KEEPER OF DIGNITY
Mothers are acutely aware of the need to preserve theirs sons’ dignity as they mature into men. Mothers embody pride for sons and their daughters from the moment they are born. They are proud because the child belongs to them, but beyond that defensive ownership a mother feels pride for her son because he is male. She sees herself as the one who must transfer her sense of pride in his masculinity to him so that when he is older he will internalize that pride in his masculinity and protect his dignity for himself.
The beauty of a mother as keeper and teacher of her son’s dignity is that it transcends all aspects of his character and his capabilities. In her eyes his very existence warrants dignity. He may have spastic quadriplegia from cerebral palsy, be bound in a wheelchair and unable to mutter any words, but he has dignity and she will teach the world this. He may be a concert cellist, a professional athlete, a broker on Wall Street, or a janitor; in every case she will see, expose, and protect his dignity because he must have it. She is his number one fan, and will demand that others honor him because he is a boy transitioning into a man.
I am implying nothing about a mother’s lover for her daughter. Mothers most certainly love their daughters and value them (or they should) equally with their son. My explanation of a mother protecting her son’s honor does not imply that she feels any less toward her daughter. My point is simply that her feelings—and therefore her behavior towards—her son is different than it is towards her daughter. Sons are different than daughters. Gender differences matter and they are good.
Sometimes a mother’s diligence in demanding respect for her son can go overboard. I had a patient who was quite small for his age through elementary school and junior high school. He was a likeable, rambunctious boy and performed well academically. But his mother was extremely sensitive about his size. Her mannerisms told anyone near her that they best not make fun of her son. She felt that she must teach the world that while he was small, he was masculine. One could sense when they were near her, particularly with her son present, that she was anticipating a slur against his maleness, an affront to the dignity he deserved.
To keep his friends and their parents, teachers, and coaches aware of his masculinity, she followed him everywhere he went to make sure that no one made fun of him—that everyone respected his masculinity. She was room mother or at least co-room mother in every grade in elementary school. When he played sports she watched from the team side of the playing field, rather than the parent side. Every game, she argued with the coaches about equal playing time for her son.
And much to the child’s dismay, she made him play football in junior high. He didn’t make the weight cut so he played a level down but she didn’t care. When the poor boy was invited to birthday parties, she not only brought him, she stayed to “help out” at the party. Interestingly, if girls were there she would leave, but if there were only boys she stayed.
Fortunately for the poor child, when he was sixteen he started to grow. And he grew and grew. By the end of his junior year in high school, he had acquired androgenized muscles, a hint of a beard, and he could buy thirty-two length blue jeans. And guess what happened to her following him around? It stopped. She felt vindicated and proud—in her mind she was finally secure that she had “transferred” her son’s dignity to a permanent place on his shoulders.
Of course, her son grew and matured despite this over-mothering. By gluing herself to her son she only reinforced to him that his masculinity was fragile. It was up for grabs and since he wasn’t able to stand up for himself, she had to be the replacement. Her presence was a constant reminder to him of his inadequacy. This was something that he had to deal with as he grew up. Perhaps it is because mothers are not male that they guard maleness so fiercely in their sons. They do not take it for granted. The same way a father intuitively protects his daughter, a mother preserves her son’s dignity.
DISPENSER OF GRACE
Grace is love that is undeserved. Because a mother can see through a gnarled physique, a low IQ, a beast-like temper, or a chronic disease right to the soul of her son, she can spot the beauty within him, which allows her to love him. She can forgive him, excuse him, accept him, and love him when no one else will. Because her eyes pierce through the layers of this ugliness and find the lost part of his self, she can extend him grace when no one else can. While fathers can do this with sons as well, in my experience mothers have this ability in far more abundance than fathers do—or at least impart it far more frequently. I believe this to be true because mothers don’t expect as much from sons as fathers since they and are not in competition with them.
Every son needs to experience grace. I don’t think that any human experience changes a boy’s character as dramatically or elevates his sense of self-worth so clearly. To know that he is not good enough, not smart enough, or too mean to be loved is devastating to a boy. But the experience of a mother’s embrace and acceptance is life changing for a boy. When a mother extends outstretched arms to a son who has failed in sports, or school, or socially, or been deemed not smart enough, “manly enough,” or just plain not good enough, he begins to understand what love is all about. The moment a mother extends her grace, he begins to understand that goodness in being a man isn’t all about his performance. It isn’t about his successes or his failures. It is about being able to accept love from another and then return that love. He learns this lesson when his mother accepts him in the midst of life’s lowest points. And when he learns to accept love when he feels humiliated, he learns to stand a bit taller. He learns to trust in himself as a man.
