maman mamma mame emämaa em umm ana mom mae s’mami haha....

“More and more I felt the eyes that were looking at me, the voice that spoke to me,
and the arms that softened everything. I remember I called it 
 ‘Mama’.” (A. Stifter, 1866)

The “baby Stifter”, still new to the world, was calmed for a moment. Was this “Mama” his nanny, his biological mother, or even a man? The main thing: there were “extenuating circumstances”, in other words, there was motherliness. Because once you are in the world, there is no going back to the womb, that all-enveloping protective place. We continue to seek substitute forms/intimate spaces, sometimes all our lives.
And now another Stifter memory of that enigmatic prenatal time:
“Far back in the empty nothingness is something like delight and rapture, which penetrated my being violently, almost destructively, and which resembled nothing in my future life. (...) it was splendor, it was a scuffle, it was down below. This must have been very early, because I felt as if a high, wide darkness of nothingness lay around the thing. – Then there was something else, (...) there were sounds. (...) Then I swam in something that was undulating, I swam back and forth (...) then I became as if drunk (...)”
This late autobiographical fragment written in 1866 by the 19th-century Austrian author Stifter is a poetic groping, an awe-inspiring attempt to imagine himself in utero. The effect is remarkably intimate.
It is a universal theme. “All human life on the planet is born of woman”, as Adrienne Rich wrote in 1976. “The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body.
While our planet would continue to exist without “mamas” and girls – especially in the Global South, girls are often already mothers – it would lack this (in)human world. According to calculations by Oxfam, an international emergency and development aid organization, if women and girls worldwide were paid for the care and nursing services they provide every year, the cost would far exceed the fortunes of the super-rich – even at minimum wage! This output is not even mentioned in economic statistics. Housework, family care, nurturing, or other kinds of community activities are apparently seen as unproductive. Also working mothers, who often work part-time, face the risk of poverty, gender pay gaps and, especially, a motherhood pay gap. If the imperative “more money for the common good!” were taken seriously, female care work in particular would have to be super paid. Unfortunately, most of this kind of labor is below the threshold of our perception.
The 20th century saw awareness milestones in women’s emancipation and the concept of women’s role as mothers. Simone de Beauvoir considered the bondage of women to their reproductive properties to be the reason for their social oppression. She described this literally as “the enslavement of women”. And she provided facts about the reality of mothers’ lives that supported her findings. Her socio-historical-philosophical work Le Deuzième Sexe (the subordinate sex!) was published in 1949. It appeared in 1953 in English as The Second Sex. She delivered a brutal message that still holds true today: Children are an “equal rights killer”. (As a logical consequence, Beauvoir remained childless, but she did adopt a younger friend and thus had a daughter of sorts). In retrospect, she was the founder of gender studies. Her oft-quoted key phrase is: “You are not born a woman, you become one.” Is it also possible to say that you are not born a mother, you are made one?
Twenty-five years later, the above-mentioned Adrienne Rich, feminist poet and mother of three, published Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. There she states that motherhood has a “history”, an “ideology”, because it is seen as a self-evident and natural “institution”, an institution without a building, as it were. An institution that is omnipresent in family structures/practices – and above all in the minds that continue to repeat traditional images of motherhood. There are blatant examples of the ideological instrumentalization of motherhood. In the Nazi era, the cult of the mother was as glorifying as it was dishonest (putting women in their “natural” place in front of the stove; crosses of honor for diligent child-bearers). Or in China, where there was a rigorously controlled one-child policy from 1979 to 2015.

