An Ode to a Mother’s Love

May 8, 2023

Years ago, I was fortunate to have a prolonged stay at a luxury hotel; it was the by far most comfortable experience of my life. I relaxed, while others took care of my every need: room service, housekeeping, and best of all, the bed was so luxurious, I never felt like leaving.

Nine months after I checked in, I checked out—a newborn.

As with many such extravagances, my comfort was at someone else’s expense: in this case, my mother’s. I may have rested but she labored and toiled, feeding me, carrying me twenty four-seven. No matter that her back hurt, her sleep was disrupted, her feet were swollen, she was nauseous; she never ceased to treat me as her priority. And not only did she not get paid for any of this, she willingly signed up to do it twice again.

So when it’s said that there are few stronger bonds than that of a mother and child, that’s not just some Hallmark sentiment—it is quite literally true. That powerful connection goes back to the earliest moment of this relationship and has a name: the placenta, a spongy, pancake-shaped blood-rich organ made a la carte for each pregnancy and binds a mother to her baby through the umbilical cord for close to nine months. This bond allows the mother to provide essential food and nutrients, oxygen, and take back the fetus’s carbon dioxide and waste into her own body. Indeed, the placenta is arguably the most selfless, altruistic organ in the body. It gives and gives, never asking for anything in return.

An apt metaphor for many a mother herself.

Placenta as guardian angel

While the placenta may be selfless, she is no pushover. She is a steely traffic cop, policing toxins and other harmful agents so that they cannot pass through her red lights. She is simultaneously Head of the Federal Reserve, controlling how many genes to express and hormones to release to stimulate the fetal economy just the right amount. She’s Hydraulic Engineer, calibrating flows so that blood pressure remains steady and safe for both mother and fetus. And if all that weren’t enough, she even occasionally adds philanthropist to her resume, nobly donating herself after birth for use in medical research.

Not surprisingly, she is venerated in some cultures as a guardian angel.

Once we exit the womb, the placenta becomes history, the belly button (umbilicus) its only remaining physical manifestion. But the bond she initiated preserves through other forms of love and sacrifice. The holding, the feeding, the clothing, the cleaning, they all continue. We just move from a boutique hotel to a mega-resort of needs.

Not a celebration for everyone

I recognize that the four-star hotel metaphor does not resonate for all. Not everyone reaps the benefits of a maternal presence in their lives. For some people, Mother’s (or Father’s) Day can stir up anger or sadness, whether it's because of loss or a strained relationship. And even for those of us fortunate to experience the bond, there may be times we may not fully appreciate its magic. I recall more than a few instances in my teenage years when I would do my best to ignore her, bristle at the sound of her voice, or wish I could replace her with a different mother. But the adhesive on her side was just so strong the bond wouldn’t detach.

As I write this, my mother is in her 80s, physically frailer, and continents away. As Mothers’ Day approaches, it feels to me more than a tad unfair that there is no such protectorate for her now needier days. That I cannot simply summon a traffic cop, the Federal Reserve, or an engineer to replenish her with energy and nourishment so she can be comfortable until the end of time. But I will do the next best thing. I will travel those 7,000 miles to my childhood home in the city of Karachi (where she still lives), hold her hand and say thank you.

Ardesheer Talati, PhD, is an associate professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia and New York State Psychiatric Institute. Both a neuroscientist and psychiatric epidemiologist by training, his interests lie in following long term neurobiological, behavioral, and clinical consequences of gestational (pregnancy) exposures to maternal illness, medication, and substance use.