The very qualities which cause men to be attracted to women can often become the very qualities which men come to hate later in life. And the reverse is true. Some women are attracted to men because they are hard-working and show great commitment to their work. Later on, those same women complain that their husbands are workaholics and never around.
This is true for men. Studies reveal that most women talk about twice as much as men over the course of the day. Women are expressive, and that expressiveness helps mothers become the emotional connector within a family. Fathers are good at setting rules and finding solutions. Mothers are better at understanding. At first a man is attracted to a women because she is expressive—she talks about the relationship and its positives and negatives. Years later, he leaves home frequently because he is talked out.
The fact that women use more words and are in general more openly expressive serves sons very well. Mothers teach sons about their feelings and thoughts and help boys become comfortable with them. This lends itself to helping boys establish healthy connectedness with their mothers and, importantly, other people. Her words help him become a better man.
She can teach him to become comfortable putting words to his feelings and that he has a choice as to when and how he verbalizes his feelings. A mother can teach her son about girls, because a son respects his mother even when he finds it hard to tolerate the girls at school. She teaches him to tolerate girls at various ages, to excuse their feminine behaviors that he finds ridiculous, and to appreciate that the differences between boys and girls are not good and bad, but two beneficial aspects of human nature. Later, she can help him understand and, therefore more easily accept, how women think and why.
Sometimes mothers pain their sons by explaining and talking too much, and women do need to understand that while they, mothers, are responsible for helping sons to understand others, to love them and connect with them, boys may choose to do this in different ways. Grown men don’t always bond through verbal communication. They often bond with others through action, which can be anything from athletics to shared hobbies to work, rather than through sharing feelings and emotions.
Mothers need to remember that her goal is to help her son be comfortable enough with himself to form deep bonds and respect his way of doing it. Mothers earnestly teach lessons by talking more but it is important to realize that as their son matures his thinking does as well. As he ages, his cognitive skills help him think more pragmatically. This allows him to see what she is trying to say and absorb it quickly, if he can identify the lesson she is trying to teach.
Beyond words, her physical affection allows him to feel more comfortable being affectionate with others. Her open communication lets him understand his own thoughts and appreciate those of others. As she makes herself trustworthy, he learns to trust other women. All of these aspects and many more of her femininity open a path for him to connect more soundly with others—both men and women. Mothers ideally bring all of these qualities to their sons. They love adoringly, protect until death, guard their son’s dignity, extend grace when it is needed, and ensure healthy relationships for him in the future.
WHEN LOVE COMES OUT SIDEWAYS
The reality of a mother’s love is that it sometimes comes out sideways. Mothers are often tired, manipulated, and they make mistakes. They scream when they mean to apologize. They feel guilty that they have to work rather than stay at home with the children. They worry about all the things that can go wrong.
But there’s an easy way to take some of the pressure off—and that is to allow both you and your son more time to relax. Some of the most important moments of being a parent consist of just being there for your kids and sharing the most mundane aspects of life with them.
Mothers who spend too much time with other mothers often compare notes and feel they are doing too little. But motherhood isn’t a competition. It is a state of being. Twenty-first-century, post-modern mothers site many reasons they are anxious.
Peer pressure heads the list of influences operating in a mother’s life which dramatically alters how she raises her son. Peer pressure usually has a very negative affect on sons because it rarely causes mothers to make better decisions for their son. It acts against their own instincts and is therefore usually detrimental to the son.
Mothers ungulate ceaselessly about their concerns over the peer pressure their son experiences. But peer pressure that parents feel affects a boy more significantly than the peer pressure he feels from his contemporaries. Usually the mother is influenced more heavily by peer pressure simply because most women spend more time with other mothers than fathers do with other fathers.
Consider the number of scheduled activities boys have. Why does Johnny go to piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time? Because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two to three extra-curricular activities. Mothers want their sons to be similar enough to other boys so that they will be accepted among their peers. This is a healthy desire. But if it leads to enrolling Johnny in piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two or three extra-curricular activities, then it’s not. The problem is, two to three scheduled events stress some sons unduly. We know that sons who have healthy relationships with their parents fare much better life. Your sons don’t need more activities that separate them from you, they need more time with you. And guess what? A night spent reading at home with your sons is a night that’s a lot less stressful for you and them than a night spent running between this practice and that recital. Further, it decreases the amount of time a son spends with his mother and father and we know that sons who have healthy relationships with parents fare much better in life. But we sign them up anyway.
