The reality of a mother’s love is that it sometimes comes out sideways. Mothers are often tired, manipulated, and they make mistakes. They scream when they mean to apologize. They feel guilty that they have to work rather than stay at home with their children. They worry about all the things that can go wrong.
But there’s an easy way to take some of the pressure off—and that is to allow both you and your son more time to relax. Some of the most important moments of being a parent consist of just being there for your kids and sharing the most mundane aspects of life with them.
Mothers who spend too much time with other mothers often compare notes and feel they are doing too little. But motherhood isn’t a competition. It is a state of being. Twenty-first-century, post-modern mothers site many reasons as to why they are anxious.
Peer pressure heads the list of influences operating in a mother’s life which dramatically alters how she raises her son. Peer pressure usually has a very negative affect on sons because it rarely causes the mother to make better decisions for her son. It acts against her own instincts and is therefore usually detrimental to the son.
Mothers ungulate ceaselessly about their concerns over the peer pressure their son experiences. But peer pressure that parents feel affects a boy more significantly than the peer pressure he feels from his contemporaries. Usually the mother is influenced more heavily by peer pressure simply because most women spend more time with other mothers than fathers do with other fathers.
Consider the number of scheduled activities boys have. Why does Johnny go to piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time? Because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two to three extra-curricular activities. Mothers want their sons to be similar enough to other boys so that they will be accepted among their peers. This is a healthy desire. But if it leads to enrolling Johnny in piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two or three extra-curricular activities, then it’s not. The problem is, two to three scheduled events stress some sons unduly. We know that sons who have healthy relationships with their parents fare much better life. Your sons don’t need more activities that separate them from you, they need more time with you. And guess what? A night spent reading at home with your sons is a night that’s a lot less stressful for you and them than a night spent running between this practice and that recital. Further, it decreases the amount of time a son spends with his mother and father and we know that sons who have healthy relationships with parents fare much better in life. But we sign them up anyway.
The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet—but prescriptions for anti-depressants and anxiolytics have soared over the past five years. Why? It’s because mothers and fathers are stressed by the demands on them—the demands of work, family, and keeping up with the Joneses. And much of these demands come from trying to get to work on time, to make enough money to pay for the shoes, lessons, and tuition for our sons that other boys have. But you don’t need to keep up with the Joneses. You only need to keep a roof over your head and raise mentally and physically healthy children. You’d be better off going for family walks together than working harder to make extra money to pay for more activities for the kids.
Peer pressure perpetuates a mother’s stress to be all and do all for her son in order for him to grow up and be happy. But many times—most times in fact—a son cannot be happy in a home where there is so much stress created because his mother feels an obligation to perform well or at least better than many of the friends that she sees around her.
When Caroline came to my office with her six-month-old boys, I knew the visit would be long: her mother was in tow. I entered the examination room to see her twin boys, Caleb and Connor, sitting on a blanket in on the middle of the exam room floor. Caroline looked tired; her shoulders sagged. I noticed that her shoulders had lost their squareness as she leaned over to give a Cheerio to Caleb. Clearly she had dressed up for her appointment, and wore heavy makeup, as if to disguise her fatigue. She had concealer caked on her eyes and pale tangerine lipstick covering her lips. As we chatted, I noticed movement only on the right side of her mouth. The left eyelid and the left side of her mouth were drooping. There was a crack in her voice. She cleared her throat to conceal it. She wanted to show me, and her mother, that she was doing extraordinarily well. But I recognized the symptoms and realized that Caroline had developed Bell’s Palsy.
As I asked pertinent questions about the boys’ development, eating habits, and sleep patterns, her answers were encouraging but abbreviated. When I started to place the twins on my exam table, she quickly stood to help. While I examined Caleb, she played with Connor while consoling his brother. When I switched to Connor, she continued to concentrate on the two at once.
Her mother sat patiently on the plastic chair beside hers, but I sensed from the moment I entered the room that she was anxious to speak. Realizing that the visit was coming to a close, Caroline’s mother blurted out, “Dr. Meeker, I’m terribly worried about Caroline.”
“Mother, stop. Please don’t.” Caroline interrupted.
“No, no, this is important. I think we need her opinion,” her mother persisted. Caroline complied.
“What are your concerns?” I asked, looking at the mother.
