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  • Writer's pictureJen Curtis

Maiden. Mother. Matriarch. Birth and Death.

Whether or not it's popular or politically correct today to say, women have 3 major life phases that are distinguished by our reproductive stage:


Maiden. Mother. Matriarch.



It appears to me that we live in a culture that worships, attributes status to and is obsessed with the Maiden.


And no longer attributes any sort of meaning to the Mother or the Matriarch.


Rather it overlooks and even despises them both, seeing them as nothing more than distraction, ageing, being used up and useless.


There are endless examples of women who fight mercilessly to remain in the Maiden role: Madonna, JLo, Kim Kardashian, Shakira, Jennifer Anniston...


Dancing round a pole at age 50, perfect, with a flatter stomach than I, or you, had at 16.


We admire their ability to not grow old. To perform like women half their age. To ooze sex appeal.


To conceal all signs of motherhood themselves.


(Sometimes because they've outsourced or avoided it)


To remain eternally young.


You probably don't have to look far in your own personal life to find a woman/girl who is perpetually stuck in Maiden mode, hoping to hold back the hands of time interminably, refusing to step through the threshold, terrified of how her passage through it into commitment, stability, Motherhood, service and sacrifice might affect her body, her time, and her ability to fully contribute to the Machine.


Or to workout 7 times a week or to eat paleo.


I intend not to offend women who are frozen here (as I surely will), as it takes one to know one, and a few short years ago, I shared the same horror towards the pending alteration to my mind, body and freedom.


But it's not just about them, it's about us. The mothers who are still hesitant about fully embodying that role and becoming Mothers. Who still cling onto the lives we had before. The late nights, drinking or dancing or losing ourselves in Netflix until the early hours. Pretending we don't have small humans to care for tomorrow morning.


The anti-aging cream, the hair dye, the boudoir photo shoots that we plaster over social media for our uncles, grandmothers and 12-year-old neighbours to see 😬


Trying oh so hard to prove to the world that birthing babies and the passage of time haven’t made a dent in our sex appeal.


That we are still Maidens.


Clinging on desperately to that identity that is slipping through our fingers, instead of fostering a new one.


Mutton dressed as lamb.


Resentful of our roles as carers, providers, the bosom of someone's very existence.


Burning the candle at both ends with reckless abandon.


Dreaming of travel and new lands and new stuff.


Coveting the smooth skin and flawless tones of our yesterselves.


Utterly incapable of embracing what we have right here, right now.


Chasing full participation in the workplace as though we have nothing better to do and there is no greater calling.


Lamenting that our energy and time is divided, taken away from our ability to make money or work for a boss.


Despite it being taken up by the single greatest thing that has ever happened to us, the greatest love we have ever known, and the most precious treasure we have ever possessed.


At the risk of sounding like a patronizing, or matronizing, wanker, if you’re still harking back to your Maiden days, your Maiden self…


Surrender to Motherhood. This is so much better. So much richer. So much more meaningful.


Stop wishing you were younger, freer and less scarred.


What you have now, is so much better.


Surrender. Grow. Let go. Step into that Mother role and find your place there.


Yes, it's a stormy sea to cross, and it's not at all clear or obvious how exactly you should fill this role.


Yes, you have lost something, many things, in fact -


but they aren’t coming back, and you have gained so much more.


And there’s no other choice, you're no longer the Maiden you once were. You have to evolve, adapt and find meaning and peace in this new body, this new life, this new mind. To age with grace and dignity and find new purpose.


And when the time is right, surrender to the role of the Matriarch too.


Don't be perpetually drawn to the Maiden.


She is beautiful and desirable and important, but she cannot live forever, and she doesn't know what the Mother knows.


She doesn't have her battle scars, or her wisdom, her kindness or her boundaries.


And just like how we outgrow the whims of childhood and become adolescents - no longer amused by make-believe and playing games.


The fancies of our maiden years also become stale, worn-out, threadbare and empty and we crave something more, something deeper, something more meaningful.