The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet—but prescriptions for anti-depressants and anxiolytics have soared over the past five years. Why? Because mothers and fathers are stressed by the demands on them—the demands of work, family, and keeping up with the Joneses. And much of these demands come from trying to get to work on time, to make enough money to pay for the shoes, lessons, and tuition for our sons that other boys have. But you don’t need to keep up with the Joneses. You only need to keep a roof over your head and raise mentally and physically healthy children. You’d be better off going for family walks together than working harder to make extra money to pay for more activities for the kids.
Peer pressure perpetuates a mother’s stress to be all and do all for her son in order for him to grow up and be happy. But many times—most times in fact—a son cannot be happy in a home where there is so much stress created because his mother feels an obligation to perform well or at least better than many of the friends that she sees around her.
When Caroline came to my office with her six-month-old boys, I knew the visit would be long: her mother was in tow. I entered the examination room to see her twin boys, Caleb and Connor, sitting on a blanket in on the middle of the exam room floor. Caroline looked tired, her shoulders sagged. I noticed that her shoulders had lost their squareness as she leaned over to give a Cheerio to Caleb. Clearly she had dressed up for her appointment, and wore heavy makeup, as if to disguise her fatigue. She had concealer caked on her eyes and pale tangerine lipstick covering her lips. As we chatted, I noticed movement only on the right side of her mouth. The left eyelid and the left side of her mouth were drooping. There was a crack in her voice. She cleared her throat to conceal it. She wanted to show me and her mother that she was doing extraordinarily well. But I recognized the symptoms and realized that Caroline had developed Bell’s Palsy.
As I asked pertinent questions about the boys’ development, eating habits, and sleep patterns, her answers were encouraging but abbreviated. When I started to place the twins on my exam table, she quickly stood to help. While I examined Caleb, she played with Connor while consoling his brother. When I switched to Connor, she continued to concentrate on the two at once.
Her mother sat patiently on the plastic chair beside hers, but I sensed from the moment I entered the room that she was anxious to speak. Realizing that the visit was coming to a close, Caroline’s mother blurted out, “Dr. Meeker, I’m terribly worried about Caroline.”
“Mother, stop. Please don’t.” Caroline interrupted.
“No, no, this is important. I think we need her opinion” her mother persisted. Caroline complied.
“What are your concerns?” I asked, looking at the mother.
“Dr, Meeker, I’m worried about Caroline’s health. You can probably see she has developed Bell’s Palsy. Her doctor gave her some type of steroid medicine for that and she cries a lot. Her doctor also said that she is depressed so he gave her another medicine for that. She started it a few months ago but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s working or not because she is exhausted all the time. You see, she hardly sleeps. One of the boys is awake every couple of hours wanting to eat. Since she insists on nursing them, she won’t let me help. I can’t give them a bottle and she won’t feed them back-to-back. She lets them eat whenever they want to.” Caroline’s mother paused long enough for Caroline to interrupt her.
“Mother, you just don’t understand,” she said. “Things are different today. Breast milk is best for the boys and they need it—everything I read about nursing says that they should eat on demand. You didn’t feed me that way in your day.”
Caroline’s efforts valiantly attempted to insist that she was right but beneath her words I could hear that she wanted to be convinced otherwise.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me get this straight, Caroline. You nurse the boys whenever they want to nurse, you are taking steroids because half of your face can’t move, and you are suffering from depression, for which you take medication every day.”
“Right.” she complied.
“I can see that you feel confused, exhausted, and guilty. That’s the way any normal mother in your situation would feel.” I waited.
“Yeah,” she nodded reluctantly.
“Do you think the boys need a happy mother or do they need breast milk more?” I asked.
She seemed surprised by the question. “Breast milk. It boosts their immune system, it wards off infections; there are antibodies in breast milk that they can’t get any other way. And it helps me bond better with them. I’ve read that babies find breast milk emotionally gratifying. How can I not give that to them?”
Like any enthusiastic, loving mother, Caroline had scoured the Internet for information on nursing and had found volumes. Most of what she had read was correct, but some was false. But more important, she had completely lost her balance.
Her instincts told her that she needed more sleep, the drugs (which would be present in the breast and the milk) weren’t good for her babies, and the four of them (she rarely thought of her husband’s opinion) would be healthier and happier if she stopped nursing.
So why didn’t she? Peer pressure. Most mothers feel extraordinary pressure from friends, doctors, and baby books to nurse as long as possible. Certainly I advocate this but I encourage more maternal intuition and common sense.