Motherhood and the subsequent maternal instinct are not a firmly linked pair, as we might believe today. In other centuries, this was certainly not lived in practice. In Mother Love (L’Amour en plus, 1980), Elisabeth Badinter uses rich historical sources to unmask this “natural” instinct as a myth. Cultural values are (re)modeled or invented depending on the social needs and political necessities of a system. Wealthy women did not take care of their children; their children were immediately placed in the arms of wet-nurses and then sent to tutors... Or children were simply passed on to childless relatives. Indifference and even cruelty toward children was the rule, something unimaginable today. In general, a child’s value was defined by its usefulness to its parents – as a successor/heir or simply as manpower. It was not until J.-J. Rousseau’s novel Emile, or on Education (1762) that children were raised in a natural, socially oriented way. Childhood became a time of life worth protecting, and motherhood embodied the ideal of the big Mama, the archetype of the great giving mother who, away from the public eye and seemingly devoted to her husband, works in the family home. As begetter (womb), nurturer (breasts), caretaker.... She certainly also practiced a “hidden” power, but always at the price of social non-existence. Rousseau was brilliantly successful and influential, despite being very contradictory, and we can still feel repercussions of his ideas today. (By the way, the philosopher had five children with his girlfriend, all of whom disappeared without a trace into a state orphanage as infants, because he had to write! A “Mama nation”? Who would want that? )

The gender-theoretical distinction between motherhood and mothering corresponds to that of sex and gender. While pregnancy and motherhood are STILL – reproductive medicine is advancing – tied to the biological category of “woman”, the skill of “mothering” is a social trait that is not gender specific. It is not an attribute just of mothers. The maternal man, the man as mom, is no longer such a rare species. He is now a socially recognized figure. And the mated homosexual man can become social mom thanks to the possibility of “borrowing” a biological mother. The ethically controversial topic of surrogate motherhood... Or he has a child and becomes a mom because he used to be a woman and still has female organs, although now a man...
The new complexity in the confusingly fluid diversity of gender/identity (LGTBQIA+ counts over fifty genders) corresponds to the possibilities of biotechnology and the flourishing reproductive industry. Norms are shifting. Perhaps this is a good way to remix the state of affairs in families, which are usually places of conflict. Indeed, the family stage is peculiar in that it rarely follows the scenario of a happy-end comedy...

The everyday reality of mothers: The “bad conscience mother” who wants to accomplish EVERYTHING but then realizes motherhood is incommensurate. Those who see themselves both as mothers and as non-mothers and find themselves in a dilemma that becomes virulent when a child arrives. Rachel Cusk describes this in A Life’s Work (2001): “(...) after its birth, it lives on in the sphere of influence of her conscience. She cannot be herself in its presence, nor in its absence, and to leave one’s children is as difficult as to remain with them. This realization creates a sense of being hopelessly entangled in a conflict or caught in a mythical trap.”
Once a mom, always a mom... torn between a child and an important job. Does it help if you just want to be a maa-maa mama, a “so-so mom”, an average mother?

A short zeitgeist mom typology:
The helicopter mom: She’s constantly buzzing and hovering over the kids, also via Instagram and Facebook, drives them to school, to music lessons, to the riding stable, to the drumming group.... Hopefully the little ones will manage to escape someday. 
The latte macchiato mom or chic mom: She sits in the child-friendly cafe for breakfast, sipping an oat milk long drink or a soy milk coffee together with other moms like her. She has a top-of-the-line stroller of course.
The mappi: Mama and papa in one, the single mother. Constantly stressed, but much loved. Frozen pizza and instant soup... What luck! 
The tiger mom: Well known in Asia. The children have to be A1 from the very beginning.... There is a guide book on how to do it...
The fighting mom: She puts herself in front of the child as a protective shield no matter what, even when the child is clearly being bad, and attacks even the slightest criticism.
The crocodile mom: She believes in giving the child EVERYTHING. 
Suffocating. The only certainty is that she wants everything from the child in return. There is a threat of being devoured.
The GAIA or earth mother: Eco-freak through and through, with a tendency to live in the country. Chaos is good, children should just get dirty, romp around ... everything is creative and free.
Best friend mom: Partner look between mom and daughter, clothes swapping is common. Mom is pleased when she is mistakenly taken as being the older sister ... Love the same cafes, the same music...
The bad mom: Negative image? No, not anymore. Gets confirmation, praise. “Let your husband....”
The stepmother: The notoriously evil one – off to the fairy tale! She has long since resigned her post. See patchwork families and other constellations.

