Photo Source: Sai De Silva, Unsplash
How does motherhood differ from culture to culture? Moms and birthing folks are revered in some way or another in just about every region (think: fertility goddesses, the image of Earth as Mother, and the symbology of the womb). But at the same time, especially in countries that limit women’s rights or retain fundamentalist beliefs about family structures, pregnant people and mothers face discrimination and other obstacles the moment they decide to have a child.
As Mother’s Day approaches in the United States, let’s take a look at some leading cultural practices from each region and review how pregnancy and motherhood are systemically regarded around the world.
In many African regions, motherhood is viewed as an essential part of womanhood and the ultimate expression of female power. For African mothers, the bond with their child is a spiritual one developed as early as infancy. One way in which they build this connection is by breastfeeding their children for much longer than mothers in other regions.
According to Afua Hirsch, a Ghanian mom and U.K. foreign correspondent who moved back to her home country to raise her baby, African mothers are treated better across the continent than anywhere in the Western world.
While women in the West are often expected to decide between a family and a career, “motherhood [in Africa] is a celebrated part of prominent women's credentials,” Hirsch wrote for The Guardian. “When Joyce Banda, now Africa's second female president, was appointed in Malawi, the Ugandan Monitor described her as ‘motherly and resplendent in rich African colours’ and said she ‘came across as the perfect embodiment of African feminine grace.’”
However, she acknowledged that motherhood in Africa is not without its challenges.
Pregnant students and teen moms are routinely banned or discouraged from attending school due to patriarchal beliefs in the mother’s role as primary caregiver. Poor, rural, and traditionalist cultures are most likely to adopt these ideas. A lack of education is especially detrimental to these populations, as it limits future socio-economic mobility.
Over 90% of women in Africa live under extremely restrictive abortion laws. Four countries -- Zambia, Cape Verde, South Africa, and Tunisia -- allow the procedure for most women, but 10 fully outlaw it and many others limit it only to the most extreme circumstances.
Maternal mortality is extremely high in certain parts of Africa, particularly the Sub-Saharan region. In 2015, UNICEF reported 546 deaths per 100,000 live births in the area due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. For comparison, the world average is 216 per 100,000.
Photo Source: Quoc Huy Tran, Unsplash
Asia, India, and the Pacific
Mothers in Asian countries, including India, often hear the stereotype of the “tiger mom,” meaning a strict disciplinarian mother with high expectations for their children that come from wanting the best for them. The term was originally coined by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She said that her parenting style, based on her Chinese upbringing, made her daughters more successful in their endeavors such as school and music.
Another, more traditional motherhood practice known as zuoyuezi, or “sitting the month,” is growing in popularity among young Chinese families despite beginning as an ancient custom in Chinese herbal medicine. New mothers confine themselves to their beds for the first 30 days after their child is born in order to realign their yin and yang by ensuring their own warmth, comfort, and protection. In some traditions, the infant spends most of their time in the same room as a way for them to connect with their mother on a deep level.
Some of the strict rules regarding diet, isolation, and when the mother can bathe (spoiler: she can’t) make this practice difficult for a lot of women to do at home. This has given rise to luxury “confinement centers” in some Asian cities, where young parents can spend thousands for the new mom to receive 24/7 care, food prepared for her, and other services to help ensure the month goes by without a hitch. In turn, the addition of these spaces has prompted a resurgence of the practice among younger families. Although it sounds extreme, following zuoyuezi is a personal decision for many moms.
Unfortunately, not all Asian mothers are able to access such support during pregnancy or postpartum.
Single mothers often face discrimination from the wider community, although numbers are rising across Asia. (At 85%, Japan has the highest percentage of single moms in the workforce.) They also suffer disproportionately from overwork and burnout, as society expects women to care for children and be successful in the workforce at the same time. To top it all off, single mothers even receive lower wages than married women.
In Russia, Southeast Asia, and some Pacific nations, women often become mothers and brides while still children. These mothers are discouraged from attending school and often end their education prematurely to care for children. The percentage of women aged 20 to 24 who were married at younger than 18 ranges from 35.4% in Laos to 11% in Vietnam, according to UNICEF.
In Southern and Central Asia, less than half of abortions are performed safely by medical professionals, although the practice is only fully banned in Iraq, Laos, and the Philippines. The high rate of self-induced or non-medical abortions is often due to barriers to access such as poverty, lack of education on abortion, social stigma, and isolated lifestyles in rural locations where it can be difficult to find transportation.