After a long discussion I tried to convince her that the boys needed a less sleep-deprived mother more than they did breast milk. I encouraged her to wean the boys, start them on formula in a bottle, let someone else help her (heaven forbid their father gets a little bonding time while feeding them), and get some sleep.
She shook her head. I explained the seriousness of post-partum depression and the role that elevated oxytocin, which is associated with breastfeeding, played in the depression. I discussed the potential impact of her depression on the boys.
She dug her heels in. Without words she told me she would sacrifice anything, including her health (and ironically, the health and happiness of her family), for her boys. And giving up nursing was not an option. Mothers are a competitive lot and I sensed that part of Caroline wanted to be Super Mom. Her friends nursed only one child at a time. She could do two. Her mother pleaded with me to convince Caroline to show some common sense.
Realizing that I wasn’t making headway, I finally said, “Well, let me tell you. If they were my sons I wouldn’t want them to have steroids or anti-depressants in their systems for this long.” She stared at me. Her lips were tight, then they relaxed. Her shoulders straightened and she looked at her mom.
“Well, all right. I will wean them a little bit,” she said.
Sometimes mothers of sons get crazy. We just do. In our longing to make our sons psychologically sound, physically strong, and developmentally on track (usually we want them advanced) we toss common sense aside. We believe, usually errantly, that others know a better way to parent than we do. So we follow the lead of our peer group. And, I might add, parents of teenage boys are the worst at committing this travesty.
The fact is, your intuition as a mother is better than comparing yourself to other mothers. A mother needs to take a hard look at why she does what she does. Why does her son do what he does? If she recognizes honestly that her motives stem from peer pressure to keep her son ahead of the others, she must buck that peer pressure. Sons need more stress-free homes—which will dictate how they behaves in school much more significantly than does the behavior of their friends.
And one lesson we should all learn is that while mothers want more for their sons, the truth is that sons need less. Boys need fewer toys and fewer clothes. They need more time with their mothers and fathers, less time in structured events, and more time being bored—yes, bored—so that they can use their imagination and creativity and figure out what to do. Young men need less time face-to-screen with electronic life and more time face-to-face with people. Less television, video games, clothes, telephone bills, sports events, and preschool hours mean less stress for mothers and more time for boys to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.
All of these things—electronics, clothes, sports events, ad nauseum—make their way into a boy’s life because his mother (and his father) yield to life as their neighbors live it, the way they see it around them rather than the way it ought to be.
MATERNAL CONFLICT: ENMESHMENT
When a son enters a mother’s life, many feelings from her own childhood are triggered. As she swaddles her new son and pulls him towards her chest, he becomes a catalyst for the eruption of emotions that may have been repressed many years earlier. This isn’t his fault. This is the normal and often healthy reaction of a parent.
Often these feelings are warm and pleasant—a reliving of a sense of trust, affection, and comfort. Sometimes they are painful—a sense of abandonment, fear, and perplexity. Many mothers experience myriad emotions which can seem frightening and perplexing.
Bruno Bettelheim asserts that if a mother had an unhappy childhood, she may see her son’s happiness and avoid responding to it. His happiness feels uncomfortable, so in order to avoid embracing his happiness she becomes aloof and indifferent to him. This is much the same as a melancholy friend becoming irritated by an exuberant one.
Mothers relive their childhoods through their sons. They re-experience feelings of trust, abandonment, affection, and comfort.
But a son can also trigger deep-seated pain for many women. Mothers who have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of men (particularly a father) have serious challenges in their relationships with their son. It is not uncommon for the birth of a son to trigger repressed memories of abuse in mothers along with the concomitant fear and anxiety.
If she had a good relationship with her own father (and has a good relationship with the father of her child), the odds are that these feelings will be positive. But if her relationship with her father was troubled, or if she is a divorced or single mother, and if she fails to recognize what is happening to her emotionally, a mother will transfer the ugly feelings she has from her experiences on to her son. This can complicate her relationship with her son terribly.
Feelings mothers have towards sons can be convoluted, overlaid with conflictual experiences with other men or perhaps other children. But a mother’s goal should always be to keep her feelings towards her son as honest and clean as possible. She should feel affection for him and not confuse her affections for him with her feelings for another person. She should love him as a masculine being and this love should be free from an overlaying of love towards other men. Any disappointment towards her son should stem from something he has done—not from something other males have done to her in the past.
