Beneath the ethereal joy a mother feels at the first sight of her son, lies a nugget-sized ache wrapped in fear. Her infant son needs her. She loves him unconditionally. But she also feels the ache of knowing that he will grow into a man and leave, and one day belong to another. The juxtaposition of elation and fear is different for many mothers than the joy and fear they feel when a daughter is born.
She knows from the moment her son belts out his first wail that she exists to love him. She is needed because he needs her. He needs the nourishment, the security, and the love that she provides which will not only keep him alive; but also keep her knowing that she is needed. So she will protect, adore, and nurture this tiny boy until he becomes a man and then, the ache will feel overwhelming. As a man he will leave, and life as a mother will never be the same for her. She will continue to love her son, but the connection will be reworked. Not because she has changed but because one day, he will belong to another.
This knowledge did not exist before his birth. But it presents itself the moment his mother sees him and as her maternal instinct draws her very close to her son. That is the way mother-son relationships are meant to be. From the moment she clings, she prepares herself ever so slowly for the eventual release.
This tension doesn’t exist with the birth of a daughter. A daughter can stay connected with her mother forever; mothers and daughters have genetic, hormonal, and psychological bonds that cannot be broken. She can become another’s, but her mother can still keep her. They are female together in that bond, and they can stay connected even while life changes the circumstances around them. But the tie a mother feels with her son is more fragile, more tenuous; he is different because he’s a man. But for as long as he is a child, he is ours and we feel we must protect him.
There is another difference mothers experience with sons which they don’t with daughters. Because he is XY and she is XX, they are disconnected. His maleness is separate from her femaleness and as much as she would want it otherwise, he is distanced. He has a different mind. He will have different physical sensations—different worries and ideas. Will she be able to understand? Intuitively she knows that in order to protect him and bond with him she must graft him onto her like a branch of a grapevine onto a hearty root. At birth, the grafting begins, and a mother’s instincts on behalf of her son begin to mound and become bolder and clearer as her son grows.
What about adoptive mothers? Do their instincts erupt in the same manner? Absolutely. Whether through pregnancy or not, the grafting begins equally regardless of biological status. When it comes to nurturing our young, the kindest mother can turn beast on a dime.
A TERRIFYING BEAUTY
In the early evening of a hot summer day I sat at the end of a wooden dock, my feet skimming the tepid water, watching a mother swan. Her coat was so white it shone vaguely blue, particularly as she floated atop the turquoise lake water.
What struck me most, however, was not her spectacular beauty but her calm demeanor. She floated, almost rested, on top of the water. Her head shifted from left to right above her long, graceful neck. Her movements were calculated and secure.
Behind her floated three cygnets, looking like puffy cotton balls with beaks. I recognized them as her offspring, not simply by their coal beaks but by her commanding demeanor. She was silent. They squeaked. And when they spoke to her she neither stopped or acknowledged their presence. She just kept paddling along. Neither mother nor cygnets seemed to pay any attention to each other. Always she kept her paddle feet pulling back the water beneath her breast.
As she passed by, I decided to show her beauty off to my three-year-old niece. Quietly I went to the house, grabbed a handful of bread and my niece, and together we padded back to the end of the dock.
When we returned, the mother swan was still floating by, but her triplets had drifted a ways behind. Feeling sorry for them, my niece threw a handful of mashed bread pieces towards them and they scurried over to get them before they dissolved. By the time the bread hit the water, the mother swan had darted like a shot between them and interrupted their eating. Then, the elegant beauty did something frightening.
She didn’t stop when she reached the bread. She raced to the shore and stood up on the sand. Being an inexperienced ornithologist, I suddenly learned that swans not only walk on sand—they can run.
I was stunned by her boldness while my niece simply squealed. Quickly, I pushed my niece behind me. At that moment the mother swan menacingly stretched out her wings in our direction, creating an enormous span of white. I watched her run across the yard, then turn and start, wondering where in the world she was intent on going.
I wondered if she was mad—perhaps she had rabies. No, no; I knew swans couldn’t get rabies. Then the swan turned toward me and started racing down the dock. Her feet slapped the boards furiously. “This can’t be happening,” I thought. “ I’m about to be attacked by a bird.” I wanted to laugh at the sight of the big white thing running and squawking at me, but I screamed instead.
