Being the father of two boys, almost 5 and 11, I’ve been fascinated by the evolving relationship between them sons and mothers.
Witnessing the delight of discovering ‘we’ were pregnant, to home-waterbirths, to discovering well after birth that our children were boys (as their gender at the moment of birth was unimportant), to watching them evolve into sociable, kind and respectful boys; all of this has been fundamentally supported by their mother, and the unique relationship she has built with each of them – very different from the relationship a father would have with his son.
In recent times there’s been a heap of debate about child bonding, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, co-sleeping, vaccination, pre and primary school choices, NAPLAN, ADHD, computer games, TV programs, diet … Crikey! As a mother, you’d be forgiven for thinking that your model of parenting might be not be the ‘perfect’ way; after all, the experts must be right – right? We’re bombarded with so much contradictory information that it’s impossible to follow one path since each child is unique.
What we do know is that every aspect of a boy’s early life is underpinned by his mother, from feeding, sleeping, healthy diet, school lunch box contents, clean clothes, bath time and bedtime stories, to patching them up when they hurt themselves.
We know that it takes a community to raise a child yet the modern nuclear family does not have this support and so requires there be a great deal of attention given to the necessities of raising children, and in doing so, it’s easy for a mother to lose her personal identify.
Check the bag of any mother with young children and see what it contains: nappies, Bandaids, spare undies, bottles, cotton buds, wipes, spare clothes, safety pins, pens, paper, crayons, pencils, books, Rescue Remedy, library receipts, DVDs to return … oh, and maybe a purse and mobile phone. Then ask any mother, especially of boys, how many hours a week she spends being ‘taxi’ to school and sporting events.
The relationship between a mother and her son is invaluable as it creates a whole framework in the boy as to how he will navigate life, his emotional intelligence, his capacity for empathy and his relationship with women. I’ve also witnessed and learned that a mother’s intuition is astounding and I find it unfortunate that the media bombards mothers with contradictory and confusing parenting advice, when, most often, Mother knows best.
Dads working long hours and often having minimal contact during the working week simply exacerbate a mother’s plight. What we know from studies and authors such as Steve Biddulph and Robert Bly is that the isolated nuclear family and lack of father contact is one of the worst possible environments for raising boys and growing good men. Consequently, the burden falls on mothers to raise sons, when, in reality, we know that fathers are needed to be present and help their sons with preparation for adolescence.
In a conversation with a headmaster from a primary school under the auspices of the School of Practical Philosophy, he likened raising children to being a potter. The hand on the inside of the pot is the hand of love, while the hand on the outside is the hand of boundary. With no boundary the pot expands, unable to contain anything. Too much boundary and the pot collapses, unable to contain anything. Good parenting requires us to find the harmony between both. Mothers tend to be the hand of love, while fathers tend to be the hand of boundary, although of course the roles do change.
As the boy matures, at about 11 mothers notice that he is no longer comfortable being naked in front of her, or seeing her naked. The innocence of childhood is transforming as the boy awakens and prepares for his adolescent journey. Indigenous cultures have been aware of this and designed specific cultural rites-of-passage events which separate the boy from this mother in a ceremony, after which he is handed over to the men. He learns his roles and responsibilities and is reintroduced to his mother, often some years later, as a man.
In our modern world, after a mother has given so much of her life to the raising of her sons, where does she go? In discussions with several mothers I’ve experienced the same painful response as they understand that their relationship with their ‘boy’ must change, that she must let him go, that her relationship with him, as it was, is ending. At the end of any relationship there needs to be an understanding that grief will be a natural process, and we as a society can do so much more to honour this transition for mothers and sons.
Andy Roy, author of ‘Raising Teenage Boys’, notes that the changes occurring in the son need to be paralleled by changes in the family itself and that adolescence is not only the child’s journey but that of the whole family. To not acknowledge this is to lay the entire responsibility for the upcoming changes at the feet of a boy-becoming-man. Andy also comments that mothers often believe that their sons are not ready for their adolescent journey, when in fact it’s the mother who has not prepared for the inevitable. This often leads to acrimonious exchanges as the boy feels his mother isn’t letting go, and his mother is frightened that her ‘boy’ is changing (he is) and that their previous relationship will end (it will), and it must end if the boy is to have any chance of becoming a man.
Celia Lashlie’s book, He’ll Be OK, uses a powerful metaphor to liken the adolescent journey to the crossing of a bridge, with the boy commencing at one end and, at the other, arriving as a man. She implores mothers to let their sons go across the bridge, and not camp on it as they will hold up traffic! Mothers’ biggest fear is that dads won’t step in to fill the gap. Lashlie’s experience is that, in the large majority of cases, dads do indeed step up. It’s the dad’s pragmatism that holds him back since he views the mother-son relationship as ‘not broken’ – so it doesn’t need fixing. Only when the mother steps back is the space created for Dad to step in. If the mother-son relationship does become acrimonious, then this is where fathers can do much to support mothers, but the father must be understanding and use discernment.
Mothers can do much to prepare themselves for their son’s journey, with books like those above, as well as encouraging fathers and sons to do stuff together, like weekend camps run by organisations such as Pathways to Manhood.
However, what can we, as a community, do for mothers?
First, as fathers, we can become aware that our sons move toward us and look to us for guidance as to what it means to be a man in today’s world. We can also choose to be more aware about the grieving process that mothers will face and make it clearly known that we’re aware. Being mindful, empathic and supportive will go a long way to ease this painful process, and ensure the mother-son relationship changes in accord with the natural flow of life.
Secondly, we can acknowledge and celebrate the mother-son relationship, perhaps with a ceremony to mark the beginning of the separation process, followed by another ceremony some years later to mark the son’s return as a man. During this time of change, all that is required from the mother is an acknowledgement of the process that her son is undergoing, and an understanding of it.
Mothers I know who have managed to make this journey, and have acknowledge their grief and stepped back to allow their sons to embark across the adolescent bridge (albeit under a watchful eye!), have been invaluably rewarded by the new relationship forged with a young man who is functional, independent, caring, confident, empathic and respectful of his mother and women in general.
As we celebrate this Mother’s Day, let us as a community spare a thought for the pain that mothers endure to bring us all into this world, the ceaseless effort that mothers expend each and every day, their desire for unity within the family and their timeless commitment to sons and daughters everywhere: “Mothers hold their children’s hands for a short while, but their hearts forever.” (author unknown)
John Broadbent (Man … Unplugged) has been on his own ‘man’s inner journey’ since 1991. His explorations have concluded that our views of Western modern men are confused and tainted, which have isolated many good men from social contribution. John’s calling is to challenge current views of masculinity and be an advocate for the standing of men to their rightful place as protectors of all forms of life.
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