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Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

A Love Letter to Mothers of Sons

Consider this a belated Mothers' Day gift

Although mother-daughter relationships are often fraught with conflict, mothers and their adult daughters seem to have an easier time with each other than mothers and their adult sons. In a lovely sensitive book The Secret Love of Sons: How We Men Feel About Our Mothers and Why We Never Tell, journalist Nicholas Weinstock (1997) wrote about the real nature of men's relationships with their mothers. Here is the description on

In this "groundbreaking" book (New York Post), journalist Nicholas Weinstock talks candidly to men about a topic rarely discussed in depth: the real nature of their relationships with their mothers. Though men may joke about the subject--or simply avoid it--their feelings about their mothers run deep and strong, Weinstock asserts. Here, men open up, sharing their thoughts about the comforts and the conflicts, the struggles for independence, the taboos and the barriers that keep mothers and sons together or drive them apart. In the process, he provides a personal meditation on his own relationship with his mother--a moving, often humorous account that touches upon everything from early-childhood memories to adolescent hostilities to the subtle influence of his mother on his own romantic life.Weinstock felt compelled to write it when he realized he had no idea how or why he let himself drift away from his mother.

I sat next to her at family gatherings, called her on cue, even got her an occasional gift and answered one or two of her questions. Yet when it came to approaching her openly, I suffered from a paralysis that's common among young men and much more painful than it looks. In fact, the masculine mind-sets that have governed and separated me from my mom are nearly universal, and they are universally accepted with mixed feelings-- but without much thought. As I have wriggled self-consciously away from the woman who used to hold me, I have been rocked by emotions that I've kept quiet. And so, it turns out, has every other son (p.2)

He interviewed men about their relationship with their mothers and how it changed over the years and asked them whatever happened to the easy love and eager intimacy between them and their mothers that they enjoyed when they were babies and young children. This was no easy thing for men to talk about because the feelings between mothers and sons

resemble nothing else and fit neatly into no context we know. The relationship is a double-crossover, combining all the closeness and distance between men and women with all the links and gaps between parents and children. On the one hand, our mothers are our most irrelevant onlookers, since no matter what crooked and climbing paths we take in life, we will never be moms. On the other hand, mothers are our first and oldest friends, the coholders of an intimacy that will not be equaled for the rest of our lives. Being a son involves a deft sleight of hand, as he must swallow his deep attachment to his mother in order to fend for himself and thus please her. The mother of a son has job that's even more challenging: to prepare and rehearse her child for manhood, the . . . . crowded party to which she is never invited. Given the unique push and pull between sons and mothers, it's no wonder that our treatment of mothers is extreme. The most soft-spoken homebody will lash out ferociously against his mom; the very toughest guys among us turn to mush in her presence. . . . Men treat their mothers more callously and more tenderly than anyone else they know. . . . We want them off our backs and let them under our skins, but we very rarely tell them what's on our minds--even, and especially, when our thoughts dwell on our mothers themselves (pp. 5-6).

I happened to stumble upon The Secret Love of Sons at a booksale. The cover flap describes it as a love letter to mothers and a "Smart and surprising blueprint to the emotions of sons of all ages and backgrounds". As a psychotherapist deeply involved in helping people with their problems in relationships and as a published author myself, I was curious to know how the book was selling so I went to There were nine five star customer reviews, all by mothers of sons who clearly appreciated the empathic love letter. This was no surprise to me because as the mother of an adult son, I knew mothers are not likely to receive love letters from their sons, so one from Nicholas Weinstock, someone else's son, was the next best thing. It was also no surprise to me that there was not one review by a man. The book spoke eloquently to mothers of sons but was, I think, too threatening to attract sons to read it. Weinstock asks

How come the first instinct of young men--author included-- is to give their moms the silent treatment when it comes to affairs of the heart . . . Our secrecy as we date is prompted by three factors, all of them familiar, none of them discussed. We are haunted by a dark taboo that surrounds our mothers and keeps them from all things sexual; we are swept up in the love of our own independence, determined above all to cement our autonomy; and we are bothered by a false fable that our mothers seem willing to heed: the incorrect assumption that that they are soon to be replaced. Through these three vehicles, culture and myth combine to keep young men tight-lipped when it comes to speaking with our mothers about love (pp. 144-145).

