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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