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Sons and Mothers

Things may change, but underneath they stay the same.

A 5-year-old boy is playing on the swings, watched over by his mother. “Look at me, Mum! Look what I can do!”

A 15-year-old boy brings home his school report. “There!” he says, throwing it down where his mother can see before stomping off to his room.

Things change. It gets harder for sons to trust their mothers—not necessarily because of anything their mothers have done wrong but because what sons feel about their mothers gets more complicated. “She never understands about school or friends or anything like that! She still thinks I’m about 5 years old!” Even sitting next to her feels weird sometimes and as for the thought of her being in bed with someone else! Sons insist that they don’t need their mothers any more (“Honestly, I don’t!”) but they know this makes their mothers unhappy and they feel guilty about that. So they storm out and slam the door.

Developmentally, most boys start separating from their mothers at an early age, identifying more readily with their fathers. They’re encouraged in this by a culture that rewards them for being brave and independent while despising them for being clingy and fond. Boys find themselves out on their own, exposed, expected to need no one yet secretly longing to be re-connected with that original maternal love.

For a teenage boy to be emotionally reunited with his mother, able to receive her love without shame, his warrior credentials must first be acknowledged: all the ways in which he’s fended for himself, dealing so bravely with the world, needing no one to help him.

“You’ve done well, Blake,” I say to him as his counselor, “surviving on your own since your dad left, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you. And I think that now, like a lot of strong men, you’ve reached a point where you’re strong enough to ask for help and honest enough to know that you want more from life. Not just popularity and sex but people who’ll appreciate that there’s more to you than just your fearlessness ..."

He looks pleased.

“People who’ll appreciate that you’re also a loyal person who feels things deep down that they don’t even know about. They might think they know you, but my guess is that they don’t. And trusting people to know things about you is bound to be hard after all that’s happened.”

He nods in agreement and we’ve made a start; we’ve found a way of acknowledging his need without embarrassing or humiliating him.

Things change on the surface but underneath—secretly—they stay the same. Sons still want their mothers to think they’re great. They still want their mothers to be impressed with their cleverness and bravery. It still feels brilliant when their mothers stick up for them against their fathers and they still remember the old days—being off school sick and watching TV wrapped in a duvet on the sofa with her bringing food and hot drinks. “I wouldn’t mind if she did that nowadays, but she doesn’t know what I like any more, so it gets a bit embarrassing!”

A 15-year-old boy is talking about his mother. “She’s always coming into my room and having a go at me! We hardly talk anymore. But don’t get me wrong: if anyone laid a finger on her, I’d kill them!”

A 5-year-old boy is talking about his mother. “I want to marry my mum!"