In my experience, four patterns of a mother’s love toward her son erupt when she is unable to emotionally separate her past bad experiences with men from her present relationships with her son. Divorced or single, mothers are particularly vulnerable to any one of these patterns. They are: enmeshment, estrangement, over-dependence, and unavailability.
Enmeshment between a mother and son occurs when a mother cannot identify where she ends and her son begins. She feels his feelings and very often he feels hers. She is compelled to fix his life because she feels that she is living his life. His hurts are her hurts. His anxiety is hers. Because she is unable to “peel” her emotional self off of him, she experiences his trouble and will do everything within her power to fix it.
Mothers who feel that their lives are devoid of substance are prone to enmeshment because they must cling to someone to give their own life meaning. Her son and his feelings, needs, and desires become fused with her in order that she can feel satisfied on a deeper level.
The problem is, satisfaction never comes. He cannot give enough or be enough for her. She cannot shape his life or navigate it to her liking. So he becomes a chronic disappointment. As for her son, he can feel his mother’s emotional entanglement with him, and it naturally makes him uncomfortable. In the tale of the Great Divorce, the mother of Elisha is forced to leave her son. She has attached herself as a leech in her son’s life and when the time for separation comes, she screams in anguish. She cannot let go of him. One can sense a tearing of flesh as he pulls himself away from her. Her fingers are clawing at his back. She screams because she literally feels as though her person is being torn in two. Mothers who feel empty, insecure, or struggle with a longing to fill a deep void in their lives must exercise great caution. The emptiness can be filled and the longing can be satisfied but never through a son.
Though estrangement is the flip side of enmeshment, it is often the result of the same causes: divorce, single motherhood, or a history of sexual abuse. In this case, it causes a mother to feel estranged from her son simply because he is male. She might regard normal boyish pranks as malevolence. When her son wants her affection, she might push him aside to keep him from becoming “a sissy.” When he becomes a teenager she might reprimand him constantly for behavior that reminds her of her former husband, or his deadbeat dad.
There are subtler ways in which a mother can undermine her son as well. She can pay more attention to other women—friends, her daughter, her mother—and brush his needs off easily. She may verbalize affection for a daughter and rarely verbalize affection toward her son. She can use sarcasm to joke about the shortcomings of his father and his own shortcomings as a boy or as a young man. When a boy realizes that he is being rejected because he is a male, he pulls away, and his mother, in turn, pulls even farther away.
Mothers who have had bad experiences with men need to come to terms with those experiences and accept that their son is an individual, and not the representative of the men who have hurt her.
Mothers who are divorced, particularly those who have endured a very hostile divorce, must heed tremendous caution. When there is dissention between a mother and a father, very frequently a mother can unwittingly take this out on her son. Far too many sons end up in the crossfire after a parent’s divorce. Another word of caution is warranted here when considering divorce. Very frequently sons become overly protective towards their mother after a divorce. An oldest son might feel compelled to become the “man of the house.” A boy who does this is obviously well-intentioned, but he remains a boy and shouldn’t be required to take any mental and emotional burdens for which he is developmentally unprepared.
Divorce is a tragedy that takes a very heavy toll on boys, as well as mothers and fathers. Boys who had previously behaved very age appropriately can suddenly behave very age inappropriately after a divorce has occurred. The best gift for any child is a stable, loving home with a mother and a father. If you have that gift, preserve it.
OVER-DEPENDENCE: MAMA’S BOY
There is a world of difference between a mother having a healthy emotional connection with her son, and a son becoming so emotionally reliant on his mother that he becomes the prototypical boy who is overly dependent upon his mother—a “mama’s boy.” Sadly, many women have misinterpreted this as a state of emotional connection with sons and pushed their sons away far too early. There is a very significant difference between over-dependence and healthy connectivity.
Most infant boys cling to their mothers. Of course, as an infant, he will want to be attached to her, often literally. As a toddler he will begin to wander a little, while always running back to her. During his elementary school years, he will mimic this toddler-type of wandering then reconnection but the psychological distance he wanders and the length of time he allows to elapse between returning to the safety of his mother will increase. Growing boys value their growing independence.
Over-dependence occurs when a mother consistently communicates to her son that he needs her. She must clothe him, feed him, drive him places, help him with his homework, and assist him in every way, and no one else can fill her spot. This is particularly harmful to a son because it communicates to him that his father has no significant role in filling his needs. And it’s terribly painful for fathers. She must help him with his homework because only she can teach him. The lesson a boy learns is that he cannot succeed on his own. Of course, most of what a needy mother communicates is too subtle for a son to identify; but all he knows is that it feels awful.
