from Chapter One: Defending the Bond

“Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother.”
—W. Somerset Maugham

Should a mother defer to her husband when he insists that she stop kissing their first-grade son when she drops him off at school? If a mother cuddles her ten-year-old son when he is hurt, will she turn him into a wimp? If she keeps him too close, will she make him gay? If a teenage boy is crying in his room, should a mother go in and comfort him, or would this embarrass and shame him? If a mother is too affectionate with her son, might it be construed as seductive?

Amazingly, many of these ideas about mothers and their sons still hold considerable power and resonance today. After all, we’ve been through a social upheaval that has dramatically changed the way men and women lead their lives. It has been more than forty years since the advent of the modern feminist movement, and our beliefs about the roles of men and women, masculinity and femininity, and even how gender itself is identified have been significantly transformed. So why haven’t the rules about how mothers bring up their sons been revolutionized as well?

Somehow, throughout this momentous social upheaval, our view of the mother-son relationship has remained curiously and stubbornly stagnant. We have certainly changed the way we raise our daughters, encouraging them to be assertive, play competitive sports, and shoot for the stars when it comes to their educational and professional ambitions. We don’t worry that we are raising our little girls to be boys; we believe we are offering our daughters an opportunity to reach their full potential. But what about our sons? It is as if the feminist revolution sputtered out when it came to expanding the possibilities for boys, and especially for how their mothers might relate to them. The mother-son relationship is still largely seen through a prism that ignores the tidal wave of change that has otherwise transformed our society. We’re hanging on to an old narrative that no longer describes our contemporary reality.

This frozen perspective is problematic on many levels. For one thing, it continues to reinforce a dated, sexist, homophobic, and generally negative view of what goes on between women and their sons. It diminishes or ignores anything positive that women can and do contribute to their boys. It leaves both mothers and sons feeling confused and anxious about their relationship. And because of this distorted lens, the mother-son relationship has become the only parent-child combination in which closeness is viewed so critically and with such suspicion.

Think about it. We know the mother-daughter relationship is considered sacrosanct. There is, in fact, a small industry built around it, complete with kitschy “A Daughter Is a Friend for Life” pillows, mother-daughter spa discounts, and enough books on the relationship to stock a small independent bookstore.

No one, of course, has any problem with fathers and sons being close. They are encouraged to spend time together, to go off and do manly things and bond. There is a national fatherhood movement, supported by President Barack Obama, which particularly focuses on fathers being role models for their sons.

The father-daughter relationship? A “mama’s boy” might be a reviled creature, but everyone looks tolerantly on “daddy’s little girl.” She has been singled out for an elevated status. Indeed, a loving and supportive father is now considered essential to a girl’s self-esteem. Fathers are encouraged to be part of their daughters’ lives, whether it’s coaching their soccer teams or escorting their teenage girls to father-daughter dances.

Moreover, a father who flaunts gender stereotypes and teaches his daughter a traditionally masculine task, say rebuilding a car engine, is considered to be a pretty cool dad. But a mother who does something comparable—forget something equivalent, like teaching her son to knit; try simply encouraging him to talk more openly about his feelings—is looked at with contempt. What is she trying to do to that boy?

But here is where the discord comes in. Most mothers today do not actually buy the idea that nurturing close bonds with their sons will harm them. We are pretty tired of all the hand wringing about the future sexual proclivities of little boys who play with dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens. We have no interest in changing boys into girls. That is simply ridiculous. We love our sons with an intensity and tenderness for who they are as themselves. Like girls, boys, as every mother of a son knows, are delightful.

What we are interested in is a new narrative—something beyond the old “mama’s boy’s” myths and warnings. We want a fresh story that reflects the reality of our own lives. And that reality is that more and more mothers continue to keep their sons close and treasure that affectionate, nurturing bond well into their young adult lives.