Psychology behind why your mom may be the mother of all heroes

Each May, the United States celebrates Mother’s Day, and for good reason. According to surveys I’ve conducted, over 25% of Americans cite their mother as their number one hero. Fathers come in a distant second at 16%.

Moms are indeed the mother of all heroes.

Abraham Maslow organized what he believed were universal human needs into a pyramid. mayrum/Shutterstock.com
More than 60 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his famous hierarchy of human needs, spanning the most basic biological needs to the pinnacle of realizing one’s full potential. Mothers are masters at helping their children meet this full range of human needs: from providing physical nourishment and safety, love and affection, all the way up to supporting emotional and spiritual growth.

Survey respondents report their mothers as heroic in helping them progress through the various stages of Maslow’s model – even if they don’t call it that. A good mother feeds you, protects you, loves you, helps you connect with others and encourages you to become your best self. She’s fulfilling what psychologists including me have identified as the four important functions of a hero: provide defense and protection; embody intelligence and wisdom; model moral behavior; and promote enhancement and inspiration.

Here’s how moms do it.

1. Mothers defend and protect

Amazing stories abound of mothers doing whatever it takes to save their children, whether lifting astronomical weights or sacrificing their own lives. It is commonplace to see headlines about mothers saving and protecting their children in the most harrowing of circumstances.

Respondents reminisced about their own ‘Mama Bears.’ Holocene Eco Pros/Shutterstock.com
The protection function of heroes is seen in the comments of survey respondents about why their mothers are their heroes. Typical responses include, “My mother protected me from neighborhood bullies” and “My mother kept me safe from predators.” In her review of the psychological mechanisms of motherhood, Rebecca M. Fischer, a student researcher here at the University of Richmond, found that mothers are “biologically driven to protect, care for and motivate their children to succeed.”

Other colleagues of mine at Richmond, neuroscientists Craig H. Kinsley and Kelly G. Lambert, have discovered that motherhood changes the brain in female rats, producing maternal behaviors directed toward protecting their young from danger. In human beings, too, women’s brains undergo significant remodeling that lasts more than two years after birth. These changes help women with the transition into motherhood and may include a readiness to protect and defend the baby.

Human infants are among the most vulnerable of all primates. No wonder our species evolved to have mothers who risk it all to protect us when we are so small and fragile.

2. Mothers provide intelligence and wisdom

Scientists are beginning to uncover evidence suggesting that intelligence is inherited more from mothers than from fathers.

Beyond this genetic inheritance, mothers tend to be committed to passing on wisdom to their children. My own mother taught me that the most important things in life are intangible and cannot be bought – love, integrity, character and honesty.

Many of Americans’ most cherished heroes credit their mothers for teaching them fundamental truths about life. George Washington apocryphally observed that “all I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” Famed musician Stevie Wonder has reportedly called his mother his “greatest teacher.”

And mothers often impart intentional life lessons to their children. Former first lady Michelle Obama observed: “Life is practice and I tell my girls this every day. You are practicing who you are going to be. … Do you want to be dependable? Then you have to be dependable. If you want people to trust you then you have to be trustworthy.”