What A Mother Can Offer Her Son

Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum
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From the March/April 1994 issue

THE DEBATES AND COLLECTIVE SOUL-SEARCHING THAT accompanied family therapists’ discovery of the psychological significance of gender have transformed the field’s conception of the family. What began 15 years ago as an examination of the unacknowledged power inequities between husbands and wives has grown into a more encompassing description of family relationships.

Today, the audience for our reexamination of the family extends beyond our small professional community. Recently, two outspoken veterans of family therapy’s gender debates have written provocative books addressing a wider general readership. What follows are excerpts from these books that offer contrasting visions of the gender politics and emotional crosscurrents in one of the most perplexing family relationships the mother-son bond.

THERE IS A FAIRLY BROAD CONSENSUS IN THE therapeutic and analytic communities about the major developmental tasks confronting the male adolescent: he is to establish a firm, unambiguous sense of his own sexuality, and he is to prepare for the final separation from his parents, most particularly his mother. The latter task is of course related to the former, for the belief is that a satisfactory masculine sexual identity can only be fully achieved through that separation. Mother’s “task” is, more than ever, to get out of the way; she usually complies, however ambivalently, for adolescence is such a vivid signal of her son’s incipient manhood that the taboo against closeness takes on new force.

Thus, as a boy enters adolescence at about age 12 or 13 and begins going through its physical changes, even a woman who has until then resisted her husband’s warnings and ignored the dictates of the culture is likely to pull back from her son, out of a newly aroused concern for his masculinity. Not wanting him to be “soft” or “effeminate,” she will now begin to guard against any kind of emotional expressiveness between herself and her son. Moreover, since one of the worst accusations that can be leveled against a mother in our Freudianized age is that she is “seductive,” evidence of her son’s burgeoning sexuality may cause her to be equally wary of any physical demonstrations of affection, lest she arouse his sexual feelings or her own (despite the fact that mother-son incest, and never more so than at this age.) As a friend of mine put it, describing the uneasiness she began to feel in the presence of her teenage son, “When they put that sweet little boy into my arms 15 years ago it never occurred to me that one day this big strange man would be walking around my house in his underwear.”

The fear of “contaminating” her adolescent son with her own femininity, of compromising (or, alternatively, exciting) his sexuality, can cause a mother to effect a very abrupt


withdrawal. Indeed, it is sometimes so abrupt that it is experienced by the boy as abandonment, especially if there is some specific event that alarms the parents and thereby convinces the mother that she has been harming her son by her continuing closeness to him. At this stage of life, any kind of deviation from peer behavior can set the process in motion, whether it’s something as significant as an admission of homosexuality or as trivial as a refusal to go away to camp

or take part in a class excursion. If a girl didn’t want to go on a class trip, most parents wouldn’t make much of it; if a male child doesn’t feel ready to leave home and go off with his peers for a

few days or weeks, the parents think they have a big problem on their hands and are almost certain to make matters worse by their panicked reaction.

However they handle the immediate situation, you may be sure that the mother will feel that she is to blame. And any time a mother becomes convinced that what she is doing is harming her child, she will try to stop doing it. Hence her withdrawal from him, which can be very painful.

Not that the boy will express his loss, or even necessarily understand that loss is what he’s feeling. This is an absolutely taboo subject among boys; even the most “deviant” knows that he may not engage in a discussion of his feelings about his mother with any of his peers. But it does sometimes get articulated in therapy, if the questions are posed carefully enough.

“Why are you so reluctant to go to camp?” I’ll ask.


“Do you think you’ll get homesick?”


“Do you think something bad might happen to you there?”


“Is there anyone whom you can talk to about this problem?”


“What about your dad?”

“He wouldn’t understand.”

“Your mom?” Long silence. “Why not talk to your mom?”

“She never listens to anything I say anymore.”

“But you said you used to be very close. Why did that change?”

“I don’t know.” Sudden welling up of tears in the eyes of both mother and son lets me know I’ve hit home.

