideal of the nuclear family raising children in western societies, when babies are raised by networks of “othermothers” across the world, and in the animal kingdom, including in colonies of bats.
Myths are also smashed from page one, which makes this a thrilling read. A sperm doesn’t race to an egg, for example: “This is a retelling of the hero myth, essentially, with the egg as the passive vessel,” Jones writes, in one of many withering lines. In fact, cells from the fallopian tube are required to secrete chemicals that allow the sperm to swim and mature, then the egg must enfold it. Women are reframed as active throughout, which empowers.
Jones is great on the impossible rules, and the lack of correct information meted out to pregnant women. (How on earth are they meant to avoid car fumes without staying indoors? Why is morning sickness still called that by the NHS, when studies have proved it’s an all-day rush to the sick bucket for the many who get it?) Passages that reveal what many advocates of “intensive mothering” miss out on are also revealing. The pioneer of attachment theory, John Bowlby, did indeed underline the importance of the proximity of a child to a caregiver in terms of their emotional development, but he also said that parents are equally “dependent on a greater society for economic provision”, and that society should “cherish” its parents. Look at the childcare and parental leave situation in modern Britain and weep.
Especially good is her analysis of the modern obsession with “sacralising birth”, tracking back to the (amazingly named) British obstetrician Grant Dickly-Read, who saw the vaginal delivery as the “ultimate phenomenon of a series of spiritual experiences”. Jones understands women wanting “to feel their bodies are powerful rather than degenerate, for facing danger and risk head-on”, but this won’t stop her from reminding us how nature is not always kind.
But Jones never wags her finger or chastises. Experimental flourishes in her text – alongside all that beautiful, accessible writing – also add to its majesty. On one page, the phrase “This is how big it needs be” is repeated in a formation that reveals the size of a cervix in its centre. How I howled. Matrescence is essential reading, bloody and alive, roaring and ready to change conversations.
• Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood by Lucy Jones is published by Penguin (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply