Dropping the chain – when mothers fail their sons

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From the moment he’s born, a boy begins to pull away from his mother. It doesn’t seem so at first, every boy is a momma’s boy for a little while. But in time that unbreakable bond holding mother and son closely together starts to feel like an unbearable chain tearing them apart.

Watching the Queen’s son grow into a teenager has released a barrage of memories from my own adolescence. Walking alongside as he navigates the waters of high school, driving, girls, and the other deadly shoals an average teenage boy must maneuver has put many of my own teen struggles into a different context. To help prepare her for what’s next I’ve had to look back on my own life at that age, and doing so, twenty-five years after the fact, has been an often therapeutic and always enlightening experience. This new perspective has helped me not only predict what is on his horizon, it has offered up fresh answers to many of my lingering questions.

By today’s standards, the Queen has an abnormal relationship with her son. He actually talks to her, about things that matter, regarding his feelings. It’s a rare and wonderful dynamic between mother and teenage son; and one that isn’t shared by many, if any, of their friends. Yet this relationship hasn’t been by accident. The Queen would admit the last few years have resulted in a healthy reevaluation. She has had to rethink what her role should be at this stage of his life and it has compelled her to recalibrate many of her prior expectations.

•♦•

Of all the feelings I recall from my teenage years, the most salient now – but least understood then – was a desire to pull away from my mother. It was this one feeling that enveloped all others – like a universal angst clouding my thinking – to break free from what seemed a 103-pound weight holding me down. My mother was not a helicopter parent or tiger mom, she didn’t have time for such nonsense and it was a very different time then. She executed exquisitely on her God-given role of being a mom. She gave me freedom, she gave me affection, and she gave me respect, but even then I felt a longing, in fact a desperate need, to break free from her gravitational pull.

It started as I launched into puberty and my body began to alter in ways I didn’t understand. At twelve, I wouldn’t undress in front of her had someone offered me a new dirt bike. If I could have put a padlock on my bedroom door I would have gladly done so for the added security against being walked in on. This carried over to physical affection as well, anything more than the occasional hug was suddenly asking too much.

It was at this point our relationship started to change. Our bond, tightly woven by more than a decade of motherly affection, now began to feel like a chain strangling my neck. Over the next five years, as I desperately worked to loosen its hold, static crept into our connection. Our communication began to deteriorate; our talks became superficial and my feelings became sacred topics reserved only for me. I wouldn’t allow her into my life, opting instead for the ubiquitous teenage response of ‘nothing!’, and ‘fine!’ as answers to her questions about my thoughts and feelings. To my teenage mind, distance meant freedom from the chain’s grip.

•♦•

When a boy reaches adolescence and makes that turn off the leisurely path of boyhood onto the turbulent road to becoming a man he will begin gravitating towards what makes him feel more like one. He will start seeking out those activities and life experiences he believes validates his burgeoning masculinity, or at least abrogates the childishness he’s trying to leave behind. For some boys sports may fulfill that need, for others it’s a car and the freedom it brings, while some place their masculinity in a girlfriend or job. This is why fatherhood simply can’t be overestimated – no mother possesses the means to show her son true masculinity. And it’s for this  reason so many mothers feel they are losing, or have lost, their teenage sons.

A boy’s pulling away from his mother is part of the larger search for his masculine identity. My entrance into adolescence was the physiological trigger that led me to begin discarding the frivolity of childhood and replacing it with something worthy of my imminent status. As such I began to look with ridicule and at times contempt upon the things that reminded me of the little boy I once was.  And as harsh as this sounds, my mother, or more appropriately what she represented, was first to feel the sting. Little has changed for boys since.

I viewed her mothering, the affection and attention every mother is wired to provide, as a barrier to my manhood. Anytime she asked about my feelings, asked me to model new pants, showered me with undue affection, or behaved as I were still a child it felt as if she was grabbing that chain with both hands and pulling, rooting the links deeper into my skin trying to keep me as her little boy forever.

•♦•

Being the mother of a teenage son is often painful and normally confusing. First he doesn’t think he needs anyone, most especially his mom; that’s the pain of feeling useless. The other is a bit more complicated; something inside the boy – that he can’t express – won’t let him fully buy into that autonomous belief and it wreaks havoc on his emotions. What mother isn’t confused by a son who one moment is lovable and affectionate then on a dime becomes combative and aloof?

What he feels yet is unable to articulate is realizing the part his mother plays in confirming his masculinity. As the most important woman in the boy’s life, he looks to her for approval that he is becoming a man. She is Queen regent who bestows upon her son the vestments of masculinity; and she does this through regarding him as the man he is fast becoming –  instead of emasculating him by attempting to preserve the little boy who once stole her heart.

And that is where so many mothers fail their sons; instead of viewing this pulling away as a natural stop along the masculine journey and giving him the margin and support to press forward, many mothers, sensing the loss begin pulling back on the chain hoping to reclaim her little boy and salvage the relationship they once shared. These mothers are unable, or unwilling, to see their son for the man he is to become then embrace the opportunities that will bring.  Her failure only forces the boy to pull more aggressively – more determinedly – loosening the chain’s hold and as a result causing that natural change in the mother/son relationship to swell into a broad chasm. It’s a divide that can often take years or decades bridge.

The Queen’s relationship with her son has become so in large part to this understanding of her son’s search for manhood. She has been intentional in allowing him the space to march forward while not feeling threatened or taking as an affront his gradual pulling away – seeing it as his gain instead of her loss. She has chosen to let go of that chain and he has responded in a surprising way. Through her actions she is showing support for and validation of his growth into manhood, as such, he doesn’t view her as an obstacle towards achieving it. And when most moms have resigned themselves to a one-dimensional relationship with their teenage sons, the Queen’s relationship continues to grow in maturity and respect – because she chose to let go of the chain.

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4 responses to Dropping the chain – when mothers fail their sons

  1. What a beautiful piece. All mothers should read it and store it for future use.

    It’s particularly challenging when you’re a solo parent, a woman raising sons. Yet in a way, there’s so much to do, the pulling away is something of a relief. Bittersweet, of course.

    Queen sounds like a wise and fortunate woman.

  2. Bly used to say that when the elder males of the village came to collect the young men to be initiated, the mothers would put up a fight and make a show of screaming, tearing their hair, etc. Then, after the boys had gone, the women would get together and have a good laugh.

  3. Kyle Bradford – Author

    Not much has likely changed since we moved from the village to the city, instead of getting together for a good laugh, it’s a bottle of merlot and two Xanax.

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