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.