Mothers who have experienced a poor relationship with their fathers or who have been through a bad divorce are very susceptible to this behavior. But to be warned about it is to guard against it. Since they feel wounded by men, they experience a significant drop in their self-esteem, and they purpose to make up for this loss by being terribly important in their son’s life. When such a mother feels her son (a male) need her, she feels that his neediness of her and her alone validates her ability to be in a non-hostile relationship with a male. Unfortunately, over-dependence blunts a boy’s emotional development.
When mothers entered the workforce with renewed intensity during the last half of the twentieth century, many came under attack for abandoning their families. Numerous research studies appeared on the effects of daycare on children and the effects of maternal absence on the psychological development of children.
Women who worked (without pay) in the home raising their children and women who worked jobs outside of the home felt pressured from all sides. Women who stayed home to raise their children suffered from feelings of inadequacy to lower self-esteem to anxiety about not bringing money home to the family, while women who worked outside the home experienced guilt and sadness about being away from their children. Mine is a generation of women who determined with a fresh ferocity to shift the worlds of finance, law, medicine, and any other workplace dominated by men to accommodate us. We were tired of limited choices, disrespect, and often just plain bored with the mundane task of keeping our homes in order and our children well cared for.
Mothers can find research and books to support and encourage their lifestyle choice, whatever it is. Where parenting is concerned, there is no positive research or advice. That’s why I hold much of it loosely. My belief is that if we mothers are tough enough to be honest with ourselves, we will know what our sons need. We know the moment they are born our sons need to form strong emotional attachments to their mother or their father in order to learn to trust that they will be cared for and that they are worth being cared for.
Many argue, and even some research shows, that as long as any adult consistently provides for a boy’s basic needs during his first one to two years of life, he will fair well psychologically. The problem is, for the majority of mothers, we know better. We believe that our son needs a strong bond with us, and we with him.
Boys need to form emotional bonds with their mothers over time in a consistent manner. We do know that boys who fail to form these bonds in the first two years of life suffer attachment issues for many years and are at risk for of never being able to form healthy attachments to others. And boys can’t form bonds or learn to trust others if their mother (or consistent mother figure) isn’t available or dependable.
We need only to look at the psychological health of many boys in orphanages from the old Soviet Union. Many were adopted by families in the United States. Many of the older boys in particular demonstrated serious attachment disorders and parents of these boys were distraught and frightened because while many of these orphaned boys acted quiet, compliant, and sweet externally, internally they were almost vacant. Many were so emotionally bankrupt that the only feelings they were comfortable feeling were anger and hostility. The circumstances of their infancy years demonstrate why their comfort with only negative feelings makes sense.
When my patient Andrew was born in Ukraine, his mother was very poor and placed him in an orphanage. He was given a crib and fed several times a day, but was removed from the crib and held only one or two times a week, his adoptive mother was told. He walked at age two rather than age one because he never had the opportunity to be out of his crib.
In short, he experienced a profound sense of abandonment. And abandonment, I believe, is the most painful human experience possible. Andrew was deprived of touch, affection, eye contact, and love, and was given the minimum calories needed to survive. He experienced a profound emptiness because no one was available to him: physically, psychologically, or mentally. And I believe that even in those first months of life a child understands his own value on some level. If his needs are met by another, he feels valued. If they are not, in a very fundamental way he feels worthless.
Andrew had no one available for him in any meaningful way. He became invisible, probably even to himself. Lacking emotionally security, he could not laugh or smile. As he grew, he could not show or feel any affection, because none had been offered to him when he was young. He walled himself off from receiving any positive affection from another (even though it was probably never offered) because feeling any affection or warmth would remind him of all the affection he failed to receive.
Andrew felt safe feeling angry and hostile because these feelings do not presuppose a sense of security or value. But they do offer a sense of control, of “getting even;” anger is a safe way of releasing sadness, loneliness, or grief.
Because Andrew lacked a mother to give him physical and emotional contact for the first six years of his life, he locked himself into an emotional glass cage. He was safe there. And because he had been there from such an early age and at such a crucial point in his development of trust, his adoptive mother wondered if he could ever be removed. Even the best child psychiatrist in our area wondered the same thing. Andrew became physically violent by the third grade. He hit another boy so hard he broke his leg. By the time Andrew was in sixth grade, his parents were gravely concerned that he might harm his siblings—or even them—while they slept at night.
Andrew’s upbringing demonstrates the extreme damage done to a boy when a parent is unavailable. But all around us—in our schools, sports teams, and daycare centers—there are boys who suffer attachment issues and healthy emotional development issues because they have mothers who are physically or emotionally unavailable.