The cultural aspiration of eternal hedonism, youth and independence is everywhere, and we’re made to feel like we’ve failed if we don’t keep the charade going forever


Our culture doesn't provide a blueprint for what’s beyond that hedonism and solitude, what comes after it, it doesn’t provide an image or model to aspire to. Ageing and maturing are processes we want to slow down or stop or avoid altogether, we aren’t given a way to embrace or celebrate them. The women that have hard-won wisdom and experience on their side are dismissed, by us, the younger ones, presumably because we fear that we will become them.


The message is that life ends when you have a baby. At least in a cultural sense, it's suicide.


OUR MUMS’ GENERATION


Alas, many of the women we might look towards for inspiration or guidance from the generation above us, seem to be just as lost, unsure and resentful as we are, never having quite found their own place in the hierarchy of things. Never quite having earned the respect and admiration that they, and we, hope might come with the territory.


Our mums’ generation had it rough - they were the first generation, post sexual revolution who were brought up with a brand of feminism that taught them that women should act like men - but were then hit by the hard reality of their biological differences from their male counterparts, and no sign-posting for how they might navigate the untrodden path of combining work and motherhood in the modern era, the post housewife era, how they might reconcile their newfound sexual freedom and their desire to marry and have kids, led by feminists who didn’t themselves have children and offered totally irrelevant advice, simultaneously totally alienated from the norms and wisdom of the generation before them who now had equally irrelevant advice to offer.


I won’t dive into a deluge about my (somewhat unconventional) opinions on feminism, since I talk more about feminism and motherhood (and how it sometimes feels completely irreconcilable) in this essay… but suffice to say that I truly believe, deep down, that our mothers generation were uniquely fucked by this strange transition and dynamic and the errors of the culture around them, and that, for the most part, they don’t offer us much inspiration or guidance for how one might elegantly traverse this terrain from Maiden to Mother.


Similarly, I believe that we live in a culture that is utterly confused and misled on this and a wide range of issues. And it is, indeed possible for and entire society to be utterly wrong about certain things - we need only look back to recent history to a time when doctors endorsed smoking cigarettes as a healthy pasttime.


FOREVER YOUNG (& FREE)


We’re made to feel that that period of relative independence and freedom that we experience between flying the nest and having our own children is our “natural state” that it’s what we should aspire to achieve and that it should be maintained forever. That we remain free and fiercely independent until the end of our days. That any threat to that freedom is wrong, and we should fight against it.


Mary Harrington puts it beautifully and eerily: “We’re living in the Rousseauean general will state of the sort of atomized savage roaming about in the civilization of abundance as if it’s a state of nature with the eye of the State watching us at all times but we’re sedating our consciences with somatic pleasures so that we don’t form relationships because that’s somehow how man existed before”


But it occurs to me that it really is only meant to be a brief period of our lives that we have any sort of independence at all - from baby to child, utterly dependent on our parents, we fly the nest, only for a short while, before we are joined in matrimony and parenthood to other beings.


You may not like to think about it, but the harsh truth and really the only certainty afforded to us in this life is that one day we will all grow old, and be completely dependent on other people again. Unless we die first.


And when we do attempt to remain free and fully atomized from others, at some point, it inevitably follws that we simly become dependent on and supported by the State, whether in sickness or in old-age. We simply can't keep the party going forever.


The current cultural narrative is that freedom is the only value truly worth upholding, the cult of the individual, the vilification of virtues such as service, community, family, sacrifice - which makes us fully atomized, lonely, depressed... but it's ok because we're free...


THE “PATRIARCHY”


When I express these opinions, many women respond with the platitudinous and ill-thought-out knee-jerk reaction: "because the patriarchy" I think that's a meaningless and hackneyed soundbite and oversimplification. I have a lot to say about the so-called "patriarchy" (spoiler alert: basically I don't think we live in one, and I think the reading of history in such a way is wrong, ungenerous and deceitful), but this piece isn't about that. Here, it’s a cop out. By casting the blame on men, or The Man, we can avoid taking responsibility for ourselves.


