Friday, April 23, 2010

Mothers of Sons: Staying Close

The joy of looking deeply into the eyes of your baby boy as he explores your face, his little hands reaching to touch your cheek, grabbing at your mouth or hair is indescribable. When you realize that your face is the center of his universe, the joy is compounded. Feeling him burrow his little nose and cheeks into you when you pick him up and his little arms reaching around your neck nourishes your heart. This initial closeness we parents have with our children will change in form over their growing years, but need never be abandoned.

What is this closeness that we cherish so deeply? Some describe it as unconditional love, the feeling that you are loved because you are you and nothing will interfere with that. Perhaps it is the freedom of being able to show oneself to another, not just the "good" stuff, but the difficulties as well, without fear of losing the beloved. Closeness is both glorious and painful. My own relationship with my young adult sons has taken us through the full range of experiences. We have had our share of arguments, feelings of anger, hatred, hopelessness, frustration. We have said unkind things to each other, been disrespectful, struggled through conflicts of needs and clashes of values. All this mixed in with scenes of playful harmony, laughter, thoughtful caring, successful conflict resolution, times of understanding and times of sharing deep feelings.

The actual state of closeness to another human being is not just the “happy ever after” stuff they show in the movies! At times it is. However, every parent discovers sooner or later that it is often a messy, confusing affair where each person displays his or her hurts and struggles. Often these hurts and struggles are projected onto the person we feel closest to with a load of blame, anger, contempt and disappointment attached.

Between mothers and sons, the initial closeness, which for many of us comes easily when relating to a relatively helpless, adorable baby, requires constant strategic thinking to maintain. The culture is full of messages warning that staying close to our sons equals damaging them. Unlike “daddy's girl,” a term of endearment which does not carry a stigma, "mama's boy" indicates a serious problem and holds a mother responsible for creating a boy who runs to his mother for protection and cannot face life "like a man". We mothers of sons are warned over and over that to remain affectionate with our boys as they grow is smothering and inappropriate. Our parenting skills are called into question if we "baby" our boys, and our sons are teased mercilessly by other children (usually boys) if seen being physically close to their mothers as they grow up.

Realizing that my son and I would have to give up at least the public displays of affection we so enjoyed as he grew out of babyhood, I decided to do whatever I had to in order to figure out how to stay close to him. At one point, I developed a game which I played when his friends were visiting. I became the “hug monster” and told them I was afflicted with an urgent need to hug them. I would chase them around the house and yard trying feebly to catch them. They taunted me and ran laughing in mock terror. When I caught one I would wrestle with him trying to hug him, telling him how lovely he was and how nice it was to be close and then letting him get away after a short struggle. These boys would look for me when visiting my son and announce their presence to me defiantly, hoping I would play the game. This strategy enabled me to be affectionate in a playful way with not only my son, but with other boys who now were in no position to tease my son. It gave the boys an opportunity to be affectionate without looking like they wanted it.

Staying close to your son requires a decision that you must make repeatedly to defy the cultural mandate to distance yourself from him. The most insidious thing about this mandate is that we mothers are part of the group that enforces it, pushing our sons away in order to be good mothers to them. Even though we often have an internal conflict, we encourage them to be independent because we are told, and to some extent we believe, that it is necessary for the creation of ‘good men’.

I remember the first time my son traveled alone by plane. He was a senior in high school and was flying to have an interview at a college far away. When we got to the curb at the airport I explained the curbside baggage service to him. As his bags were being checked I handed him several dollar bills assuming he would want to tip the porter himself. An embarrassed look came over his face as he dug his hands into his pockets and he shook his head “no”. I asked if he wanted me to do it. His head bobbed up and down. My seventeen year old man looked to me like a three year old! The internal struggle I experienced at that moment was intense. Would I be babying my son if I tipped the man, thereby preventing him from moving along towards his own manhood? The force of the culture was pressing hard on me. I looked at my son's face and saw that same apprehension I had seen dozens of times when he was learning something new and challenging. It was a mixture of intense concentration, awe and fear. I took a chance and trusted that it would be fine to nurture and support him a bit longer. After I tipped the man I asked my watching boy what he wanted to do on his return since he would be alone then. He said, with confidence that he would handle it. I told him it would be good to have a few dollar bills handy when he arrived at the airport. When I picked him up from his return flight, I asked him how his trip had been. The first thing he told me was that he had remembered to have some money ready and he had checked his bags at the curb.

In the process of growing into a competent adult, one usually takes steps forward and backward. My son seemed to need a bit more time before he was expected to act independently. My own struggle as a mother over whether to "push him" to act more grownup or let him be may have been simplified by the absence other adults around watching us. This helped me take a chance, trust my own thinking, and decide to let him be dependent on me a bit longer. I somehow managed to avoid preaching to him about what was expected of him, to accept his anxiety as a normal part of the growing process. Most importantly, I trusted him and our relationship.

In order to defy the cultural mandate to cut our sons off thereby forcing them to act independently, it is important to keep the needs of our sons central with our own needs. We all have a need for close, safe, contact with others. This never ends. Your son has a need to be protected from the cultural belief that says boys do not need closeness and which will punish boys in various cruel ways for wanting closeness with you. In fact any closeness with any human outside of the expected sexual relationships which males are expected to attain, is a cause for difficulty for males. Closeness to other males will label him gay or a faggot, closeness with females other than conquests will cause endless teasing. Closeness with his mother is the worst of all! It is necessary to recognize this and to work with your son about how you can be creative together and about what closeness will look like as you both change. You will at times feel loss when some way you have enjoyed being with your son is not possible any more. This is a good time to commiserate with other mothers!

We start out as the center of our child’s universe, and as he grows his universe expands. The trick is to stay in his world as a loving ally and close friend.

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