“What about sons?” That was the question I was asked by both men and women (who were asking about their husbands) after I posted my last blog about the common wounds daughters of unloving mothers suffer. “ You’re writing about me!” one man emailed, while another commented: “I see myself fitting into avoidant attachment and I’m a guy.” An old friend, an only child and the son of a smothering and enmeshed mother, wrote, “Well, I suppose if one has a remote father and a mother who clucks and coos over one’s every fever, chill, triumph, or disappointment, one doesn’t quite know what to make of the world and one’s place in it.”
The question “what about sons” forced me to confront my own myopia, caused perhaps by writing two books about mothers and daughters (and none about sons), by being a daughter and the mother of an only daughter, and the fact that my own mean and unloving mother was able to be at least adequately loving to a son. (My personal observations were echoed by other daughters I’ve interviewed who noted that their mothers’ feelings of competition, criticality, and envy were absent when a son was involved.)
As a culture, we tend to look at the mother’s influence on the daughter and the father’s effect on the son, thinking that each provides the mirror to either the feminine or masculine self. Historically, socially, and anecdotally, we see potential conflict as being between sons and their fathers —the youthful interloper and the paterfamilias — beginning with Oedipus, with a special thank you to Sigmund Freud, and running through Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, among other works, as well as countless movies including Big Fish. When a man tells a woman his life story, he’ll more than likely start by telling you about his father.
But, on reflection, is that because the myths of motherhood —that pastel-colored, gauzy notion that all women are instinctively loving and nurturing— muzzle sons even more effectively than daughters? As counterintuitive as it sounds, might it be even harder for a son to acknowledge the pain he’s suffered at the hands of an unloving mother? If a daughter is labeled an “ingrate,” “crazy” or even worse for calling her mother unloving, what might a son be called? Does criticizing your mother or even admitting the emotional pain you’ve suffered fit within the narrow definitions of masculine behavior the culture espouses? The answer is probably “not.”
Does the legacy of an unloving mother spill over into a man’s psyche and his ability to connect to women in ways that are unique? What happens to a man whose understanding of women is shaped by the first woman he encounters —his distant or hypercritical mother?
Insecure attachment starts at the very beginning of life but the realization of being unloved actually unfolds over time. If secure attachment is like bedrock on which a stable sense of self can be built, insecure attachment is its opposite, shifting as the child grows in understanding. A longitudinal study conducted by Grazyna Kochanska observed babies at 9, 14, 23, and 33 months and showed that children with different attachment histories showed distinctive emotional trajectories. They were tested in situations designed to elicit fear, anger, or joy. As they got older —progressing from infancy to just under three, acquiring both language and social consciousness —insecurely attached children showed “a significant increase in negative emotions or a decrease in positive emotions.” Avoidant children who, at 14 months, were the least fearful and most joyful became much more fearful as they approached their third birthday. In fact, the researchers reported that when they examined all the composite negative emotions (fear in the fear situation, anger in the anger situation, distress in the joy situation), avoidant children’s scores were the highest.
Think for a moment about how boys are socialized in this culture and taught to tamp down emotion as proof of their masculinity. William Pollack in his brilliant and illuminating book, Real Boys, describes the code of masculinity and the often unwitting role mothers play in enforcing it, a process he calls fitting boys into “the gender straitjacket.” Research shows that mothers adapt different strategies with boys than girls; as infants, boys tend to be fussier so, from the beginning, mothers aim for containment of emotion, rather than permitting expression of feelings as they do with girls. Instead of mirroring their sons’ negative states, mothers tend to ignore these emotions. Please keep in mind that these are loving and caring mothers who have bought into the code of masculinity—not unloving or distant mothers. Dr. Pollack writes that, “By suppressing their sons’ vigorous expression of spontaneous vulnerable feelings, mothers give boys the subliminal message that it is dangerous or shameful to manifest such feelings and that these feelings do not have an important place within their mother-son relationship.”
Think about how confusing it must be for a man in this culture to assess a mother’s lovingness. When she scolds him at five or six for being a “crybaby,” is she being unattuned, cruel, or just enforcing the masculine code? As hard as it is for daughters to push through the self-blame (“It must be my fault somehow that my mom doesn’t love me”) and the lack of support she’s likely to find (“Your mom was just trying to make you a better person by being critical”), might it even be harder for a son who has to own up to a decidedly “unmasculine” hurt? The Boy Code and the Myths of Motherhood together make for an especially toxic and crippling mix. Keep in mind that, as Dr. Pollack notes, the one emotion the Boy Code permits is anger.
And while sons share those seven common wounds as a result of insecure attachment—a lack of confidence, a lack of trust, trouble setting boundaries, difficulty seeing the self accurately, avoiding connection, overreacting, and replicating the bond in other relationships —there are other lasting effects which appear to be gender specific. Numerous studies, including a meta-analysis by R.P. Fearon and others showed that insecure attachment in boys is definitely linked to externalizing behavior —aggression, hostility, and acting out in social settings —which it isn’t in girls. No one knows precisely why this is so gender specific; it may simply be that girls internalize these emotions more effectively or engage in less obvious forms of hostility like relational aggression. All of this makes perfect sense since anger in men is culturally acceptable, if often unproductive and sometimes self-destructive.
Sons clearly suffer as much as daughters do and, in some way, perhaps even more deeply because they tend to suffer alone and in silence. I ask Dr. Karyl McBride, an expert in maternal narcissism and a blogger on this site, who notes that, “The men I have seen clinically have all the same issues as the daughters do. The internal banners are the same. Men are less likely to seek therapy, of course, but those that do are suffering the same effects.”
So, if you are a son of an unloving mother, perhaps the gift you should give this Mother’s Day is one you give yourself. Take a deep breath and begin the journey of healing. No matter what the culture says, acknowledging the pain will make you a better, stronger man, lover, husband, friend, and father.
Copyright 2013 Peg Streep
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Pollack, William. Real Boys:Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.
Fivush. R. (1989) “Exploring Sex Differences in the Emotional Context of Mother-Child Conversations about the Past.” Sex Roles, 20. 675-91.
Kochanska, Graxyna. (2001). “Emotional Development in Children with Different Attachment Histories: The First Three Years.” Child Development, 72 (2), 474-490.
Fearon RP, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van Ijzendoorn MH, Lapsley AM, Roisman GI. (2010) “ The significance of insecure attachment and disorganization in the development of children's externalizing behavior: a meta-analytic study.” Child Development,.1(2):435-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01405.x.