Over 90% of maternal deaths in the Asia-Pacific region occur in just 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste. These countries all have maternal mortality rates upwards of 100 deaths per 100,000 births, and almost 85,000 Asian and Middle Eastern women die due to pregnancy and childbirth each year.
Photo Source: Sadie Teper, Unsplash
South, Central, and Latin America
As a whole, Latin American culture views the mother as the self-sacrificing center of the family. Different countries within the region practice varying Mother’s Day rituals, such as in Panama, where it falls on the same day as the annual Feast of the Immaculate Conception -- connecting Catholic mothers with the Virgin Mary (the mother of Jesus Christ and of all mothers). In Bolivia, Mother’s Day shares a day with a recognition of the 1812 Battle of Coronilla, honoring the hundreds of mothers and women who were murdered while fighting for independence.
However, the demographic of motherhood is changing in these regions as social and political landscapes have evolved in recent years. As a region, Central and South America are seeing the number of unmarried mothers and single parents rise drastically. Over half of all children were born to single mothers in 2013, with the rate as high as 85% in Columbia. This is due in part to the uptick in “cohabiting unions” in some Latin American countries. For example, between 12% (Chile) and 39% (Columbia) of adults aged 18-49 lived in cohabiting unions rather than traditional marriages. Often, this is a consensual decision for low-income families or individuals to join forces and share income and resources, especially if a woman has recently become pregnant and needs support raising her child. It can be especially beneficial for poor women, who are often disregarded by legal and social service providers. Women living in rural poverty experience the highest rates of school dropout, child marriage, and early motherhood of any women in the world.
Although poverty and social unrest have led to the increase in these rates, many cultures within the Caribbean and Latin America still follow very traditional ideas of gender and family. Women in middle- and upper-class areas often spend their married lives as mothers and homemakers, while husbands remain breadwinners and the heads of household. Childbirth itself is widely seen as a ritual or rite of passage into womanhood, and the associated pain and sacrifice as part of a mother’s love.
It’s important to note that adhering to these expectations is often a personal choice for these moms. However, some of the underlying patriarchal beliefs behind gender roles make pregnancy and motherhood dangerous for many women.
In Mexico, mothers often refuse -- or are forced to refuse -- anesthesia during labor and childbirth, following the idea of the self-sacrificing woman. Some Mexican beliefs hold that a woman must endure this kind of pain as a prerequisite for being a “real mother.”
Rape, forced abortion, forced childbirth, and child marriage are growing problems within this region, although it is difficult for researchers to properly analyze the extent due to varied methods in data collection from country to country. Obstetric violence is also common, particularly against Black women in predominantly white-run hospitals in diverse countries like Brazil. These women are mostly underage, poor, and from rural areas, often sold into marriage to urban men and, in some cases, repeatedly raped.
Young moms who carry the babies to term struggle to access prenatal or postpartum care and are at increased risk for violence, control, and manipulation. For the youngest girls, whose bodies are not developed enough to handle childbirth, serious and lasting damage can occur. On the other hand, those who are forced to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest usually resort to unprofessional, non-medical means, causing further trauma, physical pain, and even death.
Thankfully, individuals and organizations worldwide are working to alleviate problems related to maternal health and well-being. One group, The International Mothers and Mothering Network, was founded to connect the dozens of non-governmental organizations helping women navigate motherhood despite potential poverty, violence, and pain. Some, such as the French-based LGBT Family Coalition, advocate specifically for LGBTQIA+ families experiencing discrimination within the healthcare and adoption system -- because just as nobody should be forced to be a mother, nobody should be told they can’t be one, either.
Cultures around the world honor mothers as the bearers of new life and the grounding forces that bring families together, although some places limit a woman’s freedom to make her own decisions about motherhood. If you are in the US, Mother’s Day falls on Sunday, May 13. Besides recognizing the moms in your life, you can also step up by speaking out about maternal rights in your region and around the world.
Emily Rose Thorne is a junior at Mercer University and an aspiring multimedia journalist. She’s been involved with Step Up Magazine since 2017 and is now helping guide the editorial team as Senior Editor. Previously, she interned as a journalist for both Atlanta Magazine and Girls Rock Athens. She’s also served as Staff Writer, Lead News Writer and News Editor of her campus publication, The Cluster. She is currently the Digital Editor of The Cluster and a 2019 John M. Couric Fellow at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. This summer, she'll start producing audio and writing copy for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon.