"Arab Motherhood" by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.

“Arab Motherhood” by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.

Editor’s Note: In honor of Mother’s Day, I have gathered together some of my favorite poems that I’ve featured on this series over the years that consider motherhood from a plethora of perspectives, for motherhood is such a multi-faceted experience. From the perspective of the child: memories of mothers, good mothers, bad mothers, absent mothers, mothers we have lost. From the perspective of the mother, of the would-be-mother, of the once-was mother: pregnancy and childbirth, love and fear of and for our children, the kind of mother we are or are not, the kind of mother we want to be, the children we never had, the children we have lost.

Today’s selection is in honor of motherhood itself and its many faces, in honor of that imperative person without whom none of us would exist and who–for better or worse–so deeply affects who we come to be.

Today’s post is dedicated to my own mother, who has always been one of my most dedicated readers and faithful supporters, who has shaped my being from zygote through womanhood, and whose legacy as mother takes on its newest incarnation on this, my first Mother’s Day as a mother.

Mother, I’m trying
to write
a poem to you

which is how most
poems to mothers must
begin—or, What I’ve wanted
to say, Mother
…but we
as children of mothers,
even when mothers ourselves,

cannot bear our poems
to them.

–Erin Belieu,
“Another Poem for Mothers”


“Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” by Elana Bell

“Cultiver Son Potager / Growing Vegetables” by Dara Barnat; translated by Sabine Huynh

“Prayers Like Shoes” by Ruth Forman

“We Speak of August” by Valentina Gnup

State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies by Alexis Rhone Fancher

“A Poem for Women Who Don’t Want Children” by Chanel Brenner

“Baby” by Jaimie Gusman

“Psalm to Be Read While My Daughter Considers Mary” by Nicole Rollender

Hemisphere by Ellen Hagan

“Labor Pantoum” by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

“Depression” by Terri Kirby Erickson

“Dinner for the Dying” by Jen Lambert

Decency by Marcela Sulak

Little Spells by Jennifer K. Sweeney

“The Invention of Amniocentesis” by Jen Karetnick

“The Sadness of Young Mothers” by Richard D’Abate

“Mom’s Cocks” by Jenna Le

“The Balance” by Danusha Laméris

“The Committee Weighs In” by Andrea Cohen

“Mother-In-Law” by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

“Change of Address” by Ruth Deborah Rey

Want to read more Mother’s Day poems?
Mother’s Day poetry from the Academy of American Poets
Poetry about mothers from the Academy of American Poets


By Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

Maybe it was my skirt, like yours,
or my hair, curls tangled
with youth.

Maybe it was the way we both raised
our hands to our lips in surprise, or the girl
in me you had watched come up as you raised
only sons. Something the same in us
led you to warn me.

Leave him before he kills you,

you whispered a week before the wedding,
brush frozen in my hair, as still
as the pins on the dresser.
Our eyes locked in the mirror.

I gauged your tone, the stillness
of your fingers on the back
of my neck, the set of your lips

and turned my eyes down to the mirror’s handle,
silver, black patina broken by prints.

His father…

you started, moving the brush again,
stroke and pull.

His father,

you repeated, breath weary
with the storm that threatened
every night until his liquid disappearance
shamed and freed you.

I know,

I said and thought of your boy, gray eyes,
his smooth promise, our planned escape

I weighed the mason jar,
its cool contents, the burn in the back of your throat,
my youth, the boy in him, the man not yet born,
and I stayed.

Mother-in-law, I took you at your word,
but it took me twenty-one years to do it in.

I know now what you knew,
my own boys newly men.

In one I see the promise
liquor and time washed away.
In the other I see their father, your son.
I would warn a woman against him,
my own boy, tell her to leave.

Our skirts would rustle, my hand
would freeze on the worn handle of the hairbrush.

She would meet my eyes,
gauge them, and then she would look away.

And I would smooth her hair,
pin it up, and ready her for dinner.

“Mother-in-law” is from the collection Steam Laundry (Boreal Books, 2012), and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell is a poet and essayist who lives, writes and teaches in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her first collection, Steam Laundry, was published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, in January 2012. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books and other literary magazines. Her work has been recognized with an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. This summer Literary Mama will begin publishing her monthly column about Alaska, getting outdoors and raising girls.

Editor’s Note: Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s debut collection, Steam Laundry, tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, a woman who followed her husband first to San Francisco and then to Alaska during the gold rush. Stitching together a history from nonfiction and fiction alike, O’Donnell pieces together a life from letters, documents, photos, and the depths of the poet’s own imagination. The poems in this book tell the story of a woman otherwise lost to history, and poems such as today’s selection bring to life a character as rich and haunted as the real life Sarah Ellen Gibson, if not more so.

Want to see more by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell?
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s Official Website
Literary Mama
“Canzone Basking in the Pre-Apocalypse” in Dogwood
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell on KUAC