20 Poems About Motherhood

Mothers, Mothering, and Memory

Mother and daughter
Mother and daughter. Granger Wootz / Getty Images

Poets have focused on mothers and motherhood in a variety of ways—celebrating their mothers, remembering them after they've died, reflecting on being a mother, worrying about being a mother, giving advice as a mother, using mother as a metaphor for the earth or nature, calling to mothers to care for wider humanity, and even cautioning against certain parenting tendencies. This selection highlights poems in all of these moods.

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May Sarton: "For My Mother"

Elderly Woman
Education Images/UIG/Getty Images

In this poem, May Sarton considers her mother's aging challenges, and through that, remembers her mother in her earlier influence.  Excerpt:

I summon you now
Not to think of
The ceaseless battle
With pain and ill health,
The frailty and the anguish.
No, today I remember
The creator,
The lion-hearted.
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John Greenleaf Whittier: "Tribute to Mother"

John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier. Culture Club / Getty Images

Nineteenth century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker known also for his abolitionism, reflects with time on how well he took her advice when young, and what his mature attitude is.

But wiser now,
a man gray grown,
My childhood's needs are better known.
My mother's chastening love I own.
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Robert Louis Stevenson: "To My Mother"

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by William Blake Richmond
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by William Blake Richmond. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Another well-known poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, reflects on his relationship with his mother. Excerpt:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.
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Joanne Bailey Baxter: "Mother On Mothers Day"

Simon McGill / Getty Images

Poet Joanne Bailey Baxter writes of memories of her mother, now deceased, and that her strength was needed "to give a hand" in heaven, knowing that her successful parenting left resilient family behind. Poems like this one are meant to bring comfort to those mourning the loss of a mother.

For she had fulfilled his prophesy
Spreading love, honor, and hope
She instilled in those she left behind
The ability to understand and cope.
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Rudyard Kipling: "Mother o’ Mine"

Songsheet cover for "Mother o'Mine" 1903
Songsheet cover for "Mother o'Mine" 1903. Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado / Getty Images

Rudyard Kipling's rather sentimental poem about his mother honors the unconditional love a mother gives to a child—even if the child has been executed, as in the excerpt below, because of a crime. In another verse, he describes that a mother's love even if the child is in hell, will bring prayers to make that child "whole."

If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
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Walt Whitman: "There was a Child Went Forth"

Walt Whitman, 1854
Walt Whitman, 1854. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In this poem about a childhood, mother and father are described by Whitman in very traditional roles: 

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her
clothes as she walks by...
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Lucy Maud Montgomery: "The Mother"

Home of Lucy Maud Montgomery
Home of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Rolf Hicker Photography / Getty Images

In the 19th century, men and women poets wrote about motherhood in sentimental ways. Men tended to write from the perspective of a grown son contemplating his mother. The women might write from the perspective of the daughter, but often write with the voice of a mother. Lucy Maud Montgomery, known for her Anne of Green Gableswas also a much-published poet in her time. An excerpt from her poem about a mother contemplating her infant son and what his future might be (including, in another part of the poem, wondering who he will marry), but coming back to the special relationship of mother to son in early infancy:

No one so near to you now as your mother!
Others may hear your words of beauty,
But your precious silence is mine alone;
Here in my arms I have enrolled you,
Away from the grasping world I fold you,
Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.
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Sylvia Plath: "Morning Song"

Frieda Hughes, poet, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
Frieda Hughes, poet, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Colin McPherson/Corbis/Getty Images

Sylvia Plath, a poet who is remembered for The Bell Jar, married Ted Hughes and had two children, Frieda in 1960 and Nicholas in 1962, and separated from her husband in 1963. This poem is among those that she composed during the productive period after her children's births. In it, she describes her own experience of being a new mother, contemplating the infant she is now responsible for. It is far different than the sentimental poetry of generations earlier.


Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry 
Took its place among the elements.
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Sylvia Plath: "Medusa"

19th century head of Medusa
19th century head of Medusa. De Agostini / Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Sylvia Plath's relationship with her own mother was a troubled one. In this poem, Plath describes both the closeness with her mother and her frustrations. The title of the poem expresses some of Plath's sense of her mother. Excerpt:

In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.
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Edgar Allen Poe: "To My Mother"

Virginia Poe in 1847 (wife of Edgar Allen Poe)
Virginia Poe in 1847 (wife of Edgar Allen Poe). Culture Club / Getty Images

Edgar Allen Poe's poem is dedicated not to  his own late mother, but to the mother of his late wife. It is, as a 19th century work, still in the more sentimental tradition of motherhood poems.