The swan kept running right at us. I grabbed my little niece and we jumped into the water. Too afraid to turn my back on this mad animal, I jumped backwards, trying to jump high enough and far enough not to land on my little niece who was glued to my back. When we bobbed to the surface, I saw her again. She stopped. For a moment in mid-air, I had reached to the back of my mind for Plan B just in case the swan followed me into the water. Fortunately I never needed Plan B. The gigantic bird stopped and perched on the end of the dock, puffy and gloating.
She paused for a moment to enjoy her victory. Then almost as quickly as she had run at us, she turned and flew off the side of the dock to rejoin her cygnets. Neither my niece nor I suffered any physical injury, but the trauma I harbored in my gut took days to clear. Never before had I been on the receiving end of an animal or human so venomously enraged.
But I knew that was a mother’s instinct. What is true for mother swans is true for the mothers of boys. I’ve never been chased down a dock by one, but mothers are invariably their sons’ greatest advocates and defenders.
FEMININE NURTURE OF THE MASCULINE NATURE
Inasmuch as boys are different from girls in their characters, states of development, and emotional and physical needs, in my experience parenting sons is more like parenting daughters than it is different.
Mothers are the love-givers. Whether a son or a daughter is the recipient, giving love well is still very difficult. Showing respect, offering protection, holding ones temper, and being fastidious in perseverance of all aspects of good parenting are equally hard regardless of the sex of the child. Being a mother is tough work.
Mothers offer sons many of the same things that fathers do but mothers offer them differently and—very importantly—sons receive them very differently from a mother than a father. And the reverse is true. That is why both mother and father are needed to parent a son well. Advice that is palatable from a mother’s voice may be offensive from a father.
Much of what a mother gives her son is more a reflection of her personality and her character than it is of her son’s character. Mothers need to love. And mothers love to be needed. This truth isn’t tough to mothers. They live it because they as human beings are egocentric. Mothers intuit that life is better when they are loved, needed, and nurtured, so they expend these important traits to sons in hopes of receiving them back. And a child is the safest place to begin this process.
But there are needs which every boy has that any mother can satisfy. Again this is not to disqualify a father as a provider of these needs. Certainly there are fathers who can meet some of these needs better than mothers I have met. In general, however, maternal instincts act sometimes quite peculiarly on behalf of sons, which can leave some fathers a bit confounded. Let’s look at the best of what mothers give to their sons.
A FACE OF LOVE
During the final scene of the movie Dead Man Walking, a death row inmate, bound at the wrists and feet, is led into a chamber where he will be put to death. Sister Helen, his companion and confidant, asks if she can accompany him into the room. His guards agree to let her walk with him. At the end of the hallway, before he enters the chamber, Sister Helen asks if she can touch him. His guards say yes. Sister Helen turns to him and says, “When you feel the pain and death closing in around you look up at me. I will be the face of love for you.”
Because women are more verbal, they love differently from men. The feeling, the intensity, and the availability may be the same, but the expression of love flows differently from women than from men. Because women talk more, they verbally communicate love more easily. For mothers and sons, the love-giving process starts in infancy. Mothers oogle at their baby boys, make up pet names for them, and tell their sons they love them. Talking to, holding, bathing, and touching their babies help mothers communicate to their sons that they want to be the supreme love-giver. He can depend on her to always buoy him when he is sinking.
A mother may disapprove of her son’s behavior, girlfriend, sports, or music, but she will always love him.
A healthy internalization of a mother’s love is critical to her son because his experience of her love sets a template for how he will regard love with any woman after her. If he has a positive experience with his mother, he will be more trusting of his sister’s, girlfriend’s, or female teacher’s affections. If, on the other hand, he feels an instability or lack of trustworthiness in his mother’s love, these will temper the way he views other women’s love—whether it is romantic or platonic.
Mothers love to touch. This is wonderful because infants, young, and older boys need physical touch. A mother’s embrace tells her son that he is loved: she sees him, she likes what she sees, and she approves. He is validated by her love. Unfortunately, many mothers abstain from hugging their sons as much as they would like because they feel that part of becoming masculine is needing less touch, and that manliness means fewer hugs. This is certainly not true. A father can afford to be stand-offish when it comes to touch, and may refrain from touching
Mothers love to talk to their sons, but they shouldn’t always expect much of a response. Women are comfortable discussing their intimate feelings; boys and men are not, and sometimes cannot. Their own feelings are a bottled up mystery even to themselves. But teenage boys in particular still want to know that their mother is interested in their feelings, even if they cannot articulate them. And while this can be comforting and necessary, at times it can drive boys crazy. Mothers must be sensitive towards their son’s responses. For instance, since women tend to discuss their intimate thoughts and feelings with one another, mothers naturally transfer this behavior to relationships with their sons. If something is wrong, a mother asks what it is. Young boys usually don’t know. And if they do, sometimes they will divulge what it is; sometimes they won’t.
