The song was inspired by Simon's grief over the death of his family's dog, while he has said that the title has its origin in a chicken-and-egg dish called "Mother and Child Reunion" that Simon saw on a Chinese restaurant's menu. James Benninghof wrote that Simon predicted the title event, the "mother and child reunion," while the second verse describes the effect of what happened on "the strange and mournful day," but without making clear what it was.
The song was recorded at Dynamic Sounds Studios at Torrington Bridge in Kingston, Jamaica, with Jimmy Cliff's backing group. Guitarist Huks ("Hux") Brown and bass guitarist Jackie Jackson were also long-time members of Toots & the Maytals. Cissy Houston sang background vocals on the recording.
"Mother and Child Reunion" was featured on The Simpsons 19th season episode "Mona Leaves-a" in which Homer's mother, Mona Simpson, dies, and also on the episode "My Mother the Carjacker" from season 15, during a montage of Mona catching up on Homer's missed childhood.