The Time by Barbara Frazier

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Apr202014
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Barbara Frazier

Mothers and Sons

child_momThe relationship between a mother and her son has supplied novelists and screenplay writers with subject material for many years. And as is often the case, fiction is based on situations that are true to life, which is why we can relate to them. The truth is, the relationship between mothers and their sons is a special one. Beginning in early childhood, a very strong bond is established in which the mother becomes the little boy's object of tremendous feelings of love and affection. She is the light of his life, so to speak. Later on, she becomes the model by which the young man chooses a girlfriend and eventually a wife. You'll recall the line from the song, "I want to marry a girl, just like the girl, that married dear old Dad." In fact, as many young men begin to seriously date, they often pick girls that look like their mothers and certainly that have personality similarities. In this way, they get to keep their mothers, yet move forward toward the fullness and complexity of the romantic relationship.

For mothers of young budding male teens, the relationship seems to undergo a metamorphosis. Brought on by the onset of puberty, this transformation is usually somewhat rocky and uncomfortable and can pose some real problems in successfully navigating it. Additionally, certain factors can make the process more difficult yet such as being a single mother, or not having an emotionally available father in the picture. Let me give you an example of a common occurrence in my practice, which should help in describing the problem. Mom calls me for an appointment due to some rather alarming behavior on the part of her son. We'll call him Sam. She reports he was formerly a good student (often excellent), they had always enjoyed a very close relationship, and she typified him as having been a "good boy." Now she reports he has changed to the degree that she feels she doesn't know him anymore. He is either nasty or aloof with only periodic flashes of his "old self." Furthermore, his grades and behavior have deteriorated at school. In her most desperate moments, she fears he has become involved in drugs or is hanging out with kids whom she labels as "a bad influence." Further investigation reveals the father is predictably out of the picture. What I mean by that is that he is either living separate from the family, works a great deal or is emotionally absent. More often than not, he has been that way for years. Mom will tell me she has had to be both mother and father to the boy and has no romantic interests to speak of. The mother and son have indeed meant a great deal to each other.

I suppose there are a great many causes we could cite in an effort to explain Sam's problems, but I would like to call your attention to what I believe lies at the heart of the matter - that is the boy's need for distance from his mother and the additional emotional need for closeness to an adult male. Let me elaborate. As boys move into puberty, they change quickly and profoundly. As described in the articles on early adolescence (see website listing), the young teen's body is flooded with hormones that change forever how he feels about himself and his relationships with others. Mothers who are dependent on their boys for affection, support or love, believe they are exempt from the changes taking place in their sons. They are not. The love, companionship and closeness that formerly comforted both of them has now been tainted by the young man's sexuality. He now sees his mom as trying to control him and as being prying and invasive. What brings him peace is not her love, but distance from her. He will obtain that distance any way he can. That includes verbalizing the desire to go live with a long despised and distant father, failing in school, outbursts of rage, drug use, and so on.

Now of course there is an additional point I want to draw to your attention. We have been talking for the most part about "single" mothers. You see, young men need to feel mom has another appropriate male to give her affections to, and he needs to also feel there is a man he can love and identify with while he gathers up his strength to begin that other mind boggling event known as dating. The presence of this father figure relieves him of the guilt boys feel as they leave their moms behind, and also gives them a role model for future relationships with women. Additionally, both mother and son need to feel free to experience the thought, "You are not who or what I thought you were." It represents a normal step through the life cycle to independence for all parties concerned. Mom must find an appropriate object for her love away from the boy and he must be encouraged to pursue appropriate young ladies.

The effort on the part of either mother or son to fight the change and maintain the relationship they used to have will only lead to arrested development and frustration. What mom needs to do is encourage efforts at independence on the part of her son and understand his ill temper is a very necessary phase of development. Both married and single moms will need to find avenues for expressing their affections and independence outside of their sons, thus allowing for some natural distance to develop between them during this transformational phase. This should allow her more gratification while at the same time lifting the burden of guilt from her son who worries that mom cannot survive without him.