As boys grow into the teen years many don’t want to discuss their feelings, at least with their mothers. But the catch is that most still want to know that their mother is interested in their feelings. This can become something of a bad habit in adolescent boys: a game young men subconsciously play with their mothers. They want their mother to see that they are upset, but they don’t want to divulge what is going on. They do this because knowing that their mother really does care is a consoling.
Another common way mothers love their sons is through food. The stereotypical Jewish or Italian mother loves her son well by feeding him well. There is a peculiar connection between the digestive tract and mothering. In my medical practice, the most stressed-out mothers I have encountered are often the mothers whose sons have growth issues. If a child fails to eat well and fails to grow, a mother subconsciously feels that she has failed. The reverse is true as well: mothers whose teens grow up strong and tall feel better about their parenting because they can see the strength of their son before their very eyes.
Finally, mothers love through sacrifice. They act. They will surrender whatever is necessary to keep their son alive. Whether it is intuitive or not, that is what love does. And mothers need to be needed. They need to express their love because if they can give it and have it received, then their very existence is worthwhile.
Many years ago I worked in a large children’s hospital where we treated children with various forms of life-threatening illnesses. From brain tumors, to muscular dystrophy, to cystic fibrosis, the rooms were consistently full of children in pain and mothers in anguish.
I will never forget a particular eleven-year-old boy I cared for who had cystic fibrosis. His lungs would fill with mucous so thick that he had difficulty breathing. We gave him medicines and therapies to try to remove this thick mucous before it turned into concrete. Very often the mucous would become infected with various bacteria, which would lead to pneumonia. If that happened, we would pump IV antibiotics into him.
Over time the bacteria would outsmart the antibiotics, so we would give him stronger ones. Sometimes these antibiotics worked and sometimes they didn’t. Many times this young boy would be in the hospital for a couple of weeks at a time. He would return home for a few weeks and then come back in for more medication. His mother sat in his room for endless hours. She read to him. She listened. Sometimes in his frustration, I heard him scream at her. He needed someone—the safest one he could find—to blame for his pain. She didn’t cry; he cried. She didn’t return his rantings; she sat quietly.
One day she asked me if she and her husband could meet with me in private. She wouldn’t tell me what she wanted to meet about, only that is was important. We agreed and set a time to meet. My mind reeled with curiosity about what she wanted to discuss. Did she want him to die? Was she so tired of seeing him in pain that she wanted us to give him an overdose of pain medication? I was ashamed to have such thoughts but they were there.
When we convened, the three of us sat around an oval table. “I know that we’re all busy,” she started, “and I don’t want to take too much time or draw this out. So let me be direct and frank. You have seen my son suffer for a number of years now. You understand his dire circumstances. And you understand that his particular prognosis is poor.” I waited, wondering if something horrible was coming next. I was prepared to say: “No, absolutely not—under no circumstances will we give him medicine which that will shorten his life.”
Her words interrupted my shameful thoughts. “My husband and I have thought things over. We have discussed our situation in depth and we have come to an agreement. We would like you to comply with our wishes.” She did not leave room for disagreement.
“I would like to donate my lungs to my son.” I stared at her face. She looked me right in the eye and I could feel myself freeze in my chair. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t agree to her request. First she screamed. Then she cried. Then she pleaded. There is no question in my mind but that she was sincere. And there was even less ambiguity about her love for her son. At first I believed her to be crazy but I realized that day that I had stared at the face of a mother’s love.
THE EYES OF A HAWK
Before mothers can protect, or even become over-protective, they must employ each of their sensibilities in order to engage the protective action. Before they know how to keep their sons safe, each must identify the enemy. Something somewhere threatens his boyhood every day and because mothers are instinctively protective, they watch and listen for threats to their sons. When mothers respond to these threats—which today are often electronic—they attack.
In our sophisticated, electronics-saturated, post-modern culture, the threats to a boy’s health are insidious and terribly elusive. So good mothers keep their eyes wide open and their ears alert. Then their sons attack them for doing so. Usually this comes in the (manipulative) form of “you just don’t trust me.” But don’t be put off. Just as they don’t want to talk about their feelings but still want you to be interested in them, boys can’t say that they like restrictions; but they do, because that means their parents care. And deep down, it feels good to be watched. Again, like communicating their feelings, even though being watched feels good boys still reject it. This is another push and pull dynamic in a son’s relationship with his mother: do it, but don’t let me know you’re doing it.
