Mother and Motherhood

A mother is the female parent of a child. Mothers are women who inhabit or perform the role of bearing some relation to their children, who may or may not be their biological offspring. Thus, dependent on the context, women can be considered mothers by virtue of having given birth, by raising their child(ren), supplying their ovum for fertilisation, or some combination thereof. Such conditions provide a way of delineating the concept of motherhood, or the state of being a mother. Women who meet the third and first categories usually fall under the terms ‘birth mother’ or ‘biological mother’, regardless of whether the individual in question goes on to parent their child. Accordingly, a woman who meets only the second condition may be considered an adoptive mother, and those who meet only the first or only the third a surrogacy mother.

Mother with child in Burkina Faso

An adoptive mother is a female who has become the child’s parent through the legal process of adoption. A biological mother is the female genetic contributor to the creation of the infant, through sexual intercourse or egg donation. A biological mother may have legal obligations to a child not raised by her, such as an obligation of monetary support. A putative mother is a female whose biological relationship to a child is alleged but has not been established. A stepmother is a female who is the wife of a child’s father and they may form a family unit, but who generally does not have the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent in relation to the child.

The above concepts defining the role of mother are neither exhaustive nor universal, as any definition of ‘mother’ may vary based on how social, cultural, and religious roles are defined. The parallel conditions and terms for males: those who are (typically biologically) fathers do not, by definition, take up the role of fatherhood. Motherhood and fatherhood are not limited to those who are or have parented. Women who are pregnant may be referred to as expectant mothers or mothers-to-be, though such applications tend to be less readily applied to (biological) fathers or adoptive parents.[1][2] The process of becoming a mother has been referred to as “matrescence”.[3]

The adjective “maternal” refers to a mother and comparatively to “paternal” for a father. The verb “to mother” means to procreate or to sire a child from which also derives the noun “mothering”. Related terms of endearment are mom (mamamommy), mummumsy, mamacita (mamam) and mammy. A female role model that children can look up to is sometimes referred to as a mother-figure.

Biological motherhood for humans, as in other mammals, occurs when a pregnant female gestates a fertilized ovum (the “egg”). A female can become pregnant through sexual intercourse after she has begun to ovulate. In well-nourished girls, menarche (the first menstrual period) usually takes place around the age of 12 or 13.[4]

Typically, a fetus develops from the viable zygote, resulting in an embryo. Gestation occurs in the woman’s uterus until the fetus (assuming it is carried to term) is sufficiently developed to be born. In humans, gestation is often around 9 months in duration, after which the woman experiences labor and gives birth. This is not always the case, however, as some babies are born prematurely, late, or in the case of stillbirth, do not survive gestation. Usually, once the baby is born, the mother produces milk via the lactation process. The mother’s breast milk is the source of antibodies for the infant’s immune system, and commonly the sole source of nutrition for newborns before they are able to eat and digest other foods; older infants and toddlers may continue to be breastfed, in combination with other foods, which should be introduced from approximately six months of age.[5]

Childlessness is the state of not having children. Childlessness may have personal, social or political significance. Childlessness may be voluntary childlessness, which occurs by choice, or may be involuntary due to health problems or social circumstances. Motherhood is usually voluntary, but may also be the result of forced pregnancy, such as pregnancy from rape. Unwanted motherhood occurs especially in cultures which practice forced marriage and child marriage.

Non-biological mother

Mother can often apply to a woman other than the biological parent, especially if she fulfills the main social role in raising the child. This is commonly either an adoptive mother or a stepmother (the biologically unrelated partner of a child’s father). The term “othermother” or “other mother” is also used in some contexts for women who provide care for a child not biologically their own in addition to the child’s primary mother.

Adoption, in various forms, has been practiced throughout history, even predating human civilization.[6] Modern systems of adoption, arising in the 20th century, tend to be governed by comprehensive statutes and regulations. In recent decades, international adoptionshave become more and more common.

Adoption in the United States is common and relatively easy from a legal point of view (compared to other Western countries).[7] In 2001, with over 127,000 adoptions, the US accounted for nearly half of the total number of adoptions worldwide.[8]

Surrogate mother

A surrogate mother is a woman who bears a child that came from another woman’s fertilized ovum on behalf of a couple unable to give birth to children. Thus the surrogate mother carries and gives birth to a child that she is not the biological mother of. Surrogate motherhood became possible with advances in reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization.

Not all women who become pregnant via in vitro fertilization are surrogate mothers. Surrogacy involves both a genetic mother, who provides the ovum, and a gestational (or surrogate) mother, who carries the child to term.

