Matrescence: The Word to Describe What You’re Going Through, Moms

by Lydia Johnson, M.S. (Certified Holistic Career Coach)

Pregnant Woman Holding Her Belly

Photo by Vanessa on Unsplash

Most spell checks don’t even recognize the word Matrescence (no, I’m not trying to say mattress, d*mn it)… but it’s a real word that describes a very real phenomenon.

I remember the moment I stumbled across this word.

I was sitting outside in the Tennessee summer heat, tears running down my face, frantically googling for a shred of advice about how to survive the special heaven-yet-hell I was experiencing postpartum.

I was having such a hard time with “it all.” The sleeplessness of the newborn phase, the latching issues making nursing a battleground, D-MER (another thing I had to Google to learn about), my unrecognizable and battered body, the utter sadness I felt from postpartum depression, terrifying intrusive thoughts from postpartum anxiety, the feeling that I might never have time for myself again, much less feel like myself again.

That world-altering experience has a word.

It’s called matrescence1.

What you’re experiencing is not just in your head— it’s a profound evolution of every aspect of your life, identity, body, and human experience that is understudied, underrecognized, undervalued, and under-discussed…

And the utter lack of awareness or empathy around this experience is part of why it is so overwhelming.

What is Matrescence, Exactly?

Matrescence is a word first coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the mid-1970s and then brought into (a frustratingly small subset of the population’s) common vernacular by Aurélie Athan, head of the maternal psychology lab at Columbia University.

Here’s Dr. Athan’s definition:

Matrescence…is a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompasses multiple domains—bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual—and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.

 Aurélie Athan, Ph.D

The word is intentionally similar to one we’re all familiar with: Adolescence.

Both Matrescence and Adolescence are times in your life when everything you are and know is changing.

Your body is overhauling itself with new hormones, growth, and countless changes.

Your identity is shifting as you embrace new aspects of yourself and leave behind old ones.

You’re adrift between two identities: You’re not quite the child you were, but you’re not quite the adult you’ll become. Similarly, you’re not quite the person you were before this baby, and you’re not yet the mother you will become.

You’re going through a hard, unknown, and truly wild experience… and no one you know has been through it exactly like you’re going through it.

Honestly, I’m not sure how the journey into motherhood could not be world-altering.

Motherhood impacts every aspect of your life: psychological, social, emotional, physical, economic, cultural, career, and spiritual.

Seriously, think about it: Out of that list of eight arenas, can you genuinely tell me that motherhood hasn’t impacted it at some point in time in some way? If the answer is no, my reply would be “not yet.” Matresence is a long process… perhaps a neverending one.

Similar to how adolescence lasts for years, so does matrescence— Dana Raphael says this perfectly: “Giving birth does not automatically make a mother out of a woman…”

Becoming Mom isn’t a switch that you can instantly flip on.

It’s more like a dimmable light, and your toddler has stolen the remote and run away with it— the journey into motherhood is a constantly changing, utterly unpredictable light show.

Even almost two years after my child was born, I am still reconciling and processing all the changes I’ve experienced related to my motherhood journey. I don’t think this journey will ever stop because even if you “got on top of it,” something will change.

Your baby becomes a toddler who calls you mommy instead of mama = new aspects of my journey to come to terms with (😭). Your toddler becomes a kid that triggers all your childhood woes. Perhaps you do it all again and have another kid, only to discover there’s almost nothing similar to your first and second babies or pregnancy and postpartum journey! Constant change is a core part of the human experience, but d*mn does it exponentially speed up when you are in the business of raising humans.

Matrescence is the Forgotten & Ignored Journey

Despite all the similarities, there is a key difference between adolescence and matrescence:

Every adult in this world knows that it’s tricky business to grow into an adult.

But very few people are told it’s OK to have a difficult, convoluted, harrowing journey into motherhood… and that those challenges might last years or even a lifetime.

“During matresence, people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look and feel.”

-Dr. Alexandra Saks

This juxtaposition of experiencing some of the hardest, most life-altering changes you’ve ever gone through while everyone around you expects you to be utterly joy-filled and selfless causes great pain.

It makes us feel like we’re going insane. Like there is something uniquely bad about us.

Then, we feel shame about our negative emotions and then silence ourselves, making it even harder for us to begin the process of reconciliation and healing.

But words are a helpful handle to pick up a cup full to the brim of complexities…

And just having a word for what you’re going through can help you understand that you are not alone and that what you are experiencing is valid.

This applies to “you” no matter where you are in your motherhood journey— Even if your baby isn’t a baby anymore but a full-on, rambunctious kid, teenager, or even an adult.

Words Create Worlds

In a society that (often intentionally) undervalues women and our struggles and experiences, learning language specific to our internal and external worlds is its own sort of activism.

It gives you the freedom to admit to yourself that you are doing a complicated, world-altering thing with grace. It opens the door for self-compassion.

It gives you the power to truly see others who are going through the same experience and help them feel less isolated, terrified, and confused.

It helps us take better care of ourselves and realize that it makes sense that this is hard.

I’ve heard so many of my coaching clients who are moms juggling demanding careers and kids (even older kids!) feel like there must be something wrong with them because everyone else is doing “just fine.”

Spoiler: We’re not.

We just don’t have the language or permission to talk about it.

So, this is your permission slip.

Go, armed with your new vocabulary, give yourself permission to acknowledge just how massive of a mountain you’re climbing.

Of course, you’ve celebrated triumphs and incredible moments along the way.

Of course, you’ve struggled and thought you couldn’t keep on at times.

Of course, you’ve changed, grown, and evolved along the way.

Of course, you’re still changing with every new step you take.

After you give yourself permission, share that permission with someone you love who has also climbed (or is reading to climb) the mountain of motherhood.

Learn More About Matrescence

Hi, I'm Lydia Johnson, MS

Hi, I'm Lydia Johnson, MS

Holistic Career Coach & Founder of ThriveCulture Coaching

I’m a dual-certified career coach and Industrial-Organizational Psychology consultant on a mission to banish Sunday Scaries and help you reclaim your life from work stress. I specialize in helping ultra-busy people design a fulfilling and burnout-free career that leaves more space for the rest of your life. Whether you need to overhaul everything, find a new job, or make your current role work better for you, I’m here to help.

You can learn more about my holistic and evidence-based approach on my website or jump on the phone for a FREE 20-minute consult call to learn more about how career coaching can help you finally enjoy a fulfilling, burnout-free career.


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