Sadly, however, often when mothers hear their sons admonish them about a “trust” issue, they abdicate their better senses. Well, they reason, I guess you’re right. You’re a good kid. I should trust you. And their eyes turn away and their ears go deaf to make the young boy feel more grown-up. Big mistake.
Smart mothers know that the issue is not trust—mothers don’t watch because they don’t trust sons. They watch because life is tough, unfair, and cruel. Mothers have lived longer and endured more blows; they understand more about the dangers to young boys. Boys can’t see what is behind them, much less what will harm them, so mothers must vigilantly guard them.
Maddie came to see me alone because she was concerned about Sam’s moods. Ever since he turned thirteen, she said, he had become more sarcastic and volatile. Prior to thirteen he had been an easy-going, quiet boy who rarely talked back to her and pretty much did what she asked. He was particularly close to his father, a pilot with a major airline carrier. His flight schedule meant he was away from home one week, and at home the next. Her husband was quiet, she told me, just like Sam, and perhaps that was the reason the two were so close.
Maddie was particularly bright, articulate, and caring. She worked part-time as a unit clerk in a hospital and always arranged her schedule to be home when Sam was. They had always communicated easily and this made Sam’s sarcasm and negativity that much harder for her to understand. He was an only child and she was quick to point out that with her husband’s income and her salary, Sam enjoyed many comforts that his friends didn’t.
I queried her about his friends. He had not changed peer groups, but a new boy had recently joined his eighth grade class. Sam had befriended him, and she was proud that he had reached out to the new kid.
I asked what Sam did after school. The usual, she said: track practice, homework, some downtime, then bed. Pretty uneventful.
From all accounts Maddie sketched a healthy, stable home, which she had worked hard to achieve. There was minimal familial friction, except for Sam’s new attitude. She and her husband were role models of polite behavior, and had taught Sam to be polite. They couldn’t imagine what had gotten into him.
Truthfully, I was mentally preparing a diatribe on the normal attitude fluctuations of adolescence, when something caused me to dig a little deeper before I launched into the lecture.
“So what does Sam do with his downtime?” I asked, half thinking of my talk, half awaiting her response. “Oh, I don’t know.” she answered. I waited for her to say something more. She didn’t. Then I realized why: she really didn’t know what Sam did with his downtime. “Does he like to play video games, chat with friends online, listen to music?” I pressed. “Probably.” She raised and lowered her shoulders as she spoke. “I let him be. You know, I respect his privacy. He has a TV in his room, a laptop, an iPod, and his cell phone. Although I know he doesn’t talk on that too much.”
I could tell that Maddie’s speech became more tenuous yet pressured as she continued. Something clearly bothered her about Sam’s free time, so I pressed her on it. Yet, she couldn’t pinpoint her discomfort. “What do you think he does in his room after school?” I kept on. “Like I said, I really don’t know. Sometimes he and a buddy—not a girl of course—will go to his room. I guess they play games.” She looked up at me with a mixture of sadness and fear. “Have you asked Sam what he does?” I said. “No, no, we respect him and certainly trust him. He is a good kid. Since he has never given us a reason not to trust him, we do,” Maddie rationalized.
Interestingly, when I asked about the possibility that Sam might be looking at pornography Web sites (he wasn’t), or sneaking beer into his room (he wasn’t doing that either), or engaging in any activity she thought was wrong, Maddie became agitated with me. How dare I question the integrity of her thirteen-year-old son?
Realizing that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I asked if I could talk to Sam, and she reluctantly agreed. I purposely spoke with him alone first then asked if Maddie could join us. Sam began describing his attitude shift. He admitted that he felt angrier, moodier, and overall more agitated than he had ever felt. When I asked about what he did in his room during the afternoon, he simply said: “Nothing. Just guy stuff.”
“Do you have a MySpace page?” I asked. “Sure, everybody does,” he said defensively. “Who writes to you?” I asked. “Lots of people, I guess. Guys; a few girls.” He spoke with increasing discomfort, refusing to make eye contact with me. He shifted in his seat. “How about you show your mother your page?” I asked, waiting for a dual yelp. “No way. No way. That’s guy stuff!” he answered. “Really, Dr. Meeker,” said Maddie, “I disagree. That’s private. And Mark and I don’t agree with invading his privacy.”