We have far more agency than that today. We vote with our feet, with our dollars, our likes, our minds and with our wombs.


Women decide what women want, wear and worry about.


I know. You're triggered. But I'm right.


Nor am I saying this from a "trad wife" perspective... I am far from the traditional wife, or mother. I am not one of those naturally maternal women with baby fever from age 9, nor am I a SAHM. I say this not with judgement - I admire these women, though I am different from them.


(Nor do I belive that the snapshot of the 1950s division of labour with a subservient housewife dying a slow spiritual death in suburbia is in any way fully representative of the roles women have played throughout history to get The Work done, nor should it be an aspiration today.)


I love my work, my children have been in full-time childcare from 4 months of age, and it is an integral part of my identity. So much so that it often gets in the way of my parenting. Or other aspects of being a good human.


I am not naturally maternal, and often find it hard to stay present.


Yet I recognize that my full evolution into "Mother" while pain-staking and hard won, and while somewhat different from that of other women, is absolutely essential to my children's and my mental and spiritual health.



..........


Where does the “death” part come into it?


Having worked with mums for over a decade, and becoming one myself in that time, I know very well that when that first baby is born, a mother is born too.


But with that joyous, miraculous birth there is also a death. The death of your previous life and who you once were.


I also know all too well that we have to grieve that life, and that girl that we left behind. It and she are gone forever.


It's bittersweet. That juxtaposition of literally the greatest love and joy you have ever known, with the stark realisation of all you have lost. That you can't have both. This new life necessarily means leaving your old one behind.


Just like when you lose a loved one, you must fully grieve in order to build your life anew without him or her. You must fully surrender to and let in that devastating grief, and the harsh reality of what you have lost, before you can move on.


And anyone who has ever failed to grieve, failed to grasp the reality of that loved one’s death, (as I did many years ago after the death of my mother) knows that you remain stuck in limbo until you do.


This is where I believe many mothers remain today after the birth of their first child. Not quite fully grasping the death of the life they once had, the person they once were, still attempting to do all the things they used to do.


Constantly frustrated that they don't have more hours a week to work, and that when they are at work, their brains and hearts are only partially there.


Lamenting the loss of a social life that looked a certain way: bars and clubs and drinking until late, even though these things have grown stale. Most of all I think we miss the joy it used to bring us, and pity the emptiness it now has. As well as the loss of the friendships with those Maiden friends that haven't yet become Mothers. Resenting that their socialising often looks like tea and coffee in the afternoon, with children playing in parks and gardens, that it has to fit around nap time, and so doesn't suit the schedule of their Maiden friends.


And most harrowing of all is when we see our reflection in the eyes of those Maiden friends. Are we boring? Ordinary? Irrelevant? Past it? Frumpy? Have we settled? We see how they fear becoming us, and feel the quasm widening between us. We know that any allusion to them not being married and having kids is either matronizing, fear inducing, or a dagger to the heart. We feel them slipping away from us, like water slipping through your fingers, no matter how tightly you hold on, you can't keep it in your grasp.


There is a strange paradox you're both aware of, but that neither of you formulate into words: that the life of the Maiden is idolized and romanticized, but when you're living it it feels hollow and empty and incomplete. While the life of the Mother is fulfilling and meaningful but is looked down apon and ridiculed.


Some will accuse me of "settling" or Playing Small, or not reaching for the stars or imbibing the Patriarchal design - severe insults in 2023.


But I say that the myth that we Can Have It All has caused us to be incapable of being content and happy with having something.


A small but satisfying life is all that most humans can hope to have.


The myth that we can achieve total freedom and don't need any limits, has caused us to never be satisfied with anything. To always feel that we deserve and can have more. That any limits on our freedom is bad.


