Motherhood, emotion, and risk analysis

I recently wrote a post about translations can be sexist, embodying unconscious gendered assumptions. That case was unusual in that the language of the text itself was quite clear. More typically, what happens is that there are places in the text that are dark and ambiguous, and such places invite the translator to illuminate them with their own unconscious assumptions. In such cases it is much less easy to establish a correct reading based on linguistics alone, and we need a sensitive understanding of how such biases tend to play out.

On such passage occurs in the memorable description of motherhood in MN 38 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya. There, the process of conception, pregnancy, birth, and growth of a child is taught to illustrate dependent origination. The passage includes a unique description of a mother’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

All four of the translations I have seen (Chalmers, Horner, Nyanamoli/Bodhi, and Thanissaro) describe the mother’s emotional state as great “anxiety” both during the pregnancy and in childbirth.

Now, of course, the context is about how rebirth is suffering. So to acknowledge this is hardly anything new. At the same time, though, it is a rather striking and memorable description. I mean, surely a mother-to-be actually experiences a whole range of emotions—joy, love, terror, depression, boredom—and is it not reductive to only pick on anxiety? Still, maybe it’s just a point of emphasis.

Anyway, when reading the suttas, even as a Pali scholar, in the back of my mind I have a memory of various translations, so I thought I knew what to expect here. So I was surprised to that that we don’t actually have one of the normal Pali words for anxiety (paritassanā, for example). Rather, the text has saṁsaya, which means “doubt”. So at the very least there is a case to be made for how we get from “doubt” to “anxiety”.

Doubt is one of those terms that can have an inner and outer aspect. In this, it is much like kāma, which as is well known refers both to the inner sensual desire and the things for which one desires. So while doubt is normally presented as a negative quality, the Buddha does acknowledge that doubt is sometimes a normal and healthy response to a dubious situation. Such a case is found in the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65), when the people of Kalama ask:

‘I wonder who of these respected ascetics and brahmins speaks the truth, and who speaks falsehood?’”
“Alañhi vo, kālāmā, kaṅkhituṃ alaṃ vicikicchituṃ
“It is enough, Kālāmas, for you to be doubting and uncertain.
Kaṅkhanīyeva pana vo ṭhāne vicikicchā uppannā.
Your doubt has come up about an uncertain matter.

In our current passage, rendering saṁsaya as “anxiety” shifts the attention unambiguously to the mother’s emotional response. Moreover, it casts that response in a clearly negative light.

This is, of course, the normal situation for women in andocentric texts. In so far as women have an inner life at all, it is characterized by excessive, dysfunctional emotionality. Understanding this, we should be alert to such depictions and interrogate them when they appear.

The commentary to this text says this.

Saṃsayenāti “arogo nu kho bhavissāmi ahaṃ vā, putto vā me”ti evaṃ mahantena jīvitasaṃsayena
“With saṁsaya means: Thinking, “Will my child and I be safe?” that’s how she is with great jīvitasaṁsaya.

The curious thing here is that the text does not mention the inner emotional quality of doubt at all. Rather than providing glosses for “doubt”, it focuses on the external circumstances. The mother is reflecting on the risks she is facing for herself and her child. It is a cognitive response, not an emotional one. Now, obviously, anxiety is one possible and understandable kind of emotional response to those circumstances. But the commentary does not say so explicitly—and it is the job of the commentary to say things explicitly.

I have left the term jīvitasaṁsaya untranslated. It doesn’t, so far as I know, appear elsewhere in Pali. However the Sanskrit dictionary says jīvitasaṃśaya means “risk or danger of life”. It gives the same meaning to the similar construction prāṇasaṃśaya, and gives “difficulty, danger, risk” as one of the basic meanings of saṃśaya. These senses are not acknowledged in the PTS Pali dictionary.

There are those who accuse me of being biased against the commentaries, because I have pointed out sexist passages in them. I’m not. I’m biased against bias. If I see sexism in the commentaries or anywhere else, I’ll call it out. But in this case, it seems to me that the commentary’s reading is well considered.

Rather than reading this text as a comment on a mother’s emotional state, “with great anxiety”, it is talking about how in pregnancy and childbirth she and the child are “at great risk”.

Especially in pre-modern times (but all too often still), risk is a much more universal aspect of motherhood, as compared to emotional responses, which vary continually. Pregnancy was often a death sentence. The mother is quite aware of this. She understands the risks and accepts the responsibility.

The Metta Sutta depicts a mother protecting her child with her life. This is an example of great love, not of great anxiety. But in MN 38, as previously understood, joy and love have disappeared from her experience.

Anxiety is a normal emotion. But great, persistent, and crippling anxiety is a pathology, one that, tragically, some mothers go through. To acknowledge and empathize with this experience is one thing. But to pathologize the normal emotions of motherhood is quite another.

Mothers are no fools. They understand the risks. That they succeed so often in something so dangerous is not an emotional flaw, it is love and courage.


