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The (Not So) Complicated Science Behind Motherhood

"In all the world, there is no heart for me likes yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine."

~ Maya Angelou

Biology, Chemistry, & Psychology:

In humans, more often than not, the first bond a person forms is the one to their mother. For better or for worse, we seek out their love, their care, their approval. "Seek out" is actually an understatement, we require it - those things make us, in part, who we are. The connection to your biological mother is hardwired into you and their connection to you is hardwired into them. When a mother holds her child, she experiences trackable, significant hormonal responses. The bond between a mother and her child is chemical. It is emotional, and tender, and important, but above all else, it is scientifically, chemically real. Who your mother is - and more importantly - how your mother is has a dramatic impact on who you may become. Research suggests that individuals born to mothers who express regular affection, focus on apology and reparation, and are "selfless" or altruistic, will be more altruistic and "kind" later in life. This, of course, does not mean that individuals born to mothers who do not have these characteristics or born to mothers who they do not interact with cannot become altruistic or kind, it is simply stating that there is an apparent relationship between how you are "mothered" and how you treat others.


One of the most difficult aspects of motherhood to untangle is the altruism that motherhood relies on. Humans, from an evolutionary perspective, are social but not entirely altruistic. Instead, we are conditioned to participate in something called reciprocal altruism. For a some time, researchers were unable to explain the seemingly non-reciprocal altruism exhibited in mother-child human relationships. Mothers gave EVERYTHING to their offspring for seemingly nothing of real use in return. Mothers would feed their children before feeding themselves. Mothers would make the ultimate sacrifice and die for their children. All these behaviors seemingly fly in the face of our evolutionary prioritization of self-preservation. So why? And how? Why are mothers willing to go to such lengths to protect and prioritize their children, and how can we possibly explain this given what we know about humans? The answer is actually fairly simple: Motherhood is just a complicated type of reciprocal altruism. As a matter of fact, it's the perfect example of it. Let me explain. The purpose of life is to survive. But your survival (from a strictly evolutionary perspective*) is meaningless unless you contribute to the preservation of your whole species. The easiest way to do that? Make more of you. If you are able to 1) make it to reproductive age, 2) attract a mate, 3) give birth, and 4) ensure your offspring's survival, then you have not only achieved your evolutionary purpose, but you have also created another individual who will likely do the same (since they share your genetics, and likely many of your learned behaviors) thus furthering your entire species. But the reciprocity of the altruistic nature of motherhood goes even deeper than that. Researchers have uncovered links between motherhood and memory improvement, lowered risk of cancer and cardiovascular illnesses, and even increased life span. And last, but not least, from a social perspective, good mothering behavior and experience will increase the likelihood that you get appropriate and loving care in your old age. So... Not so complicated after all, just a little convoluted.

* Of course, human society is a lot more complicated than I am giving it credit for in this post. I am NOT trying to say that childless people are not contributing adequately. I am NOT trying to say that those who don't have children don't have "good" genes. I am strongly opposed to both of those statements, to be honest. All of this is from a strictly evolutionary, biological perspective and ignores the nuance and complexity of human life, motherhood, family planning, reproductive health, climate change, and so much more.

It's so important to note, though, that motherhood is not exclusive to the person you were born from. A father, a sibling, a grandparent, an unrelated stranger can all meet our needs. Motherhood is not exclusive to the person who birthed you. Sometimes you don't meet your mother until late in life, and sometimes they are there for you every step of the way. Regardless of which category you fall into, Happy Mother's Day, and thank you for all that you do.


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