Mothers and sons: honouring our mothers

"Invocation" -- Aaron Gritzka [more...]


While men's relationships with their fathers have received considerable attention in writing about men and masculinity, there has been a resounding silence by men on their relationships with their mothers. It is certainly rare to see any examination of men's experience of the ambivalence and pain associated with distancing and separation.

At the same time, there is a widespread view that mothers are a problem for men in Western societies.

A number of writers have commented on the tension men feel between their desire for intimacy with women and their fear of dependency, associated with their unresolved experiences with their mothers. Men fear dependency and commitment and are terrified of their own vulnerability (Jukes 1993). They associate dependency with their mothers and the resultant feelings this generates hinders their ability to form intimate relationships with women.

The question is: What is the source of this problem? Is it too much of mother or not enough? Mytho-poetic and men's liberation writers posit that separation from the mother is necessary and healthy for men and Farmer argues that it is one of the main tasks in moving to manhood.

He acknowledges that the wound of separation may hurt but maintains that it is a healthy wound (1991). Similarly, for Keen, "mother is a problem that needs to be solved and we find it difficult to break the symbiotic bond" (1991). Separating from mother is seen as the only way to manhood. A boy learns that if he wants to be accepted into male society, he has to turn his back on his mother.

Defining the issue in such terms portrays mothers as the problem. Mothers are seen by these writers as getting in the way of masculinity and are regarded as inevitably emasculating boys. They are often accused of dangerously enmeshing their own identity with that of their sons and of over-protecting them whereby they "indulge for their own gratification, in compensation for an unsatisfactory marriage" (Gomez 1991). Bly posits that mothers typically exercise possessiveness over their sons (1990).

These writers attribute the estrangement of sons from their fathers to the involvement of mothers. Biddulph argues that a mother will often turn her son against his father (1994) and Bly blames mothers for getting in the way of boys' relationships with their fathers. In his view, this constitutes a conspiracy between mother and son.

The major consequence of such "over mothering" is seen to be the creation of "mothers' boys". Men who become "mummy's boys" are said to be "dominated by the desire to perform well to gain approval and to avoid female anger or rejection" (Keen 1991). Bly argues that "mummy's boys" were "too tied to women as children, and then as adults are too tender, too empathic, too interested in women's issues" (1990).

Profeminist men are often criticised by other men as mothers' boys. Forrester (1992) suggests that the desire of one his clients to be a feminist man was "really a desire to be underneath, to be dominated sexually and politically by the feminist women he admires." His profeminism was regarded as "a kind of masochism, or a kind of fascination with the all-powerful woman figure" (1992). MASA's profeminist stance and its accountability to women's groups invokes a similar response from Dunstan: "Really and truly, Mum is going to be very pleased with you MASA boys." He argues that for a man to place being a feminist ahead of being a man is "to embrace a deep crippling shame" (1993).

Talking about the "deep crippling shame" of men supporting feminism, reinforces the view that to acknowledge the injustice done to women and to affirm women's strengths is to be anti-male. It is thus important to challenge the framework within which these comments are made and to shift the terms of the debate about profeminism.

Masculine identity is reproduced by repressing the feminine and when boys separate from their mothers, they reject feminine qualities within themselves (Silverstein and Rashbaum 1994). One consequence of separation without attachment is that men are often unable to develop a sense of empathic identity with women and if we spend our lives separating from our mothers will we be able to reclaim the feminine parts of ourselves (Pasick 1992)?

As some men distance themselves from their mothers and do not get enough nurturing, they later feel needy of women. On the other hand, while many men recognise their need for mother, they are often unable to openly express it.

Men yearn for the mother and fear being trapped by her and these feelings of love and fear remain with them so that when they meet women, they exhibit ambivalence and fear as well as attraction. Such feelings obviously have implications for men's capacity for loving and accepting women's love and consequently, men keep their emotional distance from women for fear of both "entrapment" and abandonment (O'Connor 1993). Benjamin even goes so far as to argue that domination "begins with the attempt to deny dependency" (1980).

I would argue that boys do not need to repress closeness with their mothers to become masculine and that it is important for men to acknowledge the strong influence of mothers and women.

How then should we address our dependency needs in relation to our mothers and to women? As men we are often unable to accept that at different times and in different contexts we need what women are able to offer us. To acknowledge our dependency at these times does not mean that we are weak men. However, because dependence on others, particularly women, is seen as a sign of weakness, men frequently are unable to develop genuinely interdependent relationships with women and often end up expressing their needs in a demanding rather than interactive way. However, healthy development incorporates the learning of interdependence whereby attachment and separation compliment one another.

Given that the majority of men are pressured to distance themselves from their mothers, what can be done? Men can reflect on "how they would be different if they did not have to separate" (Carey 1992). Considering that, in losing touch with their mothers, men may have lost touch with parts of themselves could itself be a powerful force in provoking change.

It is also important that men endeavour to understand their mothers as women with their own life histories, expectations and needs. Such analysis can enrich their perception of women as a whole. Men can get to know their mothers better, to ask them about their experiences before they became mothers, especially in relation to experiences such as discrimination and harassment (Pasick 1992). A lot of men have difficulty seeing their mothers as women with separate lives before and apart from motherhood. To acknowledge the truth of our mothers' lives requires us to recognise their oppression and our institutional power over women and the extent to which we are able to do this, we will enhance the potential for partnership with women.

References cited

Benjamin, J. (1988) The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon.

Biddulph, S. (1994) Manhood. Sydney: Finch.

Bly, R. (1990) Iron John: A Book About Men. New York: Addison Wesley.

Carey, M. (1992) "Healing the Mother Wound", Dulwich Centre Newsletter. Nos. 3 & 4: 65-69.

Dunstan, G. (1993) "Proud Men Needed", XY: Men, Sex and Politics. Vol. 3, No. 1, (Autumn): 3.

Farmer, S. (1991) The Wounded Male. New York: Ballantine.

Forrester, J. (1992) "What Do Men Really Want?" in D. Porter (ed.) Between Men and Feminism. London: Routledge.

Gomez, J. (1991) Psychological and Psychiatric Problems in Men. London: Routledge.

Jukes, A. (1993) Why Men Hate Women. London: Free Association Books.

Keen, S. (1992) "Rapacious Normality: The War Between the Sexes" in C. Harding (ed.) Wingspan: Inside the Men's Movement. New York: St Martin's Press.

O'Connor, P. (1993) The Inner Man: Men, Myths and Dreams. Sydney: Sun Books.

Pasick, R. (1992) Awakening From the Deep Sleep. San Francisco: Harper.

Silverstein, O. and Rashbaum, B. (1994) The Courage to Raise Good Men. New York: Viking.



First published in the magazine XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 7(1), Winter 1997. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.