Raising three sons in a culture that values empathy less and less in favor of self-absorption is a challenge.
I’m up for it.
Research shows a measurable decrease of empathy in our culture and an increase in peer cruelness (Journal of Youth & Adolescence 37, 2008). Sometimes I feel my age when I start to believe cruelness is on the rise everywhere, as I wonder if I am looking back poetically at simpler times.
I want my boys to be many things—but kind is one of them.
If you are like me, parenting is something you do by digging deep in the trenches, doing the best you can with a healthy dose of luck, remembering what was “good” in your own childhood, and maybe even a decent self-help book here and there. And if you are fortunate, you had good role models in your upbringing.
We all want to do a good job and are fearful we are screwing it up someplace. I’m pretty confident I do. I would not be a parent if I didn’t.
There is, however, one area of mothering about which I feel downright indignant. I simply believe our sons need to be loved in a way that cultivates empathy, gives significance and merit to integrity, acknowledges caring values, and teaches them about emotions. Theirs and others.
Okay, newsflash, so my kids have a shrink for a mother. And it’s probably true that they might secretly wish I were an accountant. Or maybe a Disney Cruise Ship director.
But here is the truth. Research supports the felt experience that when we have the ability to understand and manage our emotions and have self-awareness of others, our leadership abilities and satisfaction in interpersonal relations improve.
And yet, we’re still afraid of raising a wimp if we parent sons with empathy or teach them the language of feelings.
I am not advocating the Love You Forever version of mothering, where the mother crawls into her adult son’s bedroom window and rocks him to sleep. Nor the Runaway Bunny classic where, from my perspective, the bunny wants developmentally to move away from his mother and she insist that he not do so. In the end the bunny says, “I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” Ewww.
Young expectant mothers sit on my couch, their hand on their growing bellies, and secretly tell me they are afraid of having sons. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t know how to mother a boy. What will I do with him?” I’m always grateful I have sons when this happens. It’s a unique experience if you are tender and honest about it.
Other times women appear to experience (interpret) rejection from their sons (even as babies). This happens sometimes to women who have been harmed by the men in their lives. She may say wide-eyed, while her unborn son moves in the womb, “He’s kicking me. Sometimes I think he hates me.” Or a new mother says, “He barely looks at me.” These may seem like innocent comments to some but the overwhelming feeling behind the statements is often unconscious fear of inadequacy.
When sons become preadolescent boys and teenagers, instead of understanding the need for individualization and separateness, mothers can sometimes react as if there is a rippling wave of male rejection taking place and feel lost as how to connect to their sons. Though mothers of daughters also describe this, I believe it stirs up different emotional rivers for mothers of sons. How does his need to be connected to us fit with becoming a man -- and how does his need for independence stir a fear of losing him?
Our sons’ maleness is not a rejection or indication that we are loosing anything. And it’s certainly not an indication that we are inadequate and unimportant to them. Not at all. It’s an indication of great love, commitment, and a bond. It is something to behold. Magic happening right before our eyes. All the time and energy given to him, each step of the way, adds to the growth to both mother and son.
These young boys know that manhood is right around the corner and are wondering too how we might fit into their lives. It’s okay to relax into this transition. It’s okay that they emotionally pull away as they work to figure it out. It’s okay that we continue to provide opportunities to express their full range of emotions as they deal with their own internal conflicts. This is not the time to take anything personal. Trust me, they still want internal closeness, but they need to feel in control of it. It takes more than a mother to make a man, but our role is uniquely significant. It’s okay to let go and trust your bond will not be broken.
Suddenly, his hairy leg hangs over his bed when you wake him in the morning. It resembles a vast tree trunk—and the leg of a man. Gulp. Yip. It happens. And it’s happening in my house, too.
Many of my clients were injured emotionally by an unloving parent on either side and as a result, experience significant pain. But imagine what happens to a man whose understanding of women is shaped by his very first experience with an emotionally unavailable mother? Or by a mother who rejected her son’s need for closeness out of her fear that he will grow up too soft. Or leave her all together?
In The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger, Kate Stone writes that “a healthy, loving relationship is one where the mom is emotionally supportive of her son. She recognizes his individuality, his sensitivity, and his vulnerability along with his strengths.”
Mothers, be unafraid of your love for your son(s) and their male energy. Most of all, embrace your own softness and strength as a woman who changes the world one interaction at a time. Our sons—our families, our communities, our universe—need us.