“When did your mom stop listening?”

“When my dad said I was getting to be a mama’s boy and that I had to go to camp this summer.”

The suffering caused by this estrangement is often enormous, for both mother and son, and it occurs, to varying degrees, in almost all families with adolescent boys. For the child, it’s particularly painful, since adolescence is probably the most emotionally vulnerable of all the stages of life. Flooded with confusion about the changes occurring in his body, uncertain whether he’ll ever be worthy to take his place among the men of his society, anxious about whether he’ll ever be able to attract a member of the opposite sex, swimming in emotions he thinks he’s not supposed to be having, he can only interpret his mother’s withdrawal as a lack of love, or disapproval of the sexual feelings he’s sure she has

guessed at, or even physical revulsion-boys that age are often obsessed with their cracking voices, their bad skin, their body odors. (“Stinko” and the like are common nicknames they give one another.)

And the inner drama is only half of what’s going on with him. Having spent the last several years free to alternate between his different selves, reverting to little-boyhood when it suited him to do so within the privacy of his own home and the safe embrace of his mother’s arms, then strutting his stuff in the schoolyard, he’s now faced with making an irrevocable exit into the public, male world. The Jews mark this time with the Bar Mitzvah at age 13, after which the boy leaves the upstairs gallery of the synagogue, where once he had sat with all the women and children, to join the men downstairs. Other groups in our society do not have formal rituals to signify this stage in a boy’s development, but their expectations are equally clear, the pressure they put on the boy equally strong.

Now is the time he must prove he’s a man. Everyone is expecting him to, including his formerly indulgent mother.

Not only does his mother withdraw from him, she may even defer to him at this stage, which can be just as upsetting. Out of fear of emasculating him a boy shouldn’t take orders from women, after all, especially a boy on the cusp of manhood she turns him over to his father for discipline: “Your father will deal with you when he gets home” are words more likely to be spoken at this stage than at any earlier time. If there is no father, or the father won’t play the expected role, she may either let her son run wild out of a reluctance to exercise authority over him (“It’s hard for him to take direction from women,” she’ll explain with barely concealed pride. “He’s too independent.”) or go in search of some other male who can step in and be the “father figure” she thinks he needs. She may also “dumb out” asking him for help with mechanical things even if she’s perfectly capable of dealing with them, telling his younger brother to go to him for help in dealing with the other kids at school, conveying in a multitude of ways that she believes herself to be weak and incompetent because she’s a woman but sees him as big and strong and able because he’s a man.

Often, the result is an escalation: the more a boy’s parents expect of him, and the prouder they are of his accomplishments, the more he may try to prove himself, holding himself to ever higher, more unrealistic standards. Alternatively, if he can’t or doesn’t want to live up to their expectations, he may attempt to prove his masculinity in destructive ways sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, school failure, even violence.

By age 14 or 15, a boy doesn’t just want to prove he’s a man, he wants to show he’s Superman. He’s strong, he’s tough, he’s wild, he’s reckless. Or if he’s not, he may identify very strongly with an athlete or rock star or some other cultural icon who can act out all that stuff for him. Perhaps he’ll form his own garage band, a wonderfully efficient way for an adolescent to rebel without doing anything much worse than perpetrating a lot of dreadful noise on his parents and neighbors. Or perhaps he’ll work at bodybuilding, drive too fast, do drugs, brag about his sexual exploits (real or imaginary), get into fistfights with other boys or worse.