Mothers who are drunk are emotionally unavailable to their sons. Mothers who compulsively work or play are unavailable. Mothers who suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and excessive stress are physically and emotionally unavailable at times to their sons. In short, many of us are unavailable to our sons at various points during their lives.
Every mother must examine her life, take inventory of her energy for work and motherhood, and then ask how she can be present more for her son. This is really hard stuff because all mothers struggle at different times with different issues. But raising great sons demands that we take inventory of our energies because boys need their mother’s time, attention, and affections.
There is a good reason why many adult men fail to trust women. They do so because many have never experienced healthy bonding with their mothers. And if a boy grows up with an alcoholic, workaholic, or absent mother, he quickly learns to withdraw from women. But the hurt doesn’t stop with the withdrawal. He pulls away to guard himself from further insult. He subconsciously concludes that she is not available for him because he is not worth her time or affection. And if he is valued this little by his mother, he must be valued less by others who aren’t supposed to love him. Ultimately his affection and respect for himself suffer and he feels quite alone.
The investment of physical and emotional energy which a mother gives a son is very serious stuff. When a mother chooses to be away from her son, regardless of the reason, the impact on her son is greater than she realizes. Sometimes mothers can’t help being separated. My purpose in reminding mothers of this is not to incite guilt—I myself am a working mother—but simply to state a fact: to be blessed by sons is to be called to a great responsibility. Every choice we make as mothers has farther reaching effects on our son than we realize.
The choices, loves, and beliefs of a boy’s mother craft his character. Mothers are a powerful presence in their sons lives. This knowledge shouldn’t frighten us; it should motivate us. Boys need more of their mothers in order to be greater men. And any mother who follows her maternal instincts, examines her own motivations, and does the best she can, will be a good mother. Boys don’t need perfection; they just need you there.
Jimmy O’Donnell was a mean kid. In his short ten years he had successfully and single-handedly terrorized every young boy on his street. The girls in his neighborhood dodged him; one look at him and each of them knew that Jimmy O. was nothing but trouble.
Even Jimmy’s mother feared him. She never admitted it, but it was clear to Jimmy’s teachers, his school principal, and other parents on Jimmy’s street. She avoided him. Like an irresponsible dog owner, she shooed him outside to roam the streets.
Seven-year-olds Mike, Bobby, and Evan lived on Jimmy’s street. Whenever Jimmy hopped on his scooter, one of two things occurred: either they would chicken out and run away, or, if they were feeling particularly tough and united that day, the threesome would stand in a yard and withstand Jimmy’s taunting.
One day, Jimmy made an enormous mistake. He hopped on his scooter and came to terrorize them. “Mike, Bobby!” he shouted at the two of them from his scooter. “Hey, get over here, you mother-loving, booger-eating turds!” The two boys froze. They were not a threesome. Today they were a twosome and each looked at the other anxiously, knowing that they needed to decide very quickly what to do. Should they run? Should they look up and risk making eye contact with Jimmy? If they did, their day was doomed. Or so they thought.
“Whatcha want Jimmy?” Mike blurted. Bobby was stunned. Blood drained from his olive face and suddenly he felt nauseated. “What’s the deal, Mike? Are you crazy or something?
“Let’s get out of here!” Bobby blurted.
Mike shoved his fists deep into his jean pockets and started at Jimmy. “No,” he said. “You don’t scare me Jimmy O’Donnell.”
Jimmy leapt from his scooter and tossed it on Mike’s freshly mown lawn. Jimmy had a fresh velvety buzz cut and Mike saw snippets of his pink scalp beneath the trimmed stubble. Rumor had it that Jimmy shaved. Some said that he could actually grow a beard at age ten—and this made his steps more daunting as he approached Mike.
“What do ya say, punk? Did I hear you say something to me?”
Mike blurted, “Yeah, Jimmy. I did.” Mike stretched his neck and pushed his bony shoulders back. Without a shirt his scrawny frame looked like it could snap like a chicken bone. Bobby stood beside him with a short-sleeved madras shirt buttoned to the neck. He was still frozen.
“I’m sick of your bullying everybody. Me and Bobby here, we want you to get lost. And now.” With that command, Jimmy darted toward Bobby, chasing him like a rooster chasing a chick. Bobby’s skinny arms flailed as he ran and screamed, Jimmy pursuing him easily.