My mother—my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
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Anne Bradstreet: "Before the Birth of One of Her Children"

Title page, second (posthumous) edition of Bradstreet's poems, 1678
Title page, second (posthumous) edition of Bradstreet's poems, 1678. Library of Congress

Anne Bradstreet, the first published poet of colonial British America, wrote of life in Puritan New England. In this 28-line poem, reminding us of the fragility of life in that time and place and particularly about the risks of death of a mother during or after childbirth, Bradstreet muses on what might happen to her husband and children should she succumb to those risks. She acknowledges and accepts that her husband may remarry, but is mindful of the risks to her children if they have a stepmother. Excerpt:

Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from stepdame’s injury.
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Robert William Service: "The Mother"

Mother waving to son
Blend Images - Kevin Dodge / Getty Images

The poet Robert William Service acknowledges, in this poem, that motherhood changes, and children grow more distant with the years.  He describes the memories that mothers carry as "a little ghost / Who ran to cling to you!"  Excerpt:

Your children distant will become,
And wide the gulf will grow;
The lips of loving will be dumb,
The trust you used to know
Will in another's heart repose,
Another's voice will cheer...
And you will fondle baby clothes
And brush away a tear.
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Judith Viorst: "Some Advice From a Mother To Her Married Son"

Judith Viorst
Judith Viorst. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

 A job of motherhood is to raise a child to be a successful adult.  Judith Viorst gives some advice in this poem to mothers who are in turn giving advice to their sons. Here are the beginning lines:

The answer to do you love me isn't, I married you, didn't I?
Or, Can't we discuss this after the ballgame is through?
It isn't, Well that all depends on what you mean by 'love'.
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Langston Hughes: "Mother to Son"

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes. Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Advice from mother to son is a bit different when the family is faced with racism and poverty.  Langston Hughes, a figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in this well-known poem puts into verse the words that an African American mother might share with a son.  Excerpt:

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters, ...
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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: "The Slave Mother"

"The Separation of Mother and Child" illustration
"The Separation of Mother and Child" illustration. Bettmann / Getty Images

The African American experience also included centuries of enslavement as a fact of everyday life. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, writing in the 19th century from the perspective of a free black woman, imagines the feelings of a slave mother who has no control over the fate of her children.  Excerpt:

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother's pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.
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Emily Dickinson: "Nature The Gentlest Mother Is"

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson. Three Lions / Getty Images

In this poem by Emily Dickinson, she applies her image of mothers as kind, gentle nurturers to nature itself. Excerpt:

Nature the gentlest mother is,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest of the waywardest.
Her admonition mild
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Henry Van Dyke: "Mother Earth"

First photo of earth from space, 1971
First photo of earth from space, 1971. JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

Many poets and writers have applied the metaphor of motherhood to the earth itself. This example from Henry Van Dyke is an illustration of seeing the earth through the lens of a loving mother.  Excerpt:

Mother of all the high-strung poets and singers departed,
Mother of all the grass that weaves over their graves the glory of the field,
Mother of all the manifold forms of life, deep-bosomed, patient, impassive,
Silent brooder and nurse of lyrical joys and sorrows!
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Dorothy Parker: "Prayer for a New Mother"

Detail from Virgin and Child Attributed to Raphael
Detail from Virgin and Child Attributed to Raphael. Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Many poets have written of Mary as a model mother.  In this poem, Dorothy Parker, known more for biting wit, ponders what it must have been like for Mary as a mother of a tiny infant. She wishes for Mary that she might be able to have a more normal relationship to her baby than to see him as savior and king.  Excerpt: 

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
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Julia Ward Howe: "Mother's Day Proclamation"

A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855)
A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to what is known as The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War.  After the war, she became more skeptical and critical of the consequences of war, and she came to hope for the end to all wars.  In 1870, she wrote a Mother's Day Proclamation promoting the idea of a Mother's Day for Peace.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
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Philip Larkin: "This Be the Verse"

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin. Feliks Topolski/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 And sometimes, poets unload their frustrations with parenting, and produce verses like this one.  Beginning lines:

They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had
 And add some extra, just for you.