Power and status become all-important

to him, however power and status are achieved in his particular socioeconomic group. Affluent, well-educated families tend to value scholarship, if only as a ticket to professional success, so for them the highest form of achievement is to get accepted at a good college. Having already had to compete to get into a good prep school, the boys start working toward this next goal in their early teens. Families who live in crime-ridden, impoverished areas, with little access to the education and skills they would need for social mobility, are likely to value physical rather than intellectual aggression, and their boys may aspire to glory in the sports arena, the battlefield or the streets. Boys from blue-collar, lower-middle-class families are likely to earn their manhood through the physical strength required to run heavy machinery or work on a construction site. All this is an oversimplification, of course, but the underlying notion that boys from all ethnic and economic groups are pressured to compete, be aggressive, gain status and power, and do it at the expense of those against whom they are competing holds true throughout Western (and Westernized) society today. Members of the middle class may feel that they’ve come a long way because their boys no longer have to flex their muscles to prove they’re men, but those kids still have to achieve power and status, and they still have to cut off their feelings in order to do so. If that weren’t the case, thousands of affluent young and middle-aged males wouldn’t be paying hundreds of dollars apiece for wilderness weekends, the whole point of which is to try to reconnect with those feelings.

AFTER AN INITIAL PERIOD OF intense mourning following the death of Evan’s father some years before, Marsha had enjoyed the happiest of relationships with her young son. When he reached adolescence, however, all manner of vague worries about whether he was developing normally began to assail her. Evan had always been a charming, sweet youngster, by nature sunny and agreeable. At 14, he was a tall, clumsy, affectionate young man who still kissed his mother and even her friends goodnight, quite un-self-consciously. He wasn’t moody or reclusive, he had an active social life, he did well in school. All Marsha’s women friends envied her this delightful paragon of a son. But Marsha worried that he wasn’t male enough. She wasn’t referring to anything physical: his voice had deepened, there was an appropriate fuzz over his upper lip. Nor did he seem

backward with girls: he enjoyed their company and even seemed to have had crushes on a couple of them.

But Marsha just couldn’t get over her sense that something was wrong. Whenever I spent an evening with her, noticed that she now stiffened when Evan bent to kiss her goodnight, and soon I realized I was seeing less and less of him as she began sending him to his uncle’s for a bit of male bonding. Given these puzzling signals from his mother, not all of which were conscious on her part, Evan became less happy and more irritable with her, verging on rebellious. Sometimes he would “forget” to call her after school if he was going to be home late. No doubt sensing her discomfort with him, he spent as much time as he could hanging out with his friends or playing assaultively loud music in his room. Once he seemed to be experiencing what Marsha thought of as normal adolescent angst, her worries disappeared. Presumably, he was now uncomfortable enough at home that she need not worry about whether he would be satisfactorily launched into the world.

There’s nothing dramatic about this story; I tell it only because in its very lack of drama it seems so typical.

ON THE CONTINUUM OF PROBLEMS caused by a mother’s pulling back from her adolescent son, Evan and Marsha are at the benign end. The damaged relationship between Ira and Louise, however, seemed potentially much more dangerous.

When Louise called to ask for a consultation about her 17-year-old son, Ira, she voiced a long list of concerns, the most urgent of which was that she feared he might become violent with her. After ascertaining that he had never actually followed through on his threats in the past, and that she was not in any immediate danger, I made an appointment to see her and whichever family members were willing willing and available the next morning.

When the receptionist announced their arrival, I was almost surprised to see that in addition to Louise and her two daughters young women who had moved out of the family home a year before Ira, too, was in the waiting room. Many young men his age would have refused to come, out of fear that this acknowledgment of a connection to their family would be construed as a dependency. This was a hopeful sign, his rather hulking, menacing presence notwithstanding.

Ira displayed all the earmarks of the sullen, rebellious adolescent, his long, unkempt hair, torn jeans, and dirty sweatshirt a striking contrast to the appearance of his sisters and his mother, who were neatly and conventionally dressed. As the three women took turns recounting the events that had convinced Louise to seek help, Ira paced anxiously around the room, radiating hostility. It seemed that two days before, after a long period of escalating tension between mother and son, punctuated by numerous rage-filled outbursts on his part, there had been a particularly frightening episode. Louise accused Ira of being unwilling to live up to his commitments (specifically, his oft-repeated promise to look for a job), and he became so angry that he stormed out of their apartment and stood on the pavement below, yelling up to his mother that he wanted to kill her. Not knowing what else to do, she had called his sister Karen, who found him waiting for her there, still ranting and raving, when she came running over from her apartment nearby.