Thank you for your thoughtfulness considering this translation. Anxiety does have too negative a connotation to apply it to all expectant mothers. Expectation and uncertainty about delivery, with hopes and fears for mother and child, include many positive and negative emotions, all totally natural and healthy. If a mother was not “anxious” (concerned might be a better word) for her own health and that of her child, she would not take care of herself, being mindful of what she eats or drinks, and seek out assistance from knowledgable elders or doctors. So here, recognizing anxiety or fear leads one to take wholesome actions, doing what one can about the situation. I recall when I was pregnant with my first child I was encouraged to recite positive affirmations during labor: One of mine was about recognizing “healthy pain” and not being afraid of the pain which arises from the exertion of muscles opening the the cervix and pushing the baby out. This was helpful because often we experience a pain and are fearful that it means something is wrong. This was a long time ago. My first child is now 35 and he and his wife are expecting their first child. I have jīvitasaṃśaya about it myself because in addition to the usual uncertainties of pregnancy and delivery, my daughter-in-law has a congenital hip problem which has been painful her entire life. So I especially appreciate what you have written: “She understands the risks and accepts the responsibility.” She is courageous.


Hopefully, while avoiding language that either demeans women or contributes to their continued subjugation by males, we can also avoid sentimentalizing or whitewashing the situation of mothers throughout human history.

As Bhante Sujato notes, in the ancient world the pains and mortal risks of child-bearing were much greater than they are now. So whether or not any particular passage speaks of an expectant woman’s anxiety or her mere concern or uncertainty, there would be nothing demeaning about discourses that acknowledge the very pressing anxiety and fear which would be present in most cases. It would be no more demeaning than recognizing that a male soldier facing battle is likely to experience extreme anxiety about the onset of a battle in which he bears a strong possibility of being painfully wounded, maimed for life, or killed. These are normal and truly human experiences, often suppressed under a cold, normative stoicism that our societies impose on us so they can keep functioning in their conventionally brutal way - the way of Mara and samsara, which is without discernible end, painful and ultimately futile.

Let’s also remember that many of these mothers occupied a subordinate and highly dependent position in their households and societies, where they were under strong social and economic pressure to bear children - especially sons - for the powerful males who ran their lives, or for the other agencies of social control whose primary concern is the perpetuation of the society, not the individual well-being of the child-bearers. Despite some modification in our customs in the “modern” world, this is still the situation that prevails. We see, by way of illustration, that in societies in which birth control is made more widely available and woman achieve more control over their own reproductive lives, birth rates drop significantly. Woman in traditional human life, by and large, are not having the many children they have because they are saintly madonnas who have heroically accepted the risks of childbirth. They are in many cases captive baby-making machines in the samsaric, and usually patriarchal, social order.

The Buddha did not have a rosy Lion King-style philosophy about “the circle of life” and its perpetuation or flourishing. Notice that he did not establish rituals for marriage, baptism or the celebration of childbirth. He abandoned his own family life and recommended other people abandon their family lives. He identified the cause of old age, sickness and death as birth itself. He did not identify what is natural with what is good or normative. He saw that our human lives - and the lives of other living creatures - are inherently oppressive and filled with suffering down to their very roots. This is not just the result of a few bad habits and customs that go away with a progressively improved society, although some ways of living socially are certainly less painful than others. The Buddha taught a path of renunciation and total liberation from samsaric existence, because he did not see any real prospect for real happiness within worldly life and worldly human concerns and attachments.

Anxiety is not simply “dysfunctional” emotionalism. To see it that way is to view life through the prism of the regimenting social order, which includes the combative and domineering individualism of modern bourgeois individualism, with its preposterously pain-denying ideals of autonomy, and the need to heroically “get your shit together” in the face of the many pains and horrors of human life. Anxiety is dukkha; it is the human condition; it is normal. To fully acknowledge the human landscape of omnipresent fears, terrors and anxieties is to stop the denial and compassionately engage with things as they really are.

The Therigatha verses speak movingly about the renunciation of household life, which in the case of women included the renunciation of continuing motherhood and the pains and risks of childbirth. Some of the most famous are those of the Theri, Kisa Gotami, whose background story is very well known, but whose verses are less well known. Here is Thanissaro’s translation of them. Note the second stanza which offers no romanticizing of childbirth:

Having admirable friends
has been praised by the Sage
with reference to the world.
Associating with an admirable friend
even a fool
becomes wise.
People of integrity
should be associated with.
In that way discernment grows.
Associating with people of integrity
one would be released from all suffering & stress,
would know stress,
the origination of stress,
cessation & the eightfold path:
the four noble truths.

Stressful, painful, is the woman’s state:
so says the tamer of tamable people.
Being a co-wife is painful.
Some, on giving birth once,
slit their throats.
Others, of delicate constitution,
take poison.
In the midst of a breech-birth
both [mother & child] suffer destruction.

Going along, about to give birth,
I saw my husband dead.
Giving birth in the road,
I hadn’t reached my own home.
Two children deceased,
my husband dead in the road
— miserable me!
My mother, father, & brother
were burning on a single pyre.

“Your family all gone, miserable,
you’ve suffered pain without measure.
Your tears have flowed
for many thousands of lives.”

Then I saw,
I the midst of the charnel ground,
the muscles of sons being chewed.
With family killed,
despised by all,
my husband dead,
I reached the Deathless.
I’ve developed this path,
noble, eightfold,
going to the Deathless.
Having realized Unbinding,
I’ve gazed in the mirror of Dhamma.
I’ve cut out the arrow,
put down the burden,
done the task.
I, KisaGotami Theri,
my heart well-released,
have said this.