From Strong Mothers, Strong Sons
Many mothers who have been estranged from their sons worry that they can never repair their relationships. The truth is, when it comes to mending a mother-son relationship, it is never too late. Every man wants more from his mother. He either wants more great memories or he wants to heal past hurts because there is only one person who can occupy that particular space in his heart. (A stepmother, aunt, or grandmother can come occupy this place if she bonded with the boy early in his childhood when his biological mother was absent.) The dynamics of the mother-son love are intense precisely because the love is need based. While the intensity may shift over the years, the significance and impact of a mother’s love never change. Even if she doesn’t remain his primary female relationship, a boy always needs to know that he is loved and accepted by his mother, just as he needs his father’s approval and support. When a child suspects that a mother’s love has shifted or lessened, even at an older, adult age, the ground beneath him feels less solid.
Many single mothers who struggle to try to be both mother and father to their sons become discouraged because their emotional energy runs dry. But the truth is, no one can be both Mom and Dad. A woman can only be Mom, and believe me, this is good enough. So many single mothers exhaust themselves with worry and trying to be something that they can’t be. Yes, a boy needs male influence, so rather than attempting to be a substitute yourself, recruit a good man or two to help you. Ask an uncle or grandfather, a pastor, or a coach to spend a little time with your son. Other men can have a profound influence on sons, so it is important to admit that you can’t do it all, and to learn to ask for help.
One friend of mine, Claire, lost her husband to pancreatic cancer when their three children were five, ten, and twelve. She was despondent and felt overwhelmed by the task of raising three young children on her own. For the first few years, she tried to be both mother and father to her kids. She got a job outside the home, continued to be room mother to her middle son’s class, drove them to sports games, and made lovely dinners every night. As her oldest, Sean, approached puberty, she talked with him about life changes in a way she thought her husband would have.
After two years Claire became exhausted. Sean began acting out. His grades dropped and he began drinking. When she confronted him about what was going on, he refused to talk to her. She believed that his changed behavior was due to his grief over the loss of her husband but she didn’t know what to do. Then Claire had an idea. She went to the youth pastor of her church and told him what was going on at home. The two became friends and she asked the pastor if he had any chores that he needed done at his home. He did and agreed to ask her son to help him around the yard. Over the next few months, the pastor and her son developed a friendship, and Claire got to know the pastor’s wife well.
The pastor decided to take his family hiking for a week. He called Claire and asked if not only Sean, but all three of her children could accompany him, his wife, and their children on the trip. She was thrilled, and all the kids were, too.
When the trip was over, Sean came home with a renewed sense of joy. Claire could hear it in his voice and see it on his face. He stopped drinking (Claire later found out that her friend had confronted Sean about it earlier) and eventually his grades improved.
Claire admitted to me that she wished she had reached out for help right after her husband died rather than waiting two years. I reminded her that she was doing the best she could and besides, she might not have been ready for help at the time. Trying to be both mother and father might have been her way of coping with her grief at the beginning of her life as a single mom. What advice would she give other mothers, I asked her one day. “That’s easy,” she replied. “Single mothers need to realize two things. First, help is around you, and second, boys need men. It’s hard to admit that we single mothers can’t be everything to our sons, as much as we’d like to be. So we need to swallow hard and ask a good man in our lives to help with our sons—even if it just means spending an hour or so a week with them. It changed Sean’s life and I know it would help other boys, too.”
So if you’ve hit an abnormally difficult time with your son, particularly during puberty and his teenage years, just remember the things we have discussed. First, your son—who appears to hate you now— needs to know that you love him, even in the middle of horrific fights. Second, hang on. If you take the high road with your son and stick to your guns in doing what is good and right, he will come around. I have known mothers whose sons have run away and lived on the streets. I have watched mothers with these “prodigal sons” stay on their knees in prayer year after year. Those whose sons return are the ones who consistently reached out (even when the sons were homeless) just to tell them that they love them. As hard as it is, it is important to continue to express love, however you can, regardless of the hardship you and your son face. Remember that in a son’s eyes, a mother is always the one who will continue to love him, even when everyone in the rest of his world gives up. Sons long to return to the love of their mothers, I believe, because in their formative years, they bond to us with a love that is based on need that never leaves. It changes, but it never leaves. I believe that this connection between love and need is the very force that pulls our children back to us when disaster strikes.