“She’s never known how to talk to him,” Karen broke in, by way of defending Ira’s explosive behavior.

”But he must know I love him. I would let myself be skinned alive if I thought it would help him,” Louise declared an alarming statement insofar as it suggested a profound sense of guilt about the quality of her mothering, which was presumably based on an equally profound disappointment in the way her son was turning out. As indeed proved to be the case when Louise recounted the history of their relationship.

She had raised Ira on her own after her husband had walked out on her when the girls were six and four and Ira was a newborn. With no financial support from her husband indeed, not so much as a postcard to indicate his whereabouts-Louise had been forced to assume full responsibility for her young family. For years they had been a very close family, the children looking to one another for love and companionship while Louise worked long hours to provide for them. Ira had been a rather solitary little boy, closely attached to his sisters, with few friends or interests outside the family circle. The children took such good care of one another that Louise had been a rather laissez-faire mother, comfortable in the knowledge that they were able to function effectively on their own. This was just as well, since she had very little time to give them.

When the girls were in their teens they became involved in school and social activities, leaving Ira somewhat adrift. He dien turned more and more to his mother for the emotional connection he was now lacking. By the time he was 15, she had begun to worry about him surely it wasn’t

normal for a boy to spend so much time with his mother and to put many new pressures on him to perform. “I felt I’d really let him down as a mother. Otherwise he wouldn’t have had so much trouble making friends and wouldn’t have done so poorly in school. So I decided it was now or never if I was to make a man of him.”

By a frantic immersion in what she thought of as good mothering, Louise was determined to undo the past, to make sure her son didn’t turn into the same kind of deadbeat his father had been. He should work harder to succeed in school. He should go out for after-school activities. He should meet people. He should get a haircut. She nagged, she bribed, she cajoled, she even called his teachers. A not-particularly-bright, athletic, or outgoing boy, socially awkward and solitary by nature, Ira wasn’t capable of living up to her new expectations. But the pressures had intensified still further when both of his sisters moved into their own apartments the preceding year, leaving him without any of the support he’d been accustomed to getting from them when he needed to make Louise back off. At the same time that the pressures were increasing, so was his feeling of pain. He was a young man experiencing too many losses. He’d already lost his father, then his two sisters, and with them much of his sense of competence in the world. To be losing his mother as well was one loss too many.

Not surprisingly, Ira felt crushed by Louise’s disapproval. “Do you think you are a disappointment to your Mom?” I asked.

“Sure I am,” he said. “She tells me every day what a mess I’ve made of my life.”

Faced with Louise’s endless complaints and corrections, Ira had responded with confusion and paralysis. This only escalated his mother’s efforts to shape him up, until finally Ira dropped out of school and became exactly the loser she had feared he would be. He didn’t go to classes, he didn’t get a job, he simply vegetated in his room. For her part, Louise withdrew all emotional support. “Ira is very dependent on me. Every day when I leave the house he asks me when I’m coming back, and most of the time I tell him ‘late,’ because I know it’s wrong for him to be spending so much time with his mother.”

I felt we needed an intervention that would change the basic notions that had been formed in this family. As long as Louise saw herself as a bad mother, she would continue to work overtime to undo the damage she thought she had caused; and as long as she engaged in her frantic mode of mothering, Ira was going to see

himself as a failure. “Louise,” I said to her at the end of our first session, “I think it would help if you would stop working so hard at being a good mother.”

“You mean at being a mother” she was quick to correct me.

“No. You’ll always be a mother. I mean a good mother. You’re trying too hard to help Ira shape up and be a mensch.”

“So what should I do? Leave him alone to rot like his father?”

“Just try to sit back and enjoy him,” I insisted. “You’ve done your job, and now it’s up to him.”

