Why Moms Suddenly Have Super-Human Strength When They Need It

When you become a parent, the instinct to protect your child is almost a given. Pretty much every person in the world who has children would say that they’d do anything — yes literally anything — if it meant keeping their little one from danger. That’s why ordinary parents sometimes have the capability to shape-shift into literal super-heroes when confronted with a dangerous scenario that might inflict harm on their babies. But the original feat of mom strength would have to be childbirth.

We’ve all heard a story or two about moms who have performed feats of strength in order to save their children from trouble — like a woman who literally lifted a car off of a child, for example. And while some of those stories feel like they could be folklore, it can actually happen — and the science behind it is pretty simple.

The phenomenon behind these wild stories is known as “hysterical strength” — and the definition is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the “super-human” strength that people get when faced with a life-threatening emergency, resulting from a rush of adrenaline and stress.

However, the process of studying hysterical strength is tricky, as E Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, pointed out in an interview with the BBC. “You can't really design an experiment to do this in a lab and make people think they're going to die,” he explained. “Something has to happen by fluke.”

And those “fluke” scenarios do happen. Angie, a 30-year-old woman from New York, tells Romper that when she was a child, her mother lifted their family’s heavy sofa when she was trapped behind it. “I don’t even know what I was doing,” she said with a laugh when describing the childhood memory. “Somehow, I got wedged between the sofa and the wall and couldn’t figure out how to wiggle out.” Angie added that her mother claims she didn’t want to risk injuring her by pulling her, so she ended up lifting the sofa, allowing her to crawl free, unharmed.

I could see that he was going to fall, and I leapt up from the chair on our deck and ran to get him before he got hurt. I don’t know how fast I was actually going, but it felt really fast.

Sofia, a 43-year-old from Texas, says that she broke down a door in order to get her toddler who had accidentally locked her in her bedroom. “I just hurled my shoulder into it,” she said. “Like you’d see on TV. I didn’t know if it would work, or if I’d break my shoulder in the process.” Luckily, Sofia wasn’t injured beyond a few bruises, and she was able to get to her daughter before she found herself in further trouble.

Christine Hernandez broke down her bathroom door when she became locked inside. Photo courtesy of Christine Hernandez

Hysterical strength doesn’t always manifest itself in such dramatic ways. Heidi, a 38-year-old mother of four from Iowa, said that she was able to sprint across her backyard when she noticed her youngest son slipping on the play set in their backyard. “It was like it happened in slow motion,” she recalled. “I could see that he was going to fall, and I leapt up from the chair on our deck and ran to get him before he got hurt. I don’t know how fast I was actually going, but it felt really fast. I was pretty winded afterwards; I literally never run for anything,” she adds with a laugh.

Part of the reason why hysterical strength is possible is because humans are actually stronger than they think — and we don’t use our entire supply of strength on a daily basis.

As Zehr put it to the BBC, “Your muscles are normally activated in a very certain way that's really efficient. Why use your whole muscle mass to lift up a cup of coffee?” He added that humans keep a lot of their strength on reserve, explaining, “Our brains are always trying to make sure we don't get pushed too far to where we actually damage something. If you actually used all the possible force or all the possible energy you could to complete exhaustion, you'd wind up getting into a situation where you might die.”

And it makes sense that women would have a lot of strength on reserve; after all, the very act of childbirth is a physical feat in and of itself.

I’ve competed in a triathlon. I’ve gone skydiving. I’ve been in two car accidents. But nothing has been as exhausting or as taxing as giving birth.

Deena Blumenfeld, childbirth educator and yoga teacher, says that despite the fact that women are "designed" to give birth, recovery from childbirth can take a lot longer than some might expect. “We are technically postpartum for two years after birth,” she tells Romper. “The idea of ‘bouncing back’ quickly is a damaging belief.”

Blumenfeld added that the reason why recovery takes so long is that there’s so many moving parts to the process. “The uterus goes through a process called involution, returning to it's pre-pregnancy size,” she said — a process that takes anywhere from four to six weeks to complete. But that can be drawn out if there are complications from delivery. "Medical interventions can increase recovery time after birth. [An] episiotomy or stitching a tear can leave a woman in additional discomfort. A mother who has given birth via Caesarean section will have undergone major abdominal surgery on top of everything else," on top of which there are "complications after birth such as infection, preeclampsia postpartum, hemorrhage, blood clots, pelvic floor issues, urinary incontinence or retention, breastfeeding challenges, et cetera."

In short, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum are a transition worthy of Transformers.

And moms who have gone through it would agree. Sofia, who broke down her toddler’s door, puts it this way: “I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life with my body. I’ve competed in a triathlon. I’ve gone skydiving. I’ve been in two car accidents. But nothing has been as exhausting or as taxing as giving birth. Not even that breaking down the door situation.”

“Enduring 23 hours of back labor without an epidural was literally the most insane thing I’ve ever done,” says Jenny, a 29-year-old mother of two from Washington. When asked if she could picture herself lifting a car if her sons were in trouble, she barely blinks an eye before replying, “Yep, without a doubt.”

In a way, hysterical strength is a lot like labor and delivery. Before having your first baby, it’s common to wonder whether you can truly get through childbirth — especially since it’s such an unknown process. Both Jenny and Sofia said that they were terrified before giving birth for the first time. “Everyone kept telling me, 'you can handle it, you’ll find it within yourself,'” Sofia said. “At the time, I didn’t believe it. But now I know what they mean. And now that I've done it, I know I could handle pretty much anything else.”

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.