Why Do We Call Our Moms When Bad Stuff Happens?

In times of happiness, sadness, fear and for complicated cooking recipes

11.13.16
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This isn’t admitting much: I am a 28-year-old woman and I still call my mom when I have a cold. I call her when I’m upset, thrilled, worried, scared. When I forget how to poach an egg.

Following the results of the election, I’ve heard many women — those with traditional and alternative mom-figures alike — express the need for maternal comfort and advice. So many landline calls home.

But why? As adults, haven’t we amassed enough people we trust who can we talk to? According to Dr. Dale Atkins, a psychologist, author of I’m OK, You’re My Parents, media commentator and relationship expert, here’s why grown women still need their mothers.

“Let me give this disclaimer first: A trusting, loving relationship doesn’t necessarily mean non-conflict. And there are lots of people, regardless of their political leanings, who will never feel the safety of calling their mothers during times of stress. Not everybody has that relationship.

(Although something that can happen with mothers and daughters is that a woman’s relationship with her mother may improve when she becomes a mother herself, even if the parenting styles are in conflict, because the relationship can be repaired with empathy.)

Adults call their moms, or their parents, because when we feel either end of the emotional spectrum, when we’re really happy or really sad or really scared — the extremes — we want to feel that we are not alone, and we want to share the experience. A parent once said to me years ago that a shared joy is twice the joy and a shared sorrow is half the sorrow.

Psychologically, what happens in times of vulnerability is that we want shoring up. We want to make sure that we’re not falling apart. The fragility of vulnerability is scary. When we call our mothers, it’s because we assume they are strong and can hold us. We want to be embraced by them, get our boo boo kissed and be told that it’s all going to be okay. That’s why we go to them, regardless of age. If you’re lucky enough to have your mother during your entire life span, when things change and you’re the one taking care of her, you will likely still want her to put her arms around you and say that it’s going to be okay.

This is why it’s so devastating when a parent passes away. That one unconditionally loving person is no longer there. It’s unlike any other relationship, both when it’s good and when it’s bad. When it’s good, you know you can always come home. Even when the opinions are not shared, there is, ideally, this deep parental love and acceptance for their children. When your children are in pain, you don’t care what their political orientation is — you just want to soothe their pain. When mothers pass away, you’ll often find their children say ‘I wish my mother were here’ for monumental events. That’s a primal, essential connection that we feel.

In broad strokes, all of this pertains to a parent/child relationship, not just mother/daughter. It’s not really a ‘gender thing.’ There are some parent-child relationships where fathers and sons are less likely to talk about more emotionally-laden issues. However, we’re seeing that less in this generation as it becomes much more open and fluid as far gender and communication are concerned.

That ‘mommy take care of me’ thing, though, that’s more mom and daughter. Even it’s just ‘take care of me in this moment.’

Now, sometimes a woman will call her mother and get the wrong response. That’s when she’ll call her best friend or sister and say ‘you’re not going to believe what my mom said.’ We call our mothers to get what we hope we can get; We call for empathy, non-judgement and comfort. Sometimes they give us what they want to give us.

Nurturing comes in lots of forms. You can call your sister or your friend to feel heard, protected. Stress hormones such as cortisol are released in our brain when we are feeling fear or overwhelmed or defeated; Endorphins, the feel good hormones (whose main function is to inhibit the transmission of pain) are released when we receive comfort and empathy from our parent or friend. We feel soothed.  And with parents (we hope that) they understand us best. They have the historical arc of our lives and can say things like, ‘You got through that situation when you were younger; you’re strong.” This historical perspective helps us feel known and understood.

When children call their parents, what the parents feel is needed, that their role is reinforced — particularly when an adult child calls, because there’s often a sense of, “Am I still needed? Is my job done?” It reinforces that you do have value as a parent, that you’re still important. Your wisdom is needed.

And just when you think you’re no longer in those roles, something happens, and they are absolutely rekindled.”

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Dr. Atkins earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles in Educational Psychology (Early Childhood Education); an M.A. in Special Education (Deafness) from Teacher’s College at Columbia University; and a B.S. from New York University. She has a private psychology practice in New York City. Visit her website here.

Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

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  • Mariana

    One of my best friends become a mother this year and in our whatsapp-girl-squad-chat she told us, in the midst of her excitement and concern “Do you know that a child needs help with bathing until he/she reaches 7 or 8 years old?”.
    I told my mother this conversation and her answer was something like “Oh, he is going to need her always and for various reasons and she will only stop her mum-duties when she dies”.

