• Mother’s Day is a time to let your mom know how much she means to you, connecting and cherishing the bond between mother and child.
  • But beyond the Hallmark cards, brunches, and flowers, parent-child relationships, especially between mother and child, are lifelong, biologically and psychologically speaking.
  • It’s not uncommon to receive more genes from one parent than the other—and some of our key traits, including the rate at which we age, our energy levels, and our athletic performance come from our mother’s genes.
  • And on a psychological level, the early bond between mother and child can affect children for a little over 20 years, creating attachment styles with romantic partners that mimic our early childhood experiences.
  • The parent-child relationship between mothers and their children is special but often requires some diligence to maintain.
  • Some tips for adults include recognizing that your parent-child relationship will change as you both age, staying in better touch, and respecting personal boundaries.

Mother’s Day is one of those special holidays that for so many of us, reminds us of the unparalleled closeness that can define a parent-child relationship. The bond between a mother and child is often life-long; forged by familial ties and tempered with years of both arguments and heart-to-hearts, and hopefully, the opportunity to eventually see each other at face value.

Beyond the love and respect we show to Mom on the first Sunday in the month of May, the tether between mother and child is far deeper than we might realize. 

From our mitochondrial DNA to the way our immune systems function, we inherit a significant amount of life itself from our mothers, before ours ever begins. This Mother’s Day, take a fascinating look at the psychological and biological factors that make the relationship between mother and child so special. 

Understanding Our Biological Inheritance from Mom

Earlier this year, I took a DNA test; being mixed-race (and a nerd), I was curious about how the results would turn out. My mother’s family always claimed to be from France—while my father’s side guessed they were from West Africa. I waited a few months for my results and then received an email. My DNA contained mostly French and German ancestry, as well as Nigerian, Ghanian, and Sierra Leonian. Not super shocking, besides some trace amounts of Thai and Sri Lankan.

But I was surprised to learn that I didn’t inherit 50% of both parents’ genes; I had a near-60/40 split, with the majority of my genes coming from my mother. After doing some research, I found out that we rarely receive genes equally from both parents, even though conventional logic would suggest otherwise. Even more intriguing—we inherit our mitochondrial DNA, which controls the rate at which we age, our energy levels, and our muscle strength, from our mom. Men are also more likely to receive more of their mother’s genes.  

A mother also passes on her immune system’s natural defense against countless pathogens, which you’ll carry with you for life. According to a 2021 study, this biological armor can even protect babies against COVID-19 infections for up to 6 months, if their mother had contracted the virus. Besides our immune systems, babies naturally (non-caesarian section) also receive a huge portion of their gut flora from their mom during delivery. Having a healthy gut biome (full of the right bacteria) is likely a defense against mental health conditions, as well. 

The Psychological Bond Between Mother and Child

An MRI-based study that compared the brain activity of mothers and their teens found some pretty compelling evidence to suggest that parent-child bonds create and alter our neural pathways. The researchers’ data indicated that mothers with a greater attachment to their teenagers (indicated by activated empathy-reward centers seen under MRI) usually have children who report higher relationship quality with their mothers. These teens then tend to respond more empathetically when engaging in their own social interactions. 

While the research did indicate that adolescent brains are often more focused on themselves (different pathways in the brain) than their mothers, it’s possible that this is simply a developmental stage in life, as children become young adults forming their own identities. 

Other evidence has concluded that the effects of a child’s attachment style in a parent-child relationship can affect a mother’s children for a full 20 years after our birth. In translation, this means if our mother made us feel insecure, avoidant, or ambivalent during infancy and childhood, we’re likely to form romantic relationships with those same attachment styles. The bond between mother and child is both psychological and biologically based—arguably the single most important social connection, in terms of our long-term development. 

Navigating Parent-Child Relationships As Adults

Your mother may be the most important influence on your experiences in this world, but it isn’t the end of the world if it feels like your mother-child relationship isn’t perfect. And as children become adults, it’s vital for a family’s long-term emotional health that both mothers and their children continue to grow together—and apart. Some tips for creating healthy parent-child relationships include: 

  • Recognizing that parent-child relationships, like any other relationship, will change with time: Many children complain of overbearing parents who don’t comprehend or accept that their child is now an adult with their own responsibilities, abilities, and lifestyle. Letting go doesn’t mean saying goodbye—and sometimes giving our loved ones a little bit of breathing room can help make space for new growth. And as adult children, it’s not entirely fair to switch from being entirely independent and closed off, to being emotionally or financially in need. Everyone needs their parents sometimes; with the right tone and willingness to share what feels comfortable, adult children can find support and still be their own person in a parent-child relationship.
  • Avoiding the temptation to make the other person do all of the leg work when it comes to staying in touch: I often wonder why my mom never calls me—but I don’t typically call her. We’re both busy  Instead, we both wait for the other person to pick up the phone until someone does. Eventually, we’ll stop being comfortable with being dysfunctional, but the moral of the story is: Just call, or text—or tag them in a post. If you want your parent-child relationship to work, you will have to do some work and devote some time
  • Respecting each other’s boundaries, and finding healthy ways to verbalize what those boundaries are: Do your parents drive you up the wall during the holidays? Do they ask questions about your lifestyle that make you feel uncomfortable? Perhaps they use financial support as a way to influence your behavior or choices. Adult children aren’t perfect either and can be overly emotionally dependent, critical, or uncaring of their parents’ personal lives after they’ve left the nest. Whatever the case may be, every relationship has contrasting positives and negatives; and when the connection between mother and child is grating, conflict is bound to occur; it’s just a matter of when and why. It’s sometimes scary to advocate for your personal boundaries, but if we don’t, it’s not really fair to expect others to know what they are.
  • Making time for yourself, your own interests, and your other relationships (especially if you’re a people pleaser): Any family will have its share of chaos. You may be the glue holding everyone around you together, but no one can be Atlas forever. If you’re in a romantic relationship, communicate with your partner to ensure that you’re finding a healthy balance between both lives. Between your parents or children, partner, pets, and social network, when was the last time you took a walk, painted, journaled, or planned a weekend getaway? Hitting the reset button, even if only for a few hours, keeps your mental health in better shape, and you’ll be able to give more consistently to your loved ones.
  • Use a digital calendar and pay attention to your social media accounts in order to remember important family-related dates: No one feels good about forgetting mom’s birthday (or Mother’s Day). So the next time you’re on a spring cleaning kick, creating a shopping list, or find yourself doomscrolling TikTok, whip that phone out and enter in Mom and Dad’s birthdays. Be sure to include Mother’s Day—about 26% of us forget it every year!

This special holiday is a time to consider the different layers that create a special bond between a mother and child. Whether you’re miles apart, or just down the street from one another, you’ll always be connected. To all the moms out there—Happy Mother’s Day; your world is ours.