In the weeks that followed, by sheer force of will Louise kept herself from nagging. At first Ira responded by volunteering to do a few chores around the house not necessarily what Louise was hoping for, since her vision of what she wanted for her son did not include women’s work. Next he found a job, and that pleased her very much. Soon he had made a friend at work, was spending less time with his mother, and had begun to talk about getting his own apartment. At their last session Louise asked ruefully, “Why is it, just as they get to be nice, they leave you?”

Ira and Louise were fortunate they began therapy before he acted out any of his violent impulses. When I first met him he seemed very threatening. He had become so confused by the shift from Louise’s easygoing, affectionate style of mothering, and her sudden withdrawal from him, that he was almost cra2y with loneliness. In boys, that kind of extreme dependence is mixed with so much shame and discomfort that it often results in eruptions of anger the only socially sanctioned way of expressing feeling. I see this as the male version of hysteria. Psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller explains its workings: “It is particularly common to find men acting most aggressively when they feel vulnerable, hurt, frightened and alone.” This occurs when “there is no context of assurance that [they] will be respected or well cared for if [they] make a direct, honest expression” of their feelings. A 17-year-old young man interviewed on a daytime television talk show about why he abused his girlfriend put it this way: “Some people cry. If you can’t cry, you strike out.”

As often happens with mothers and teenage sons, the feelings of dependence that Ira expressed to Louise had alarmed and alienated her, rather than eliciting her care. She thought they got in the way of his becoming a man, and saw them as a sign of her own failure as a mother. But the appropriate response to excessive dependence is not withdrawal; that will only escalate the boy’s distress. Ira’s extreme vulnerability at this point in his life could only be alleviated by “more mother,” not less.

Far from being authentically autonomous, boys (and men) are hooked into the demands of the culture, not their own inner reality. The occasional “crazy” kid like Ira, who does express something of his neediness in violation of the cultural norms, is likely to pay a heavy price in parental disapproval. For the boys this can mean great suffering. If not expressed as violence towards others, as Ira was threatening, that kind of pain may be turned against the self.

FROM BIRTH ON, AS WE HAVE SEEN, a boy’s mother is engaged in the process of pulling back from him. Certainly there are bad mothers in this world who withdraw or who were never there in the first place for all kinds of less-than-altruistic reasons. They’re so caught up in their own problems that they don’t have the emotional energy to give to a child; they’re too addicted to alcohol or drugs to care for him; they’re passing on the legacy of their own abused or emotionally deprived childhoods; they’re giving in to a husband or lover’s jealousy of the mother-son relationship; they’re fearful of men, hence of any manifestation of maleness, which causes them to be rejecting when the boy reaches a certain age; they’re using the boy to take out their anger on men; and so forth. There’s also withdrawal into the private world of grief after a death or a divorce.

But beyond these reasons are the many and more typical ones that speak of love, not neglect, of a mother’s eagerness to prepare her son for what will be demanded of him in life:

Desire to protect the boy from social censure, by making sure he does not become known as a sissy or a mama’s boy because of his bond with or similarity to her. This motive plays a part in most or all of the following.

Buying into the notion of difference the belief that certain attributes are male, others female, and that a woman could contaminate her son if she were to pass on her own qualities to him.

Avoiding the grief of projected loss the belief that “a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life, but a son’s a son till he gets him a wife.” If a woman accepts this, she may remain at a distance out of the desire to protect both her son and herself from the pain of the inevitable break to come.

Female lack of self-esteem the feeling of being inadequate to the job of raising a male child, of being incapable of modeling any of the qualities he needs to become a man. Another version of this is the self-obliteration of the “sacrificing” mother, who lives through her sons but never allows them to know her as a person.

Fear of exercising control over a male child, out of the belief that for a woman to do so would be inappropriate, and potentially emasculating.

Male “ownership” of the boy the notion that the boy belongs to his father, and that a son is a woman’s gift to her husband (and sometimes to her father as well).

Elevation of the boy the raising of the boy to a position superior to his mother’s, which can result in a very lonely child perched up there on the pedestal.