Karin Ruprechter-Prenn
translation from the german: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek



Mothers in mind, or the Woman of the Flying Sparks

What do we associate with motherhood? With super moms on one side and evil stepmothers on the other, the thought of motherhood can trigger a sudden flood of images: from memories, desires and feelings of happiness, to expectations, needs, overload, fears. As always, the normal chaos of everyday life is a balancing act between the ideal and reality. How has the image and role of mothers changed over time? The exaltation of motherhood, which lasted deep into the 20th century, was usually accompanied by women being reduced to their biological gender. Only after career opportunities for women began to appear were there any alternatives to the role of mother. This was the result of social processes such as gender equality, which went hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of traditional views of the family and of conservative moral concepts. 
Although the process of gender equality is far from complete, feminist struggles have not only brought about massive changes in how the role of the mother is seen, but also in real life. Emancipation and self-determination processes have modified the social structures surrounding motherhood, since these structures had to be reconciled with the reality of the working woman. From the invention of the birth control pill and the introduction of legalized abortion, to today’s notions of queer family structures and biotechnological possibilities, motherhood has freed itself from biological markers and constraints. Nonetheless, the role of the mother is still subject to certain social expectations and norms. Also social contexts, such as that of the single mother, still determine the levels of stress felt by women balancing motherhood and careers, the reproductive role overlapping the productive one.

In recent years, the image of motherhood has gradually changed, with motherhood tied less to the biological function of childbearing. The main definition of motherhood is no longer the biological origin of life. New constellations of care have been introduced, care that is shared between genders. Separating the social and biological aspects of motherhood has opened up new forms of parenting and motherhood: patchwork families, adoption, queer and same-sex care models, co-parenting, etc. This leads us to the issue of whether care can acquire a universal value as a social model. For centuries, parental care, nurturing, education and social responsibility were considered exclusively female spheres of action. This was justified by these activities being seen as part of a natural biological process. Since it was a natural process, they were not considered jobs needing pay. It was Karl Marx who developed the concept of reproductive labor. He pointed out that these activities are socially necessary, i.e., they are jobs. But as long as parental care and nursing are not organized in an entrepreneurial way, they have no real value, especially within the capitalist logic of exploitation. With global warming and the catastrophic effects of capitalist systems on the environment, people are finally having reservations about mechanisms based on exploitation, valorization and the logic of optimization. More and more attention is being given to caring as a social model: how we treat the environment or relate to fellow human beings and other living things. As a principle of action that transcends gender and age, caring is a model that prioritizes relationships and life, rather than profit and self-centeredness. It can have a regenerative effect on the environment and society.