My son is married and the father of three young children. When he went away to college he dated but never really spoke about anyone he dated. This was private and I got the message not to ask. He was home from college on a winter break when one night, in the middle of the night I got up to use the bathroom. On the way back I was startled to hear him call out to me and especially startled by the anxiety in his voice. I entered his room and he began telling me about a girl at college he was involved with. He was afraid that she might break up with him. It was cold and I told him I wanted to get my bathrobe. I got my robe and sat down on the side of the bed and we talked for around fifteen minutes. He calmed down. The next day there was no mention of this at all. It was as if it had never happened. There has never been any mention of it. I think that the only reason it happened at all was because he was so overwhelmed with anxiety that it had to be released. After graduation he called home with some regularity to talk with me and my husband, always about matters unrelated to his relationships with young women. He knew what was better to talk with his father about and what was something I could be helpful with, which continues to this day. Then he called seemingly out of the blue to tell us he was engaged. He wanted to talk about engagement rings, about how to select one, where to buy one. We had heard just a little about this young woman and now, here he was, engaged to be married.

This phone call brought me back to a hot August afternoon many years before. I was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner while he was in the downstairs bathroom sitting on the potty chair. He was proud of what he had made and wanted to save it to show to his Daddy when he got home from work. That would be several hours later, long enough to develop quite a smell. But I knew it was important to him so I let him save it.Then he called out to me. “Mommy, when I get to be a big man, I am going to marry you!” I was stunned. My heart lurched. I knew this was a sacred moment and I didn’t want to blow it. Wanting to let him down as gently as I could, I thought for a moment, then told him that when he gets to be a big man, I will be an old lady. He did not care. What do I tell him now, I wondered. I told him I was already married to his Daddy. He didn’t care about that either. It was o.k. with him for me to be married to both of them. So I told him that it's not o.k. with the law, that you're not allowed to marry more than one person, but when he gets to be a big man, he could find a nice lady that he could marry. He got very quiet, was very disappointed but a week or two later, after he had apparently been thinking about this, he asked me if, when he gets to be a big man, I can drive him around town, and slow the car down when we see a nice lady walking in the street so that he can get a good look at her hand and see if she is wearing a wedding ring. He, of course, would not want to remember this story but it is one that remains precious to me. I recalled it at his wedding as he stood at the altar. He had found his nice lady to marry and like the independent person he was, he had not needed my help to do it.

Although I was very happy for him, I did feel replaced. I had been the love of his life from the time I gave birth to him. When he was in high school, I remember going into town at the time of the high school lunch hour when I spotted him amidst a bunch of friends across the street. I called his name to say hi. I saw him mutter something to his friends, who all burst out laughing. I had become a laughing stock. It hurt. I had been the love of his life, something he cannot remember and does not want to know about, and then became the butt of his jokes.

I knew before he was born that I wanted to nurse him, for the usual health reasons-- protection from certain illnesses, allergies, ear infections. Even though he was no longer in my body, the next best thing was that he could be a part of me through nursing. When the nurse brought him to me and placed him on my chest, I asked anxiously “What do I do?” “Oh, I think you’ll figure it out” she said and walked out of the room. I held him and drew him to my nipple. This little creature began snorting like a little animal and latched onto my nipple as if he knew it was created especially for him. These breasts, which had only been decorative for the purpose of attracting men, suddenly became so extraordinarily functional! I was fortunate that I had none of the problems in nursing that so many other new mothers speak of. I am so thankful for that because it was the nursing that was magic. Accustomed to using the power of my mind, it was a revelation that I could feed him with my own body and nothing else; he needed me so much. I felt whole. I wasn't using my mind; I was using my body. I looked forward to the let-down reflex, not only because it indicated that in a moment, my breast would be relieved of the pain of being engorged, but it was the signal that I was releasing the milk that enabled him to live and thrive. He sucked and sucked, looked at me, smiled; I smiled back. Then the rooting and snorting to get back to business and get that nipple back in his mouth. We fit together perfectly, like pieces of a puzzle. We were made for each other. We played. I loved it. So did he. Breast feeding ended when he was almost eight months old. I did not wean him; it would be more correct to say that he weaned me. I had already introduced solid food and he simply let me know that he was done, finished. It was a sad day for me but the sadness did not last long. I took such pleasure in his growth and development and knew that I was the love of his life (Farber in press).

He certainly would not want to know about this. There are not many sons who would. Having once been inside his mother's body, then so intimately entwined with hers, is all the more reason for a man to keep his mother at arm's length. Now when I see my son, which is fairly frequent because I am fortunate enough to have him and his family nearby, he is a little more comfortable with my giving him a hug or kiss when I see him, a bit more than he used to be. There's that old barbershop quartet song " I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad". On the surface, my daughter-in-law and I could not be more different. But I do not think it is such a coincidence that she, like me, is not so great in cooking and coordinating meals. Although she is not a psychotherapist, she is in one of the helping professions. So perhaps he did marry a girl "just like the girl who married dear old Dad." But it is disguised. Sons definitely do not want to know about it.