Bingo. We all three realized at that moment that something was awry with Sam’s MySpace page. Sam wanted to keep it secret. I knew that he was hiding something that he was torn about and Maddie refused to budge. She didn’t want to know what her son was doing because she didn’t want to be upset if she didn’t have to be. She didn’t want to see because then she would realize that perhaps she wouldn’t know what to do. She would be upset—she might scream at Sam, take away his laptop, cell phone, iPod, or all three.
But she couldn’t; she shouldn’t, her mind reasoned. It’ll drive a good kid away and mess him up for life. The safest action to take, she concluded, was to remain distant, unknowing, and inactive. When she thought over the bad attitude and sarcasm of the previous months, she rationalized that they were probably just an adolescent phase. Yet in her heart she knew better, which was why she had come to me in the first place.
The truth is that while her mind rationalized, her instincts brought her through my office door. She knew her son; she knew that something was wrong—she was simply afraid to face it. Because if she faced it, then she had a decision to make: what to do about it. This was what frightened her even more. If she made him get rid of his MySpace page, or even his computer, she was terrified that he would rebel—even run away. She was afraid if she handled the problem the wrong way, she would be a miserable mother and turn her son into a rotten kid.
In my experience, Maddie’s feelings typify the majority of parents I encounter around the country. We are afraid to really see what our boys are up to, not because they’re bad kids, but because we’re afraid of disciplining them. Discipine takes energy and it’s unnerving. We want them home, even if they’re engaging in unhealthy activities because we’re frightened that if we stop activities which we know are unhealthy for them, we’ll lose our sons. Let me assure you of one thing: half-way homes and jails aren’t full of boys who have been disciplined, they are full of boys whose parents have left them alone.
Fathers approach these issues differently. Many have difficulty believing in the convoluted thought processes mothers can engage in when making parenting decisions about their sons. When a father recognizes a problem, he usually tries to find a solution, and then decides if and when to implement that solution.
But that’s not the way mothers think. Problems with sons aren’t simply there in isolation. For mothers, all sorts of personal feelings enter into the equation. If the problem is severe, she may call into question her responsibility for creating it, perpetuating it, and then solving it. Because she feels responsible for her son, she fears that his problems reflect her character flaws. Mothers are often a little insecure with sons because they know they cannot fully understand a boy’s mind and experiences.
Most mothers travel many mental miles when confronting their son’s problems. First, because she is female she is disadvantaged in understanding his male mind and experiences. This makes her insecure and ill at east. Second, some mothers (and some fathers too) consistently personalize their sons’ problems. Women are professional blame bearers.
Maddie wanted to be a fabulous mother to Sam. She adored him. His grades were excellent and his character was good. This made her feel successful as a mother. When she realized that he was probably engaging in activities that were harmful, she rejected confronting him for fear that he would not respond well enough and she would therefore fail. So she had two problems on her hands: his activity and her fear of failure as a mother.
The great irony is that she handled the situation beautifully. When Sam showed her his MySpace page in the examination room she went ballistic. She saw lewd and graphic sexual language that he had exchanged with other girls whom he claimed not to know. She rationally yet angrily informed Sam that he had violated these girls and that they had violated him sexually.
She told him that as part of their family, she expected him to speak respectfully to others at all times. Furthermore, she told him, he owed those girls apologies; and those who had spoken so vilely to him owed him an apology as well.
Maddie, in atypical fashion, pounded her gold-braceleted wrists on the exam room table. Sam broke down in tears. He sobbed. I’m sure he felt humiliated, but I’m also certain he felt relief that his secret was out.
Many parents make the terrible mistake of trivializing boys’ mischief. But there’s mischief and then there’s mischief. Boys should be boys when it comes to playing with bullfrogs, and tree forts, and the kindergartner who sprays shaving cream on the sofa. But when teen mischief has a particularly sexual or a violent nature, parents are wrong to brush it off. Mischief that reveals an innocent heart is innocent. Mischief that is sexual or violent violates the innocence that even teenage boys should have. Our culture wants to deny that innocence, to degrade and corrupt it, and to market and sell to the low tastes that result. But we as parents need to protect our sons’ innocence if we care about their mental and physical health, not to mention their character. Watch your son like a hawk. Through an adult’s eyes, a written conversation which is vile in its sexual content can seem silly and just written for shock value—and many dismiss it as simply something boys do.
Maddie’s fearful desire not to fail was ultimately overcome by her maternal instinct to protect her son. If only more mothers would act wisely on their instincts rather than behave as fools and march into their son’s problems, how many more boys could experience the relief that Sam did?