The New York Times Motherlode blog here uses the concept of the “mama’s boy” to illuminate some interesting things about how mothers parent – and are encouraged to parent – their sons (New York Times, 3/29/12).
What’s a “mama’s boy”? A wimp, of course, a child tied too tightly to his mother’s apron strings, overly sensitive, incapable of detaching, ready to “run to mama” at the slightest hint of adversity. Norman Bates. Oedipus. Robert, the awkward brother on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The men are ineffectual, the “mamas” domineering — and if you’re looking for an analogous stereotype in the world of fathers and daughters (think father-daughter dances and “Daddy’s Girl”), you won’t find one.
Or mothers and daughters for that matter. It’s an important point; mothers and fathers both parent boys differently than they do girls. In short, girls tend to get more of their parent’s affection, attention and protection while boys tend to be taught to not need same and to “man up.” That starts early in life as the NYT writer KJ Dell’ Antonia points out.
It sounds like a myth of yesteryear, but Kate Stone Lombardi, frequent New York Times contributor and author of “The Mama’s Boy Myth,” says the hangover from generations of gender preconceptions affects us all, and that in many families and communities, mothers still find themselves urged to push their sons away at exactly the moments (like starting school and becoming a teenager) when our boys need us most — and that even when we don’t, we find it hard to talk about how close we are to our sons.
“I fell into conversation with another mother before writing the book,” she told me, and “it was like some kind of shameful secret when we started to reveal how close we were to our [adult] sons, and how meaningful our relationship was. It’s such a double standard; I also have a daughter, and I would never be embarrassed to reveal how close we are, or how often we talk.”
Even quoting Ms. Lombardi, I feel the urge to qualify her words about her son — to assure you that it wasn’t a weirdly “meaningful” relationship, or offer more details to explain what she meant, in a way I don’t feel is necessary with her daughter. That extra sensitivity is a big part of what she’s writing and talking about.
It is indeed a double standard and the idea that even boys who are young enough to just be starting school find themselves holding the short end of the maternal affection stick should give anyone pause. And if it’s true for boys of five or six, who’s to say it’s not true for even younger ones. Come to think of it, I reported not long ago on a study out of the University of Chicago that found that sons of single mothers receive less in the way of “parental investment” than their sisters do.
But what Dell’ Antonia is writing about isn’t just single mothers, but married ones as well. There seems to be a generalized concern that boys won’t grow up to be strong, autonomous men. Needless to say, the fear that they’ll be gay is part and parcel of that.
And it comes as no surprise that popular culture is there on the sidelines cheering every dysfunctional concept of masculinity.
“I never saw my relationship with my son reflected in pop culture,” she said. “There was nothing to support this idea that a mother and son could be close in a healthy way. It was all dominating moms and weak-willed boys, and yet my son seemed — seems, is — fine! It was like constantly watching a movie with the wrong soundtrack.”
That soundtrack, she says, is part of why mothers are so often told to go against their instincts with their boys, to tell a crying child to “man up” or “shake it off,” or to let a hurting teenager suffer in silence and “work it out on his own.” Even the most attached of mothers can find herself wondering if she’s doing the right thing when she babies her little boy, or pushes her teen to talk. “But both science and research tell us it really is a good thing to offer boys our emotional support, and maintain that connection.”
Now, Dell’ Antonia doesn’t have an unlimited number of words in which to deal with her topic, so she tends to elide the difference between a “mama’s boy” and one who simply receives appropriate affection from his mother. Every boy grows to autonomous maturity at his own speed and in his own way. Every parent needs to try to know what a child needs and when, and when to step back and let the child experience and learn for him/herself. Parenting is an art more than a science.
But what she calls a “mama’s boy” is not a child who receives too much maternal affection but one who receives too much maternal control. He’s a child (or even an adult) who’s had the belief instilled in him that he can’t do without Mom. That’s OK for a two-year-old, but not for a 10-year-old.
But the main point of Dell’ Antonio’s article is the hesitancy many mothers have about showing “too much” affection to their sons. They don’t have the same problems with their daughters because our culture tells us that love and tenderness toward girls and women is OK, but the same toward boys and men can be suspect.
Obviously the problem is less one of sexual politics than it is of how best to raise children. Whatever your take on gender equality, little boys need and deserve as much love as little girls do and it’s wrong of parents not to give it to them.
If parents hesitate to do that because they fear little Andy won’t grow up to be a manly man, they need to take a closer look at what being a man is all about. Here’s a hint: they won’t find it at the movies. The usual cast of tough-guy heroes and anti-heroes that Hollywood spews out are almost exclusively bad examples of masculinity. The simple fact is that 99.9% of men bear no resemblance to them and that’s usually a good thing.
If parents need to educate themselves about what it means to be a man, they need to broaden their scope considerably. They need to look around and remember that Jesus and the Buddha were men as well as Mozart, Darwin and Einstein. So were Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Plato and Confucius. The point being that men have always come in an astonishing array of types from the King to the Warrior to the Priest to the Poet. The failure of a boy to be Rambo may just mean his success at being Rilke.
Parents should not allow themselves to be deluded by a pop culture that blinds itself to the wonder of boys and men. Few parents will produce the next Bard of Avon, but each child needs his/her parent’s love. That should never be withheld because a boy seems to be insufficiently “manly.” “Man” has a million definitions, all of which are valid and many of which are wonderful. Parents who try to confine their male children into a pinched, narrow idea of manhood do themselves and their children a grave disservice. That goes double for parents who withhold their affection from boys out of strange concern that giving it is in some way detrimental to him.
Meanwhile, kudos to Dell’ Antonio for raising the issue in such a constructive way.