“Dr, Meeker, I’m worried about Caroline’s health. You can probably see she has developed Bell’s Palsy. Her doctor gave her some type of steroid medicine for that and she cries a lot. Her doctor also said that she is depressed, so he gave her another medicine for that. She started it a few months ago but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s working or not because she is exhausted all the time. You see, she hardly sleeps. One of the boys is awake every couple of hours wanting to eat. Since she insists on nursing them, she won’t let me help. I can’t give them a bottle and she won’t feed them back-to-back. She lets them eat whenever they want to.” Caroline’s mother paused long enough for Caroline to interrupt her.
“Mother, you just don’t understand,” she said. “Things are different today. Breast milk is best for the boys and they need it—everything I read about nursing says that they should eat on demand. You didn’t feed me that way in your day.”
Caroline’s efforts valiantly attempted to insist that she was right but beneath her words I could hear that she wanted to be convinced otherwise.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me get this straight, Caroline. You nurse the boys whenever they want to nurse, you are taking steroids because half of your face can’t move, and you are suffering from depression, for which you take medication every day.”
“Right.” she complied.
“I can see that you feel confused, exhausted, and guilty. That’s the way any normal mother in your situation would feel.” I waited.
“Yeah,” she nodded reluctantly.
“Do you think the boys need a happy mother or do they need breast milk more?” I asked.
She seemed surprised by the question. “Breast milk. It boosts their immune system, it wards off infections; there are antibodies in breast milk that they can’t get any other way. And it helps me bond better with them. I’ve read that babies find breast milk emotionally gratifying. How can I not give that to them?”
Like any enthusiastic, loving mother, Caroline had scoured the Internet for information on nursing and had found volumes. Most of what she had read was correct, but some was false. But more important, she had completely lost her balance.
Her instincts told her that she needed more sleep, the drugs (which would be present in the breast and the milk) weren’t good for her babies, and the four of them (she rarely thought of her husband’s opinion) would be healthier and happier if she stopped nursing.
So why didn’t she? Peer pressure. Most mothers feel extraordinary pressure from friends, doctors, and baby books to nurse as long as possible. Certainly I advocate this but I encourage more maternal intuition and common sense.
After a long discussion I tried to convince her that the boys needed a less sleep-deprived mother more than they did breast milk. I encouraged her to wean the boys, start them on formula in a bottle, let someone else help her (heaven forbid their father gets a little bonding time while feeding them), and get some sleep.
She shook her head. I explained the seriousness of post-partum depression and the role that elevated oxytocin, which is associated with breastfeeding, played in the depression. I discussed the potential impact of her depression on the boys.
She dug her heels in. Without words she told me she would sacrifice anything, including her health (and ironically, the health and happiness of her family), for her boys. And giving up nursing was not an option. Mothers are a competitive lot and I sensed that part of Caroline wanted to be Super Mom. Her friends nursed only one child at a time. She could do two. Her mother pleaded with me to convince Caroline to show some common sense.
Realizing that I wasn’t making headway, I finally said, “Well, let me tell you. If they were my sons I wouldn’t want them to have steroids or anti-depressants in their systems for this long.” She stared at me. Her lips were tight, then they relaxed. Her shoulders straightened and she looked at her mom.
“Well, all right. I will wean them a little bit,” she said.
Sometimes mothers of sons get crazy. We just do. In our longing to make our sons psychologically sound, physically strong, and developmentally on track (usually we want them advanced) we toss common sense aside. We believe, usually errantly, that others know a better way to parent than we do. So we follow the lead of our peer group. And, I might add, parents of teenage boys are the worst at committing this travesty.
The fact is, your intuition as a mother is better than comparing yourself to other mothers. A mother needs to take a hard look at why she does what she does. Why does her son do what he does? If she recognizes honestly that her motives stem from peer pressure to keep her son ahead of the others, she must buck that peer pressure. Sons need more stress-free homes—which will dictate how they behave in school much more significantly than does the behavior of their friends.
And one lesson we should all learn is that while mothers want more for their sons, the truth is that sons need less. Boys need fewer toys and fewer clothes. They need more time with their mothers and fathers, less time in structured events, and more time being bored—yes, bored—so that they can use their imagination and creativity and figure out what to do. Young men need less time face-to-screen with electronic life and more time face-to-face with people. Less television, video games, clothes, telephone bills, sports events, and preschool hours mean less stress for mothers and more time for boys to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.
All of these things—electronics, clothes, sports events—make their way into a boy’s life because his mother (and his father) yield to life as their neighbors live it, the way they see it around them rather than the way it ought to be.