Beneath the ethereal joy a mother feels at the first sight of her son, lies a nugget-sized ache wrapped in fear. Her infant son needs her. She loves him unconditionally. But she also feels the ache of knowing that he will grow into a man and leave, and one day belong to another. The juxtaposition of elation and fear is different for many mothers than the joy and fear they feel when a daughter is born.
She knows from the moment her son belts out his first wail that she exists to love him. She is needed because he needs her. He needs the nourishment, the security, and the love that she provides which will not only keep him alive; but also keep her knowing that she is needed. So she will protect, adore, and nurture this tiny boy until he becomes a man and then, the ache will feel overwhelming. As a man he will leave, and life as a mother will never be the same for her. She will continue to love her son, but the connection will be reworked. Not because she has changed but because one day, he will belong to another.
This knowledge did not exist before his birth. But it presents itself the moment his mother sees him and as her maternal instinct draws her very close to her son. That is the way mother-son relationships are meant to be. From the moment she clings, she prepares herself ever so slowly for the eventual release.
This tension doesn’t exist with the birth of a daughter. A daughter can stay connected with her mother forever; mothers and daughters have genetic, hormonal, and psychological bonds that cannot be broken. She can become another’s, but her mother can still keep her. They are female together in that bond, and they can stay connected even while life changes the circumstances around them. But the tie a mother feels with her son is more fragile, more tenuous; he is different because he’s a man. But for as long as he is a child, he is ours and we feel we must protect him.
There is another difference mothers experience with sons which they don’t with daughters. Because he is XY and she is XX, they are disconnected. His maleness is separate from her femaleness and as much as she would want it otherwise, he is distanced. He has a different mind. He will have different physical sensations—different worries and ideas. Will she be able to understand? Intuitively she knows that in order to protect him and bond with him she must graft him onto her like a branch of a grapevine onto a hearty root. At birth, the grafting begins, and a mother’s instincts on behalf of her son begin to mound and become bolder and clearer as her son grows.
What about adoptive mothers? Do their instincts erupt in the same manner? Absolutely. Whether through pregnancy or not, the grafting begins equally regardless of biological status. When it comes to nurturing our young, the kindest mother can turn beast on a dime.