Photography by Elina Brotherus

Photography by Elina Brotherus

The Opposite of Matrescence


Words by Michelle Millar Fisher


Matrescence: the word for becoming a mother, used by anthropologists to describe the development of a person’s consciousness as their uterus brings into being human life. It is the transition as they give birth, become a parent, and are named for the natal or adoptive act.[1] Though I have held the children of adored family and friends, and brushed close against the type of love that comes from the pit of the stomach and the marrow of the bones, I have never crossed this particular threshold fully. Three years ago, there was no oxytocin coursing through me when I saw my goddaughter, Paloma, at five minutes old, waxy-fresh from being pulled through a belly cut. Mine was another kind of alchemic joy and wonder, not just at her, but at her mum, my best friend, who was to my eyes as new as her baby. When, through my own ambivalence towards motherhood, I guess at its contours, I imagine the journey to unfold like pregnancy and birth themselves, sometimes more suddenly than expected and at other times with agonizing slowness. The only certainty I have in relation to this process is that it is one for which the dictionary holds no antonym. There is no opposite of matrescence.


Eighteen months ago, on a Sunday evening, I watched my mother begin to die in in an Edinburgh hospital. I learned later that sepsis slowly occludes brain function, but at the time, curled over the side rail of her bed holding a book of May Morris needlework, I just noticed her attention begin to wander as I flipped the pages. My siblings and I had taken turns to sit out the days with her, four months of them, and read, talk, and sleep through the ups and downs of illness. Over a few hours, during my watch, I saw her finally lose her grip on language and movement. Our beautiful mum, who called all three of us her favourite child, her miracle babies, who thought we were the most important people to ever walk the planet, who never let a day go by without telling us she loved us, that we were the best things that ever happened to her, and who our friends adored for her kindness, gently drifted into morphine oblivion. The very last thing she did was to bring the back of her hand to meet my cheek. I leaned in to her touch trying very hard to meet her eyes without fear, and to memorize the feeling and save it up. With great effort and purpose she slowly grazed her knuckles back and forth on my skin, as if to marvel at the thing she had made from her own flesh, and blood, and cells. Was she conscious that this most cherished part of her identity was ebbing, even before the rest of her body gave in? I wondered how to describe this end, before I ever knew that there was a special name for its start.


In my mid-life, I have watched and grieved with people through the too-soon loss of their children and born witness to the resilience and continuance of their maternal identities through that pain. Since mum left, I have wondered whether motherhood only dissipates when consciousness does. But then I feel her with me even after death. She is there in the boxes of knitted baby clothes she left us for future grandchildren. She is there in the way that her children all love each other. She is there when the light is beautiful on a clear Edinburgh morning, outside a bookstore she would have loved to be coming into with us all, to exclaim over pictures and words and ideas.

There is no opposite of matrescence, only a transmutation into memory, tightly clasped.

[1] I am indebted to the amazing Australian author, Jessica Friedmann, whose recent essay, “Motherhood Is a Political Category,” introduced me to this term a few weeks ago. Her collection of stories, Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression, is essential reading. 

Michelle Millar Fisher is a museum curator and writer in Philadelphia who, with collaborator Amber Winick, is organizing a book and exhibition in 2020 titled Designing Motherhood.