Mama Then & Now

“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”--Agatha Christie, famed British writer

Whether you agree with the description, there’s no denying the power of Mother Goddess and Protector Archetypes throughout history and cultures, from Paleolithic fertility figures[1] and Egyptian goddesses,[2] to Buddhist Bodhisattvas [3] and Christian deities.[4] And while the essential importance of the mother figure remains the same throughout history and cultures, the experiences of mothers from one generation to the next has shifted drastically as cultures and societies have evolved.

While a mother may teach her daughter essential lessons about parenting, mothering, and womanhood, how does the daughter then apply these lessons to her own contemporary culture? Do some lessons from mothers remain the same, while others shift according to cultural norms? What is the current generation of mothers experiencing, celebrating, and grappling with that previous generations could never have imagined? And how do the generations of women—grandmothers, mothers, daughters—work together to share lessons, love, and universal teachings?

The ties that bind grandmother, mother, and daughter are rich and complex, and they are being redefined in a globalized world. Women raising children with limited or no access to their own parents often face additional emotional and practical challenges. Alison Gilbert, whose parents died before her children could remember them,[5] describes raising them without the “I” factor – irreplaceable knowledge that only one’s parents have, including information about one’s own childhood. The “Grandparent Gap” affects all families who are separated or on the move, and it hits the disadvantaged particularly hard.[6]

To counter the separation, millions of far-flung families are flocking to the internet and Skype to stay connected.[7]  There are even “Skype grannies”, mostly retired teachers in Britain, who are reading stories to slum children in Hyderabad over the internet.[8]

Through technology, generations of women are able to connect and share in their experiences of mothering. Yet traditional modes of communication and connecting continue to be essential for passing down generational lessons. If mothers are the protective glue that holds the family together,[9] grandmothers are the keepers of the family’s knowledge.[10] Take the tradition of silk embroidery by Arab women.[11] Arab blogger Wafa writes, “I remember stories that my mother would share with my sisters and I, about the different embroidery patterns she learned from her mother and grandmother. There were all ways that women… passed stories of their circumstances from one generation to another.” 

Shared via email or embroidery traditions, stories, support, and lessons passed between women bridge any perceived “generation gap.” Women around the globe continue to rely on learned traditions, while adding contemporary perspectives and modern technology to the litany of tools in a mother’s toolbox.

In the “Mama Then and Now” gallery:

  • CONSIDER Musimbi Kanyoro’s essay about the differences between her experience compared to her mother’s and her daughter’s
  • WATCH Mama’s Voices, as women around the world speak about how mothering has changed for them in comparison to previous generations
  • LISTEN to Mutamassik’s original composition in Your Voices, dedicated to her grandmother, who was forced to give up her dreams in order to comply with her own mother’s wishes for her to marry and have children at a young age


[1] Mother goddess, Wikipedia, Accessed 3 December 2011

[2] Isis, Wikipedia, Accessed 3 December 2011

[3] Tara (Buddhism)Accessed 3 December 2011

[4] Blessed Virgin Mary (Roman Catholic)Accessed 3 December 2011

[5] Parents Without Parents, New York Times Parenting blog, Blog by Lisa Belkin, February 15 2011, Accessed 3 December 2011

[6] Famine forces Somali granny and her children on a long trek for food, UNHCR, 25 July 2011, Accessed 3 December 2011

[7] Families Stay Connected Through Skype, Louise DiCarlo, Digital Brand Marketing Education, April 25, 2011, Accessed 3 December 2011

[8] Our fantastic readers: how 200 of you volunteered, by Lucy Tobin, The Guardian, March 15, 2010, Accessed 2 December 2011

[9] Life after mum: She's the glue that holds the family together, then suddenly she's gone, Mail Online, October 9, 2010, Accessed 3 December 2011

[10]  Grandmothers Promote Maternal and Child Health, The Communication Initiative Network, August 17, 2011, Accessed 3 December 2011

[11] Beginnings of Arab Feminism, blog post by Wafa, May 16, 2011, Accessed 3 December 2011