‘The Mama’s Boy Myth’ makes the case for moms who like to raise their boys closer
By Jessica Kobrin Bernstein
When she was raising her two children, Kate Stone Lombardi—a seasoned journalist for The New York Times for more than two decades and mom to now-26-year-old Jeanie and 23-year-old Paul—was taken aback by the assumptions of so many people around her, who said it was best to distance herself from her son to avoid him becoming a “mama’s boy.”
But Lombardi’s parenting instincts went against all of the advice that she was hearing. Synthesizing years of research with hundreds of her own interviews with mothers, sons, fathers and experts, she presents a solid argument to those naysayers in her book, The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger (Avery). Both the data and the personal anecdotes demonstrate that fostering a close mother-son relationship results in emotionally evolved, empathetic and successful men.
What inspired you to write The Mama’s Boy Myth?
There was nothing in popular culture that depicted a mother-son relationship in a positive way. The only thing in books [and] movies were negative images of controlling moms and weak, wussy boys who were never going to grow up to be independent. My relationship [with my son, Paul] didn’t look anything like that—I wanted to know where this was coming from.
In your opinion, what is the importance of the mother-son relationship?
Moms teach their boys to recognize what they’re feeling, talk about it and start to develop empathy for others. They work at every stage of the game to develop emotional intelligence—it doesn’t make boys weak or dependent, it equips them to navigate life later on.
Has there been any backlash surrounding the book?
I had an excerpt printed in the Wall Street Journal and some of the comments—more than 200—were really angry, most of them from men. One said, “Your son sounds like the kind of kid they would have beaten up as a child.” This really surprised me, because this book is really good news—I love boys and men, and I think fathers are very important. This book is just about mothers and sons.
Tell me about any positive feedback.
[There have been] a lot of positive comments from sons—one that made me really happy was [from] a veteran of the Afghan and Iraq War, your typical guys’ guy. He talked about how his mom made him a better parent and soldier.
How do these close mother-son relationships differ from helicopter parenting?
What I’m talking about is maintaining an emotional connection to your son and letting him develop into the full person that he is. My generation encouraged what used to be considered masculine traits, like pursuing education, in our daughters, so we should also be encouraging emotional intelligence in our sons.
What kind of dialogue do you hope to spark with your research?
My hope is that we start to have a conversation about some of the assumptions we’re making. We’re still looking at the mother-son relationship like it’s 1955. I’m tired of these old stereotypes. Ten-year-old boys still need their moms, and 17-year-old boys still need their moms.
Freud cannot be avoided with a topic like this!
Freud was clearly a brilliant man, but he wrote the Oedipus complex in 1899. He was not writing a parenting guide for 2012—he was talking about the subconscious and, over the years, it’s [been] distorted into a prohibition against mother-son relationships. He was never against mothers and sons having a normal, close relationship.
Do you think there is a double standard when it comes to the father-daughter relationship?
When dads are close to [their] daughters, everyone thinks it’s great. A dad can do anything with his daughter—she can be his little princess or he can push traditional boundaries by putting her in a football jersey or teaching her something mechanical. If a mom spends too much time with her son or teaches him something traditionally female, moms get pushed back—leave that kid alone, let him be, stop bothering him. Mothers don’t get as much leeway with their sons as dads have with their daughters.
Your book is clearly a study and not a parenting manual. What advice do you have for new mothers of boys?
Follow your instincts. Your son needs you, and it’s good to keep [him] close. Spending time with your boy as [he] gets older, away from the rest of the family, fosters closeness. There’s something primal about the mother-son relationship throughout life at every stage.
What about for mothers of older sons?
It is never too late to reach out and establish a bond. Early imprinting is important, but I’ve spoken to many moms who early on bought into the cultural expectations that they should push their sons away, and later reached out to their sons with positive results. It was sometimes as simple as a mom calling her son and saying, “I miss seeing you. Want to go for a walk?”
You also have a daughter. What has motherhood been like with both of your children?
Raising both a son and a daughter in this culture sometimes felt like a strange balancing act. I was encouraging my daughter to excel in school, work hard, be athletic, not fold when faced with adversity. With my son, I was concerned about not losing [his] sweet side as he got drawn into the male culture of toughness. Really, I just wanted both of them to develop their full human potential.
How does your mother-daughter relationship differ from the one you have with your son?
No one ever criticized my relationship with my daughter, which was equally close but in some ways more intense than my relationship with my son. I think I identified more with my daughter, and that was both good and bad. Adolescence was much rougher with her, too—I think because we are more alike, she felt a greater need to establish a break from me. Now that she is an adult, we are very close. But no one ever criticized my closeness with her, and especially, now that she’s an adult, nobody seems to think it’s weird that we Gchat all the time, comparing notes on the minutia of our day. With my son, I would get messages [from others] to back off at every stage.
Jessica Kobrin Bernstein is a teacher turned overtired, overeducated SAHM of two. She lives with her husband, toddler, kindergartener and hundreds of books in Manhattan. You can find her parenting rants, recipes and reviews at peekababyny.com.
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