I don't want to use an overused trope, but the image of the Phoenix, that burns to the ground, then rises from the ashes of its former self - is too apt to not employ here.


Because until you bury or burn the Maiden you once were, and say goodbye to that life, you cannot move forward and fully embrace what you have now.


You'll be stuck in limbo - and the thing about limbo is that you have nothing, you are nowhere, you are no-one. You can't fully be in your new life, but you don't have your old one either. You can't fully be the Mother, but you're also not the Maiden you once were.


It's literally a rebirth. But you can't have a rebirth without a death.


For me, becoming a mother didn't come naturally. I was brought up with a factory-setting feminism that taught me that my freedom and independence was more important than anything else.


Motherhood is neither freedom nor independence.


They say "there's no such thing as a baby. Only a baby AND someone." Because babies can't survive on their own.


By extension, it is also true that there is no such thing as a mother. Only a mother AND someone.


We are just as dependent on our child as they are on us. If you doubt that for even a second, I invite you to reflect for a moment on something that we never ask mothers to reflect on: what it might feel like if you were to lose that child. There is nothing that could compare to that loss. Not even your own death.


And that's terrifying for those of us who have been taught that needing others is bad, that we must be fiercely independent and self-sufficient, which is what today's culture teaches us. That we must be fully atomized, totally separate from others, not needing anyone.


And to add to the blow, not only do we depend on our children for our very existence, for our identity, for our happiness and completeness, but we also depend on our partners, our families, our own mothers, our wider communities....


And if you don't have one or any of those things, you likely feel a gaping void where they should be. For, no matter how hard we try, when we attempt to be mothers without these things, these people, there is a void, one that the state, commerce, and the Machine must step into, which is nowhere near as nice.


I was raised to think about my work, my career and myself, and nothing else (something else that I talk about in Feminism and Motherhood).


So you can bet your life that I resisted the transition into Motherhood HARD. I felt the sting of grief in pregnancy with my first. Devastated by the unravelling of my physical abilities, cognitive faculties and independence.


I struggled to fully embrace my new reality, and spent much of my time trying to recreate the world I once inhabited.


And for me, the full transition into mother mode didn't happen when my first was born, nor my second. In fact, it didn't happen in a single instance. It happened in stages, at different points along the road where I was able to shed my old skin and step lighter and barer into my new identity.


Maybe it isn't yet complete.


But what I feel now is peace. Acceptance. Alignment.


I've come to intimately know the contours and boundaries of these new lands and no longer feel the pull, the FOMO, back to the old.


I know how to say no, not so much to others, as to my old self. To that Maiden who has no boundaries. Who wants it all.


Who is passionate and ambitious, but childish and short-sighted.


And I've learned how to say yes to what's right here right now.


Yes to delayed gratification and no to my ego’s every caprice.


Yes to early nights so I can be fully present in the morning.


Which means saying no to late nights and drinking.


Saying yes to my 20 month old who wants me by his side as he falls asleep, and no to that Netflix show that’s just so good.


To go deeper, not wider.


And I've learnt that what Proust said is true: "The true journey of discovery lies not in seeing new lands but in having new eyes"


My deepest hope is that for you, and for others, the letting go of your Maiden self and finding new eyes happens more smoothly and painlessly than it did for me.




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If you want to share your thoughts with me about this essay, if any of it resonated with you, or if you think I'm full of shit, I'd love to hear from you! You can DM me on Instagram.


I genuinely love hearing from people who have read my writings, whether it touched you or you disagree with me. I love a good (respectful) discussion or debate! (and I don't mind the odd fight if you want to come at me swinging!)


And in order to give credit - this piece was heavily influenced by Louise Perry, her amazing book "The Case Against the Sexual Revolution" as well as her podcast, Maiden Mother Matriarch - I can't fully credit all the ideas I've stolen from her since it's hard to know where my own thoughts end and hers begin!


Similarly, I have taken a lot from Mary Harrington and "Feminism Against Progress"


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