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The Contradictions of Mothering Sons

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

They say boys take longer to mature than girls, and in a number of ways, that’s very true. Girls, from a young age, seem to anticipate their future as a woman. When boys are young, they seem to be less fixated on their future and more able to enjoy the moments of childhood. But one of the pressing issues that all boys will face one day is that they will need to learn how to be a man. When they are young, they don’t consciously pay attention to this. But as they grow older, their awareness that this transition must take place swells. And as it grows, so too does a mom’s fear that the process may not go well.

When boys hit their preadolescence years, they begin to sense that manhood is around the corner. As I said, girls seem to start moving toward womanhood at a younger age, and more gradually than boys, who mature in spurts. But while, as women, our transition into becoming adults was probably smoother, we can still understand what our boys are going through. What is more difficult for us to understand is a boy’s concern that we are going to impede the process. Here is the real rub: A son needs a man to help him navigate the transition. Boys are visual creatures. They need to see what a man looks like, speaks like, and behaves like in order to mimic that behavior and internalize it.

This is very important for mothers to understand—especially single mothers. Often sons who live with only their mothers don’t have the opportunity to spend time with men they look up to and there- fore don’t observe healthy masculine traits to mimic and internalize. So it is especially important for single moms to ask a grandfather, uncle, coach, pastor, or friend to spend a little time with their sons. Hard as they try, single mothers can’t be both mom and dad. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that mothers should relieve themselves of the pressure that they put on themselves to be everything to their sons and just focus on being really terrific moms. The challenge for single moms is to recruit a good man or two to spend time with their sons in order to show them how great men behave.

So where, we mothers wonder, do we fit into this process? Or do we? That is the question that every son grapples with as well. An eleven-year-old boy comes home from school and tells his mother about his day. How gym went, what he got on his science test. Maybe he cries or complains because his teacher is terrible or someone in his class made fun of him. He has a problem, and so he unloads his troubles on his mother. This is a more natural occurrence with mothers than it is with fathers, in general, because women tend to display their empathy more easily than men. And, many of us coddle our sons. This isn’t all bad. As a matter of fact, this can be good—up to a certain age—because there comes a point in every boy’s development where he needs to emotionally pull away from his mother and stand on his own two feet. In other words, we mothers need to learn when it is appropriate to coddle and when it isn’t.

Since mothers tend to allow sons to express a broader range of feelings than fathers do, sons develop a deep level of comfort with their mothers. They don’t have the sense that they need to automatically “man up” when they are with them. In fact, until he is about ten or eleven, life for a boy is often all about his mother. And then the tide changes. When he enters preadolescence, he suddenly— dramatically—gets a glimpse of his future as a man. And he may start to wonder how his emotional comfort with his mother fits into his emerging manhood. He begins to question whether it’s manly to be so close to his mother. The answer can be elusive, and sons can find their confusion disturbing.

From a son’s perspective, his feelings for his mother can be fairly messy stuff—even if we’ve tried to do everything right. We mothers must understand that every son feels this internal conflict as he enters the teen years. In addition to physically maturing, trying to figure out who he is becoming, and enduring emotional shifts that hormonal changes bring, he struggles with his feelings toward his mother. He wants to stay close, but something inside him is pulling away from her. These changes are all part of the process of becoming a man. Once we understand this, life becomes easier for us because we won’t take their changing behavior so personally.

Excerpt taken from Strong Mothers, Strong Sons

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