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Statue of mother with children at the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno

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.

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 woman who is married to 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. There are parallel conditions and terms for males: those who are (typically biologically) fathers do not, by definition, take up the role of motherhood. 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 (mama, mommy), mum (mummy), mumsy, mamacita (ma, mam) and mammy. A female role model that children can look up to is sometimes referred to as a mother-figure.

Biological mother

A cat feeding its kittens
Countries by crude birth rate (CBR) in 2014. Birth rates are lowest in Western countries.
Map of countries by fertility rate (2020), according to the Population Reference Bureau
Mother and child. Gandola Monastery. Lahaul, India

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 adoptions have 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.

LGBT motherhood

LGBTQ+ or queer motherhood refers to the unique experiences of "parenting adults who identify themselves on a spectrum of gender and sexual identities."[9]

Lesbian and bisexual motherhood

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.[10][11]

Trans Motherhood

Transgender motherhood refers to the parenting relationship between a trans parent and their child. Like cis parents, trans parents can have biological or non-biological children, but what sets trans motherhood apart is the unique barriers many transgender individuals face in becoming mothers.

Many trans women utilize adoption or surrogacy as ways to have children, and research shows that trans women want to become parents at the "same rates as other LGBTQ+ people."[12] Trans parents face the same issues as other queer parents (i.e. "cisgender sexual minorities") when trying to adopt, but often to a more extreme degree.[13] Adoption agencies often refuse to work with trans and queer parents or are reluctant to do so.[14][15][16]

Trans men may have biological children, and if they have not had a hysterectomy they may also carry and give birth to children.[17] There is still much that is unknown about pregnancy for trans men, specifically around testosterone use during pregnancy. However, successful pregnancies and births have occurred for trans men who stopped testosterone during pregnancy, and for those who continued testosterone use as normal. There is currently no global medical consensus on testosterone use during pregnancy for trans men.[18][19]

As pregnant men, an experience that is typically conceived of as "female," trans men may face additional discrimination socially, medically, and legally. "Mainstream assumptions of pregnancy and childbirth are often associated with cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) women’s experiences," and a lack of trans health education means medical professionals may be unaccustomed to and unprepared for supporting pregnant trans patients, contributing to the "discrimination, stigma, and erasure" trans individuals frequently face in medical settings.[20][18][17]

Depending on the country, trans men may be legally listed as "mother" on their child's birth certificate because of their role as the birthing parent. The title of "mother" may be kept so the birthing parent can benefit from the legal and medical protections associated with biological motherhood, but in many cases trans men feel uncomfortable with the title because of its gendering as female. Trans men may then petition for legal recognization as the "father," "parent," or "gestational parent" of their child. In cases where their petitions are denied trans men may be a "father in life, but a mother under the law."[21] However, there is a growing legal movement to recognize non-binary gender on birth certificates, and make legal forms of identification more gender-inclusive.

Trans women may also have biological children with a partner by utilizing their sperm to fertilize an egg and form an embryo.[22][23] If they produce viable sperm—often not possible while taking estrogen because of the hormone's harmful effect on sperm production—this conception can occur through intercourse.[24] However, many trans women choose to preserve fertility by "freezing" sperm through cryopreservation before or early on in their transition process, which can later be utilized by a "female partner or gestational carrier."[23][25] Even with a biological conception of a child, trans parents may face stigma or discomfort from their healthcare provider, who are frequently not given comprehensive LGBTQ+ health education during medical school or residency.[26][27] Trans women are also frequently not informed of their options to preserve fertility by healthcare providers, as a 2018 survey reported 51% of trans women wished they had preserved fertility, but only 3% actually did, while 97% believed fertility should be discussed prior to transition.[12]

For trans women there is currently no accessible way to carry a child. However, research is being done on uterus transplants which could potentially allow trans women to carry and give birth to children through Caesarean section. As of March 2021 over 60 uterus transplants have been performed, with more than 18 women giving birth successfully post-transplant.[28] Currently the procedure has only been performed on genetic females, karyotype=XX, and there is concern from the trans community about resistance to making the procedure available for trans women on religious and social grounds.[29][28]

Representations of trans motherhood are becoming more prevalent in media, and can be found in books like "Detransition, Baby" and "The Argonauts", as well as TV shows like Transparent.

Social role

Sikkimese mother with child
Percentage of births to unmarried women, selected countries, 1980 and 2007.[30]
Olga Pearson Engdahl was American Mother of the Year in 1963[31]
Mother and children. Mahabalipuram
Nomad mother and son. Changtang, Ladakh

The social roles associated with motherhood are variable across time, culture, and social class. [32] Historically, the role of women was confined to some extent to being a mother and wife, with women being expected to dedicate most of their energy to these roles, and to spend most of their time taking care of the home. In many cultures, women received significant help in performing these tasks from older female relatives, such as mothers in law or their own mothers.[33]

Mother and child in Cambodia

Regarding women in the workforce, mothers are said to often follow a "mommy track" rather than being entirely "career women". Mothers may be stay at home mothers or working mothers. In recent decades there has been an increase in stay at home fathers too. Social views on these arrangements vary significantly by culture: in Europe for instance, in German-speaking countries there is a strong tradition of mothers exiting the workforce and being homemakers.[34] Mothers have historically fulfilled the primary role in raising children, but since the late 20th century, the role of the father in child care has been given greater prominence and social acceptance in some Western countries.[35][36] The 20th century also saw more and more women entering paid work. Mothers' rights within the workforce include maternity leave and parental leave.

