The Mama’s Boy Myth
Back when my son Paul was five years old, I was leaning over him to help tie his sneakers. My kindergartner had just made the transition from Velcro straps to shoe laces, and he was still struggling with mastering “the bunny ears” technique.
“Leave that boy alone!” came the irritated voice of my father from across the room. My dad is a warm and sensitive man and a loving grandfather, but this small act of mothering set him off in a way I hadn’t seen when he watched me take care of Paul’s older sister, Jeanie.
My father wouldn’t have dreamed of suggesting that his granddaughter trip over her flopping, untied laces and fall hard onto the pavement to learn her lesson. But he feared I was “coddling” and “babying” my son.
Not only was my son expected to “man up” early, but also the affection and tenderness that I showed Paul set off alarm bells. It was fine to comfort and cuddle your daughter. But the common wisdom for raising a son was quite different: if you wanted your son to grow up to be well adjusted, you needed to push him away, emotionally and physically.
You do it with love, but you do it. Otherwise, you run the risk of raising a “Mama’s Boy.”
Keep your boys too close, we are cautioned, and they will turn into wimpy, weak guys who are forever dependent on their mommies. They will never grow up to be strong independent men who can form healthy adult relationships.
Mothers have been getting this same message for generations – my own mom was warned about it, her mother was warned about it, and it probably goes back as far as the legend of Achilles.
The question is – why are we still thinking this way in 2012? After more than 40 years of modern feminism, why has our view of the mother-son relationship remained so static, so frozen in time?
After all, we have dramatically changed the way we raise our daughters. I encouraged Jeanie to excel in school, work hard, be athletic, and not to fold when faced with adversity. Neither my husband nor I ever worried we were “masculinizing” our girl by encouraging her to compete in what were once all-male worlds. Rather, we believed we were helping to develop her full human potential.
But the handwringing never stops when it comes to fears of “feminizing” our boys. The double standard is pervasive. A father can coach his daughter’s soccer team or escort her to a father-daughter dance, and his involvement in her life is not only encouraged, but also celebrated. But a mother who nurtures a similar bond with her son is somehow suspect – she is perceived as threatening his masculinity.
Like many mothers of my generation, I pushed back against these dated admonitions. I never believed my influence was a threat to Paul’s well being, so I kept him close. We talked about his feelings. We hung out together. The two of us are emotionally simpatico and alike in many ways.
Both of us are impatient and sensitive to criticism, but also not afraid to step up and take an unpopular position or stand up for someone who is defenseless. We also share a weakness for really bad puns. Most of all, we just “get” each other.
Much of the every day banter that goes on between mothers and sons who are close like this may look unremarkable, but actually something very important is going on.
The mothers we see who are encouraging their crying toddler to “use your words” or who won’t accept “nothin’” as the complete answer to what happened in school today, or who don’t believe that punching a wall is a healthy way for a teenage boy to express anger – are doing their sons a great service.
They are helping develop those boys’ emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize and talk about feelings, both their own and those of others. At the same time, mothers are teaching their sons important skills of self-control and communication.
These abilities will serve guys all their lives, beginning when they are in the classroom to when they enter the workplace. A bullying, dominating style no longer serves little boys on the playground or big boys in the boardroom. And by the way, his future spouse will appreciate a man who can connect on an emotional level.
That little five-year-old with the untied laces? He is now an independent 23-year-old man. Paul is an athletic, die-hard ice hockey fan, a “guy’s guy” who at six feet tall towers over the mom who once tied those shoes. He is also extremely articulate and empathic and works as a teacher.
Of course I’m a proud Mama. But I’m not alone.
It’s time for us moms who keep our boys close to stop apologizing and start taking some credit.
Interested in learning more? Check out Kate Stone Lombardi's new book, The Mama's Boy Myth.
Kate Stone Lombardi has been a contributor to the New York Times for the last 20 years. For seven years (2001—2008), she wrote a popular bi-weekly column, “County Lines” for the paper’s regional section in addition to articles that ran in the National, Metro, Style, and Education Life, sections. Several columns—all of them about families—made the top twenty most-emailed list. Additionally, her work has appeared in Parenting, Money, Westchester, and Hudson Valley Life. She is the winner of six Clarion Awards for journalism from Women in Communications, as well as The Art of Communications Award from Victim Assistant Services. She received a BA from Williams College and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. Kate has taught writing in a variety of venues, including the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the Coachman Family Center, which serves homeless children. Kate is the mother of two adult children. She lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband Michael.