Dread of homosexuality, which is thought by many to result from too close a relationship between mother and son.

Belief in the unknowability of the male hence a decision to bow out of a son’s life, particularly at adolescence.

Fear of being a sexually seductive mother again, a concern that takes on new urgency at adolescence.

Most, if not all, of the above intensify the older a boy gets. In their varying ways, and to varying degrees, all seem to me to be forms of abandonment, yet all of them are enacted with the best of intentions, in the service of masculine development.

There is another form of abandonment that kicks in with special force at adolescence the relinquishing of the boy to his peer group. Mothers and fathers alike go along with this, with the fathers having a special stake in it, out of their faith in the potency of male bonding, their trust that the peer group will serve as the launching pad that enables a boy to make his final separation from his family.

AS I WAS THINKING THROUGH SOME of the issues addressed here, I watched my 16-month-old granddaughter Molly say no for the hundredth time that day. And I remembered another day, many years ago, when my 2-year-old son announced to me, “I’m old enough to say no if I want to.” “No” is the child’s announcement of his separateness from us, and it’s a word parents hear often, from the time of their child’s earliest efforts at speech.

Thus, I have to laugh at all the energy that goes into worrying about whether our children, boys or girls, will be able to separate from us. The process of separation starts at birth, and all healthy organisms do it automatically; they don’t need our help. Indeed, it would be difficult to stop the process even if that were what we wanted to do. But we don’t children must and will separate from their parents.

Achieving autonomy, however, is a different process, if autonomy is defined as “having a self with access to one’s own feelings.” There are dozens of opportunities each day for validating a child’s sense of himself, and thus allowing him to come into the fullness of this autonomy. When we allow a boy to cry, for example, that’s one very basic way of validating him. It seems to me that he’s as entitled to his pain at 22 as he is at two. But any boy much beyond the early stages of adolescence is going to be looked at suspiciously, perhaps even brought into therapy, if he’s caught crying. The justification we use for our attitudes is that we have to save the boy from himself and make sure he doesn’t become an outcast. We need not worry, peer pressure will see to it only too well that most boys don’t cry, betray undue sensitivity, or in any other way deviate from the straight-and-narrow course of masculinity. As for the occasional boy who has received enough validation from his parents to be completely himself, even if it does put him at odds with his culture, he’s not going to be a misfit. He’s going to feel good about who he is, to function very happily in his own skin without any of the expectations about male- and female-appropriate behavior that dominate everybody else.

Ultimately, what is at stake is the freedom to act authentically, on the basis of one’s own beliefs. In the Bette Midler movie For the Boys, we watch a woman’s fatherless son be taken over and all but turned against his mother by her professional partner, who inculcates in him all the traditional masculine values. Because she feels that she can’t model what a boy needs to learn, she allows this to happen. The climactic scene reunites mother, son and father figure on a battlefield in Vietnam, where the young man, who is the commander of his platoon, confesses to his mother that he knows the war they’re fighting is meaningless. She tells him she can use her connections to get him out, but he says no, he could never do that, because it would break the Father Figure’s heart. Shortly afterward, he and the rest of his company are blown up. Our boys, imprisoned by their culture, act from compulsion. Though the consequences are not usually fatal, that doesn’t mean they’re not deadening.

If a boy’s sense of identity is founded on denying his feelings, on being like somebody else (e.g., his father or the other boys), or unlike somebody else (e.g., his mother or all other females), then he will never become truly autonomous.

Nonetheless, he will separate from us, as he must. The hope is that he will not, in the process, become cut off from either himself or us.

Olga Silverstein, M.S.W., is co-founder of the Women’s Project in Family Therapy and coauthor o/The Invisible Web: Gender Patterns in Family Relationships. Beth Rashbaum is a freelance book editor and writer whose book projects have included Gloria Steinem’s Revolution From Within and Bernie Siegel’s Peace, Love and Healing.

From The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum, Copyright © 1994. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.