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Mothers & Sons

by Joan M. Ellis, M.A., LPC, LCDC

“It’s a boy!”  I was so excited, but I would have had the same excitement had this first child been a girl.  The joy of being a first time mother carried me through for several years.  Then, uh oh, how do I raise this boy?  I am a woman, what do I know about being a boy?  If I teach him to be kind and sensitive, will he be a sissy?  Will he be a mama’s boy, if I love on him too much?  This is an issue for many mothers raising sons.  In my unsophisticated state at 26, I was happy to just abdicate the “boy” part to my husband. 

How do mothers raise emotionally healthy, sensitive sons?  Some psychological theories say this is done through the boy’s “separation” from his mother.   That we must “cut those apron strings.”  But in fact, this leaves boys and men without models of relating, that may render them a life of unsuccessful relationships and loneliness.

Women are the gatekeepers of relationships and mothers unconsciously take the responsibility for the family’s harmony.    As a therapist, I have seen so many women and mothers come to me with concerns about their families and the way members are relating and getting along.  Women tell me that men just “don’t get it” about their need to be held, their need to talk, their need to “connect.”  Women want men to share their insides with them; this is the most important form of intimacy for women.  They feel a deep sense of frustration, emptiness and loneliness when their man cannot or will not do so.

What does this have to do with mothers and sons?  It is in the connection of mothers and sons that sons learn to navigate relationships through their teens and into adulthood.  I have heard many women say that they look for a man who has a good relationship with his mother.   The belief here is that if a son has a healthy connection with his mother, he will have a healthier relationship with all the women in his life, including his own daughters.

Recently, one of my sons shared the dilemma he experienced in an argument with his girlfriend.  He wanted to discuss with her a disconnection they had the previous day so he could stay close to her and not build resentment.  She criticized him for being too complicated.  “That was yesterday, just put that behind you.  It’s over, this is a new day.”  I commended him for wanting to do what was necessary to stay in connection with her. Because we have spent so much time in his 20 years discussing relationships, he was affirmed by me and knew that she was lacking in relationship skills.  (Perhaps he will be successful in teaching her.)

A friend of mine, who has raised two sons, says it was important to instill in her sons an appreciation of nature and beauty and faith in a creator.  She hopes she has given them a deep understanding and appreciation of women.  She stayed in connection with her sons no matter what might be happening in the family.  It was likewise important to teach them to take care of themselves, not leaving cooking, laundry and appointment making to the realm of “women’s work.”  She taught them manners and to write thank you notes.  Today I am touched by the sincerity and loveliness in the notes I have received from these sons.

Another friend has raised three sons and shared that she wasn’t at all sure how to raise boys.  She had no brothers to model “boyness” for her.  She quickly learned that her sons liked lots of activities – not sitting around talking.  She adapted and spent many hours doing boy things with her husband and sons.  What she says she missed was the talking and shopping that some mothers and daughters are known to do.  She would also have enjoyed reading and discussing books.  Today, she enjoys a close relationship with all of her sons, but realizes that the activities are limited, usually to meal-sharing and family gatherings.  She is aware that girls often stay tied to their mothers, while boys move on to their new families in adult life.

Another woman shared with me how she affirms the “ rock and flower” gifts given by her three-year-old son.  When this same son was so intent in making fun of his older sister and generally making bedtime a miserable scene, this young mother told her son a story.  It had something to do with her being young and how she was mean to her mother, when she really wanted a hug.  After a short silence, this precious boy asked for a hug and quit his meanness. 

I am reminded of a magic moment I shared with one of my sons when he was 9.  We were on an adventure walk and I will never forget the depth I saw in his eyes when he presented a beautiful wildflower to me.  Could he have done that if his friend had been with him?

The common thread in all these stories is how the mothers worked to be and stay in connection with their sons.  What must mothers teach their sons about relationships?  Mothers can teach sons, by example, to move toward connections in relationships, after experiencing the distance that is caused by conflict.  Moving toward connection after a disconnection can teach us more about each other, if we are willing to learn. I personally have had some very tough moments of “eating crow” when confronted by my sons about my behavior.  But I experienced with them the joy of working out our conflict while staying in connection.  We all grew as a result of those experiences.

Creating time for a daily chat is a simple way to keep communication open. This can be a time for discussion of feelings as well as affirmation and validation of our sons’ experiences.  If this is started early, it will be a habit and expected.  The appropriate sharing of a mother’s own feelings can teach sons about women.  Naming feelings and expressing compassion for hurt feelings builds self-esteem.  There is no need to feel shame about our hurts or, worse, deny that painful feelings exist.  Mothers must become involved in their sons’ interests and react authentically to what they see and experience.  These interactions create many meaningful conversations and opportunities to share the differences in points of view.  Sons can indeed become sensitive and caring without becoming sissies.

Mothers, enjoy the richness, adventure, warmth and excitement of raising your son!