“Knock it off Jimmy,” Mike demanded. “Why don’t ya go chase someone your own age? Suddenly Jimmy turned towards Mike, spit flying from the sides of his mouth, beads of sweat erupting from his scalp and resting atop his buzz. “I’m gonna make you eat that. Come over here, you weenie!” Jimmy shouted at Mike.
Mike ran out of his yard and into the McNally’s next door. Jimmy followed. Without a thought, Mike threw himself up into a branch of Mr. McNally’s maple tree and scurried toward the sky. His heart pounded in his palms and now he felt sweat running down his bare back. When he reached the branches that could no longer hold his forty-five-pound frame, Mike stopped. He was ashamed that his heart was racing so fast and that he was panting.
Suddenly Bobby jumped into the tree and climbed up to Mike. They sat there like frightened cats, while Jimmy snarled below. Mike looked down and there stood Jimmy, standing guard at the foot of the tree.
Little did they know that Mike’s mother looked out through her kitchen window at just this moment. She searched her yard for the boys. When she couldn’t see them, she opened her back door to get a better look. Then she saw Jimmy, standing there in front of the McNally’s big maple tree with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.
She watched for a moment to see what the two would do. She saw Jimmy look up and yell something at the boys then turn and laugh. Enough was enough, she thought.
She slammed her back door and marched over to the tree. Her glare fixed on Jimmy O’Donnell’s face. Mary wasn’t a large woman, but one thing was certain. She was bigger and stronger than Jimmy and she was a mad mother.
Jimmy never saw her coming. He was too engrossed in his glee. When she reached him, Mary grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. “Just who do you think you are, Jimmy O’Donnell? You think you can come and bully younger kids whenever you want? Well, those days are over. You won’t scare my son or his friends anymore.”
With that resolved, Mary grabbed his elbows and locked his arms in an “X” behind his back. “Come on down here, you two,” she yelled up to Mike and Bobby. “I’ve got a job for you.” The two stunned boys scampered down the tree and saw Jimmy desperately trying to wiggle from Mary’s angry grip. When they landed on the ground, Mary marched all three away from the tree and into her backyard.
“Boys,” she started, “Jimmy won’t be bothering you anymore, because if he does he has to deal with me. I’m going to hold him here for a minute. I want each of you to take a swing at him.”
Mike’s mouth fell open. Hit Jimmy O’Donnell? Was she out of her mind?
“Come on boys, step up here. Take a swing. Mike, you first,” she insisted. With that, Mike balled his small fingers into a fist and swung his birdlike arm smack into the center of Jimmy’s belly. “One more, a little harder, Mike, then it’s Bobby’s turn.” Again, he readied his aim and smacked Jimmy in the belly.
Bobby followed and took two swings, just the same. Jimmy didn’t cry. The punches were so weak and his muscle so strong, but still Mike thought he saw tears tucked in the corner of Jimmy’s eyes.
After Bobby swung, Mary released Jimmy. He ran from the three of them back to his scooter. As he ran away, Mary thought she heard him utter, “Just wait, Mrs. Winter. My dad’s gonna come and beat you up.”
From that day forward Jimmy left Mike and Bobby, along with many of the other neighborhood boys, alone.
This incident occurred many years ago and if it happened today, Mrs. Winter would probably have been charged with assault and battery. She wasn’t a violent woman and she knew that two scrawny boys couldn’t hurt any part of Jimmy save his ego. Forty years ago mothers seemed to understand more about young boys. There is a pecking order at work in male groups regardless of a boy’s age. And in the periphery of each group waits another boy watching for opportunities to push his way in and pounce on whomever he can. He doesn’t want to join the order, he wants to crush it and crown himself king.
Mary saw this and she responded. With no intention to negotiate she identified a problem and allowed her maternal instincts to drive her actions. Bullies must be confronted and she realized that she was the one to dethrone Jimmy.
I’m certainly not advocating that mothers follow their young boys and make their sons punch the lights out of bullies. But we mothers have become confused by listening to too many experts and over-reading and over-thinking everything about young boys’ behavior. Just follow your instincts, use common sense, and remember that not only should boys be boys, but mothers should be mothers. Papers have been written in journals on bullies. Teachers have lectured and parents have argued with each other over the behavior of their boys. But bullies have remained on their thrones on playgrounds across America, because we refuse to confront very real truths about boyhood behavior and then do something about it.
Mothers view sons differently than they do their daughters. They have an instinctual desire to preserve their son’s masculinity and this means preserving the perception that her son is physically and mentally strong. She will never allow him to be at the bottom of the pecking order.