Through a layered and complex narrative, Ang sheds light on the challenges of matrescence
The moment a woman becomes pregnant, she begins to experience extraordinary change. Her body swells and transforms, hormones fluctuate, and her psychological and emotional states undulate in ambiguity. Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby is often thought of as a time of joy and anticipation. But motherhood can also be confusing, terrifying and challenging.
The word ‘matrescence’ describes the process of becoming a mother. The late American psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Stern, described it in an article in The New York Times as a time of an intense identity transition: “Giving birth to a new identity can be as demanding as giving birth to a baby.”
In 2014, Ying Ang began working on a project titled Bower Bird Blues, ruminating on themes surrounding family and the home. She had just met her now partner. Based in Melbourne, Victoria, it was her first experience of a committed relationship, and she tentatively started to think about settling down. A couple of years later, Ang became pregnant, and everything changed. “The reality of home and family became concrete, in the way of pouring a concrete slab – inexorable and hardening to an irrefutable truth,” she explains. “In a way, I began an idea in 2014, a sketch. [But] the meaning of what I was photographing became apparent when I gave birth in 2017. It took on its true form in the years that followed.”
The result of this transition is The Quickening: A Memoir on Matrescence, a self-published, hand-made book due for release in the first week of May to coincide with World Maternal Mental Health Day.
When Ang gave birth, the new identity that Dr. Stern describes proved hard to comprehend. The unexpected and confusing sense of loss left Ang in an unfamiliar space of angst and uncertainty. She describes feeling as if her world shrunk; old priorities of career progression, travel, art and friends faded away. The only thing that bore significance was the survival of the baby in her arms. “Time becomes abstract and governed by the child’s needs and circadian rhythms,” she explains. “I have no understanding of how time relates to the moment I noticed I had completely lost my former identity and became at odds with my new one.”
“The experience of new parenthood was something that had always seemed very opaque [to me] as an outsider. When it happened, I drowned in questions. I didn’t understand what was happening to me on multiple levels, I was confused at the lack of meaningful exploration in literature, art and cinema.”
Ang’s depiction of matrescence is layered and complex. Her images blend the gentle and soft, with a strain and rawness that becomes all-consuming. Velvety skin is enveloped in warm, delicate light. But, motifs of that tenderness behind misted glass at once suggest fullness and a claustrophobic repetition. The narrative is textured and sensual; it mirrors the intensity of Ang’s lived experience, one that she feels she was desperately unprepared for. “The experience of new parenthood was something that had always seemed very opaque [to me] as an outsider,” Ang recalls. “When it happened, I drowned in questions. I didn’t understand what was happening to me on multiple levels, I was confused at the lack of meaningful exploration in literature, art and cinema. I felt betrayed by a society at large that seemed to deliver impossible standards of what it now means to be a woman and a mother.” This thirst for answers, and indeed, outrage, was only to be satisfied through interrogation and work. “Curiosity is always at the genesis of a project,” Ang says. “The meaning is created as the work progresses.”
Ang’s story is unreservedly honest. It is both personal and universal – one that may only be recognised by other mothers but not expecting ones. This, she says, is why it is important to tell. “Humans go through very particular transitions in their lives where physiologically, socially and psychologically they change in a dramatic way. The first time it happens, it is from infancy to toddlerhood… The second time is during adolescence, and the third is usually during motherhood.” The first two transitions are explored thoroughly in research and academia, Ang explains, but motherhood is not. “I hope to shed some light in that dark place.”
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.