How can maternal care be characterized? What kinds of behavior increase levels of general care in society? There are many ways: nurturing the physical and psychological well-being of offspring, social and emotional responsibility for family members, organizing everyday life, securing future opportunities through education and upbringing, working on relationships as a community-building tool, sharing tasks, growing and creating together, etc. Connected to this are ideas about not only focusing on one’s own self, but the self as part of a whole. Enormous strength is found in the process of creating togetherness, when we take part in the lives of others and share our own lives with them. However, emotional closeness can also cause conflicts. Such conflicts often arise from how care is distributed, especially when it is lacking, or from care that has the effect of controlling or appropriating, or care needs that are overwhelming. It is not easy to maintain a balance between career, care, and one’s sense of self when undertaking the jobs of both production and reproduction. This requires the sharing of care tasks, their revaluation in society, as well as new perceptions of social values and the purpose of life. Against the background of climate change and the ever more urgent perceptual shifts it is bringing, Thomas Metzinger asks whether there might not be something more attractive and interesting than wealth and professional success. According to Metzinger, if we were no longer driven by economic and narcissistic goals, “new forms of engagement with our own minds, certain forms of meditation, could help us live more simply – and to be happier.” A change of consciousness in the sense of “secular spirituality” (Metzinger) could contribute to imagining and realizing new, more caring forms of living together.
To develop empathy for other species and ensure their survival, Donna Haraway’s model of interspecies kinships and symbiotic relationships between human and nonhuman beings also emphasizes mutual growing and creating as a social process. Interesting in the context of such symbiosis is Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, the stage when an infant sees and recognizes itself as a whole for the first time in front of a mirror. It is the beginning of a child’s autonomy, its awareness of self, the moment it begins to break away from the symbiotic relationship with its mother. This raises the question of what other forms of symbiosis we need beyond the maternal dependency relationship. How much autonomy is necessary? How can we prevent autonomy and symbiosis from getting in the way of each other? Indeed, there are many kinds of dependency relationships: with other people, living things, the environment. We are spatially, temporally and socially situated; we are dependent on relationships, life circumstances, and social and ecological processes. When we are aware of this, a feeling can arise of being part of a whole, a feeling that can help us to develop compassion and overcome the fear of the strangeness of the other. And yet, we can also influence and shape relationships and dependencies through an autonomous range of action.
What can I learn from my children? What do I want to pass on to the next generation? Where is the line between caring and control? In view of global warming and societal cold-heartedness, we need models in which care not only has to do with humans, but with everything that is alive. We must understand that our entire planet is also a living being (holobiont). Ecofeminist perspectives on the world can help us overcome the current mechanisms of destruction in order to finally anchor care as a model of action for all genders.
Among the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, the Woman of the Flying Sparks, Apemerukoyan-Mat Unamerukoyan-Mat, Abe Kamui for short, is the goddess of the hearth fire. She is responsible for social warmth. “Her palace is beneath the hearth of the home; it gives warmth, directs domestic affairs, makes peace among people, connects us to the spirits and other deities, and brings prayers to the heaven god Pase Kamui. She lives in our hearts.” In the spirituality of the Ainu, the souls of the deceased live in the heart and in the hearth. For that reason, the fire in the hearth and the fire in the heart may never be defiled or extinguished.

The Woman of the Flying Sparks thus represents social closeness, peaceful relationships among people, and connections between the living, the dead and the gods. She mediates between reality and spirituality, she is the spark that jumps across when caring relationships arise.

Sabine Winkler
translation from the original german: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek

(1)Thomas Metzinger, Bewusstseinskultur – Spiritualität, intellektuelle Redlichkeit und die planetare Krise. See his interview with Theresa Schouwink: “Der menschliche Geist scheint in der Klimakatastrophe seinen Meister gefunden zu haben”, philosophie Magazin, 12 Jan. 2023. Available at:

(3)Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble – Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.
(4)acques Lacan (1901–1981), French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

(5)On the definition of the expression “holobiont”, see: Zentrum für Kunst Karlsruhe, Glossolalia. Available at:

 “Holobiont” is a scholarly term which expresses that all living things exist through symbiotic relationships. “Holobiont” also refers to a group of different interdependent ecological organisms that live together as a whole. While the properties of a holobiont are unstable, there is an ongoing negotiation, a kind of transformative dialogue, between all the organisms within the holobiont (microbes, bacteria, viruses, spores, etc.). All species have an interwoven lineage of life and survival, a context in which they “become one”.

(6) Ainu or Utari. In the Ainu language, ainu means “man”, utari means “comrade”. See Abe Kamui, “Japanische Göttin des Feuers, der Feuerstelle, des Herdfeuers”. Available at:

(7)Translated from: “Abe Kamui – Japanische Göttin des Feuers, der Feuerstelle, des Herdfeuers”.
(8) “Abe Kamui – Japanische Göttin des Feuers, der Feuerstelle, des Herdfeuers”.



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