  • Samantha Lee

    Moving across the country I didn’t realize how much I’d miss my mama. Now I cry every time she leaves after a visit. :'(
    http://www.wonderlandsam.com

  • Leandra Medine

    I’m so torn on this! Bc I am extremely close with my mother, but am also somewhat resentful of her at times because she can make me feel like I’m the one mothering her, when I still feel like I need to be mothered (I actually think this is an immigrant thing, and also that I write a really scintillating story in my head that might not be extremely reflective of reality), but I’ve also noticed more and more that I’ve shifted the responsibility of (S)he Who Mothers Me over to my husband, and that this is incredibly hard for my mom

    • Grace B

      Leandra, another friend of mine is first-generation American and they way she speaks about having to mother HER own mother is so completely foreign to me and I always feel enlightened when I learn more about it from her. Thanks for sharing this!

    • ReadER451

      I feel the same about having to mother my mother and my cousins feel the same way with their mom too – our mothers are immigrants and identical twins. We always thought we felt this way because they are basically the same person and had traumatic childhoods, but now I think you may be on to something.

  • maiadeccan

    My mom was actually the person I wanted to talk to least post-election. I knew I’d dissolve into a puddle of tears (for the billionth time) at the sound of her voice, and something about letting her know just how much her two daughters were reeling from this felt so much more sad than talking to contemporaries. I felt like her generation had already waded through all the shit times to give us what I’d, up to this point, perceived as equal opportunities, and it broke my heart to talk to her after finding out how untrue that was.

    • Amelia Diamond

      I actually haven’t called my mom yet either. (hi mom who is definitely reading the comments) we’ve texted and emailed and sent “things to make you smile.”

      • Alison

        My mom called tonight. It was so disappointing. I didn’t ask who she voted for, because I knew in my gut. I mentioned having support from my aunties. She then told me that one had voted for Trump. And, after saying that she did, too, she asked me not to tell my friends because she didn’t want them to think poorly of her. (So I’m venting in the safety of anonymous comments.)

        What does it mean to be a grown woman who is ashamed of her vote?

        I told her to own it. That she evaluated the pros and cons, made her choice, and owns it now.

    • I haven’t talked to my mother since the election, and don’t want to, because we voted differently and she seems to feel my different views are wrong and somehow evidence that she’s failed to make me value what she does…

  • Emma

    I always call my father. My mom and I don’t have a necessarily bad relationship, but we are very different people. My dad and I are much more alike in not only opinions and interests, but also in personality. My mom never gives me the response I’m looking for- and I don’t blame her for that, we’re just too different. I think she senses that and it hurts her but neither of us can change reactionary responses. There are things about her I will never understand, and vice-versa, but at the end of the day she is a human and her smell is the one that provides me more comfort and her spirit is the one that gives me hope.

  • Billee

    the follow up article is who do you call when your Mom is no longer alive. it doesn’t matter how old you are, when times get tough we all want our Mom’s. It’s primal.

    • me

      I hear you: the same goes for Dads ….

      I’d sell my soul to be able to call my Dad to help me get through this awful week (and the next four years).

  • Lisa

    i don’t have the kind of relationship where i can call my mom. however, i have always tried to make sure that my own daughter’s (and son) have the kind of mom that they can call and talk to. my daughter in college came over the day after the election and from the minute she walked in it was a maelstrom of thoughts, concerns, fears, anger, etc. her and i are the most alike politically, so it was nice to have her come home to get some form of comfort and sympathy.

  • Ed

    My Mum passed away in March and I am finding this week so difficult, I feel bereft, it sounds stupid to give an election so much power but I am so hurt by the hatred that has been unleashed. I feel so lost without my mother to speak to – I always thought we had a difficult relationship before I lost her, now I just realise it was full of love and that relationships are complicated. I simply miss her.

    • me

      so very sorry to hear about your Mum. here’s a virtual/cyber hug for you…. take good care.

  • Shrijss Do’arn

    “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”
    ~William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

    We remember that love all our lives, if we’re lucky. 🙂

  • August

    I always call my Mom, well actually facetime with both my Mom and my Dad, feel like they gonna understand everything and always be there for me.

    Evolve your style with a regularly updated selection of outfits from a menswear personal shopper – http://www.augustharvest.co.uk/share

  • ReadER451

    When it hit me that Trump won I immediately called my Mom and cried. She just listened and it was exactly what I needed.

    • Maria Tarar

      me too.