Motherhood in same-sex relationships

The possibility for lesbian and bisexual women in same-sex relationships (or women without a partner) to become mothers has increased over the past few decades[when?] due to technological developments. Modern lesbian parenting (a term that somewhat erases the bisexual case) originated with women who were in heterosexual relationships who later identified as lesbian or bisexual, as changing attitudes provided more acceptance for non-heterosexual relationships. Another way for such women to become mothers is through adopting or foster parenting. There is also the option of self-insemination and clinically assisted donor insemination, forms of artificial insemination. As fertility technology has advanced, more females not in a heterosexual relationship have become mothers through in vitro fertilization.[9][10]

Social role

Mother and child in Cambodia

Health and safety issues


A maternal death is defined by WHO as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes”.[27]

Sub-Saharan African countries carry the highest risks in terms of maternal and infant mortality and health.

About 56% of maternal deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa and another 29% in South Asia.[28]

In 2006, the organization Save the Children has ranked the countries of the world, and found that Scandinavian countries are the safest places to give birth, whereas countries in sub-Saharan Africa are the least safe to give birth.[29] This study argues a mother in the bottom ten ranked countries is over 750 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a mother in the top ten ranked countries, and a mother in the bottom ten ranked countries is 28 times more likely to see her child die before reaching their first birthday.

The most recent data suggests that Italy, Sweden and Luxembourg are the safest countries in terms of maternal death and Afghanistan, Central African Republic and Malawi are the most dangerous.[30][31]

Childbirth is an inherently dangerous and risky procedure, subject to many complications. The “natural” mortality rate of childbirth—where nothing is done to avert maternal death—has been estimated as being 1500 deaths per 100,000 births.[32] Modern medicine has greatly alleviated the risk of childbirth. In modern Western countries the current maternal mortality rate is around 10 deaths per 100,000 births.[33]


The Hindu mother goddess Parvati feeding her son, the elephant-headed wisdom god Ganesha

Nearly all world religions define tasks or roles for mothers through either religious law or through the glorification of mothers who served in substantial religious events. There are many examples of religious law relating to mothers and women.

Major world religions which have specific religious law or scriptural canon regarding mothers include: Christianity,[34] Judaism,[35] and Islam.[36] Some examples of honoring motherhood include the Madonna or Blessed Virgin Mother Mary for Catholics, and the multiple positive references to active womanhood as a mother in the Book of Proverbs.

Hindu’s Mother Goddess and Demeter of ancient Greek pre-Christian belief are also mothers.

Synonyms and translations

The proverbial “first word” of an infant often sounds like “ma” or “mama”. This strong association of that sound with “mother” has persisted in nearly every language on earth, countering the natural localization of language.

Familiar or colloquial terms for mother in English are:

  • Ma(মা), Amma (আম্মা), Ammu (আম্মু) used in Bangladesh
  • AamaMata used in Nepal
  • Mom and mommy are used in the United States, Canada, South Africa, India and parts of the West Midlands including Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
  • InayNanayMamaMaMomMommy are used in the Philippines
  • Mum and mummy and mama are used in the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong and Ireland. Charles, Prince of Wales publicly addressed his mother Queen Elizabeth II as “Mummy” on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.[45]
  • Mamam, and mammy are used in Netherlands, Ireland, the Northern areas of the United Kingdom, and Wales; it is also used in some areas of the United States.

In many other languages, similar pronunciations apply:

  • Amma (அம்மா) or Thai (தாய்) in Tamil
  • Maaaaiamma, and mata are used in languages of India like Assamese, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu etc.
  • Mamámamama, and mami in Spanish
  • Mama in Polish, German, Dutch, Russian and Slovak
  • Māma (妈妈/媽媽) in Chinese
  • Máma in Czech and in Ukrainian
  • Maman in French and Persian
  • Mamama in Indonesian
  • Mamaímam in Irish
  • Mamma in Italian, Icelandic, Latvian and Swedish
  • Dayik in Kurdish
  • Māman or mādar in Persian
  • Mamãe or mãe in Portuguese
  • Mā̃ (ਮਾਂ) in Punjabi
  • Mama in Swahili
  • Em (אם) in Hebrew
  • A’ma (ܐܡܐ) in Aramaic
  •  or mẹ in Vietnamese
  • Mam in Welsh
  • Eomma (엄마, pronounced [ʌmma]) in Korean
  • In many south Asian cultures and the Middle East, the mother is known as ammaomaammi or “ummi”, or variations thereof. Many times, these terms denote affection or a maternal role in a child’s life.


Statue of Mother Armenia, aerial view in Yerevan

The modern English word is from Middle English moder, from Old English mōdor, from Proto-Germanic *mōdēr (cf. East Frisian muur, Dutch moeder, German Mutter), from Proto-Indo-European *méh₂tēr (cf. Irish máthair, Tocharian A mācar, B mācer, Lithuanian mótė). Other cognates include Latin māter, Greek μήτηρ, Common Slavic *mati (thence Russian мать (mat’)), Persian مادر (madar), and Sanskrit मातृ (mātṛ).


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