The social role and experience of motherhood varies greatly depending upon location. Mothers are more likely than fathers to encourage assimilative and communion-enhancing patterns in their children.[37] Mothers are more likely than fathers to acknowledge their children's contributions in conversation.[38][39][40][41] The way mothers speak to their children ("motherese") is better suited to support very young children in their efforts to understand speech (in context of the reference English) than fathers.[38]

Since the 1970s, in vitro fertilization has made pregnancy possible at ages well beyond "natural" limits, generating ethical controversy and forcing significant changes in the social meaning of motherhood.[42][43] This is, however, a position highly biased by Western world locality: outside the Western world, in-vitro fertilization has far less prominence, importance or currency compared to primary, basic healthcare, women's basic health, reducing infant mortality and the prevention of life-threatening diseases such as polio, typhus and malaria.

Traditionally, and still in most parts of the world today, a mother was expected to be a married woman, with birth outside of marriage carrying a strong social stigma. Historically, this stigma not only applied to the mother, but also to her child. This continues to be the case in many parts of the developing world today, but in many Western countries the situation has changed radically, with single motherhood being much more socially acceptable now. For more details on these subjects, see Legitimacy (family law) and single parent.

The total fertility rate (TFR), that is, the number of children born per woman, differs greatly from country to country. The TFR in 2013 was estimated to be highest in Niger (7.03 children born per woman) and lowest in Singapore (0.79 children/woman).[44]

In the United States, the TFR was estimated for 2013 at 2.06 births per woman.[44] In 2011, the average age at first birth was 25.6 and 40.7% of births were to unmarried women.[45]

Health and safety issues

Maternal mortality map, given as the annual number of female deaths per 100,000 live births in 2012
Infant mortality rates under age 1, per 1,000 live births in 2013
Sub-Saharan African countries carry the highest risks in terms of maternal and infant mortality and health.

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".[46]

About 56% of maternal deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa and another 29% in South Asia.[47]

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.[48] 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.[49][50]

Childbirth is an inherently dangerous and risky process, 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.[51] 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.[52]


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,[53] Judaism,[54] and Islam.[55] 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.

Mother-offspring violence

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862. Clytemnestra was murdered by Orestes and the Furies torment him for his crime

History records many conflicts between mothers and their children. Some even resulted in murder, such as the conflict between Cleopatra III of Egypt and her son Ptolemy X.

In modern cultures, matricide (the killing of one's mother) and filicide (the killing of one's son or daughter) have been studied but remain poorly understood. Psychosis and schizophrenia are common causes of both,[56][57] and young, indigent mothers with a history of domestic abuse are slightly more likely to commit filicide.[57][58] Mothers are more likely to commit filicide than fathers when the child is 8 years old or younger.[59] Matricide is most frequently committed by adult sons.[60]

In the United States in 2012, there were 130 matricides (0.4 per million people) and 383 filicides (1.2 per million), or 1.4 incidents per day.[61]

In art

Charity, by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1878
Lemminkäinen's Mother, an 1897 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela: She is shown having just gathered her son's Lemminkäinen's broken body from the dark river.
This Congolese figure was used to protect women who had lost successive children to miscarriages or infant death and is considered one of the great masterpieces of African Art. Brooklyn Museum

Throughout history mothers with their children have often been the subject of artistic works, such as paintings, sculptures or writings.

Fourth century grave reliefs on the island of Rhodes depicted mothers with children.[62]

Paintings of mothers with their children have a long tradition in France. In the 18th century, these works embodied the Enlightenment's preoccupation with strong family bonds and the relation between mothers and children.[63]

At the end of the nineteenth century, Mary Cassatt was a painter well known for her portraits of mothers.

Many contemporary movies portray mothers.

Synonyms and translations

Mother with child in Burkina Faso
Mother with child in Peru
Mothers with children in liberated Guinea-Bissau, 1974

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:

In many other languages, similar pronunciations apply:


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).

Notable mothers


In zoology, particularly in mammals, a mother fills many similar biological functions as a human mother.


Many other mammal mothers also have numerous commonalities with humans.


The behavior and role of mothers in non-human species is most similar in species most closely related to humans. This means great apes are most similar, then the broader superfamily of all apes, then all primates.

See also


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Further reading

  • Atkinson, Clarissa W. The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West (Cornell University Press, 2019).
  • Cowling, Camillia, et al. "Mothering slaves: comparative perspectives on motherhood, childlessness, and the care of children in Atlantic slave societies." Slavery & Abolition 38#2 (2017): 223-231. online
  • Du, Yue. "Concubinage and Motherhood in Qing China (1644–1911) Ritual, Law, and Custodial Rights of Property." Journal of Family History 42.2 (2017): 162-183.
  • Ezawa, Aya. Single Mothers in Contemporary Japan: Motherhood, Class, and Reproductive Practice (2016) online review
  • Feldstein, Ruth. Motherhood in black and white (Cornell UP, 2018) in U.S. history.
  • Griffin, Emma. "The Value of Motherhood: Understanding Motherhood from Maternal Absence in Victorian Britain." Past & Present 246.Supplement_15 (2020): 167-185.
  • Healy-Clancy, Meghan. "The Family Politics of the Federation of South African Women: A History of Public Motherhood in Women’s Antiracist Activism" Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42.4 (2017): 843-866 online.
  • Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mother nature: maternal instincts and how they shape the human species.
  • Knight, R. J. "Mistresses, motherhood, and maternal exploitation in the Antebellum South." Women's History Review 27.6 (2018): 990-1005 in USA.
  • Lerner, Giovanna Faleschini, and D'Amelio Maria Elena, eds. Italian Motherhood on Screen (Springer, 2017).
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  • Williams, Samantha. Unmarried Motherhood in the Metropolis, 1700–1850 (Springer, 2018) in London. excerpt
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External links

  • Quotations related to Mother at Wikiquote
  • Media related to Mothers at Wikimedia Commons
  • The dictionary definition of mother at Wiktionary