Peggy F. Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)–It has been a hard year for mothers of sons. They have sent too many of their male children off to war in Iraq and other danger zones.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a woman named Ruth Aiken argued against the war with her son, army Captain Tristan Aiken, for nearly three hours before he shipped out for Kuwait; he died on April 4, in the American assault on the Baghdad airport.

Another woman, Dorothy Halvorsen was torn between wanting to participate in the peace protests and needing to support her son, serviceman Chief Warrant Officer Erik Halvorsen. According to the same New York Times article, she did write a letter to her local newspaper about opposing the war but supporting the troops. It was in her car waiting to be mailed when she learned of Erik’s death. "I can only say that he was a responsible guy who did what his country wanted," she says of her son. "I’m proud of my son for being the responsible person he was."

Mothers often feel helpless in equipping their sons to confront the world’s hardships and challenges. Yet on this troubled Mother’s Day–a holiday originally created for mothers to propound peacefulness–women can do what Ruth Aiken and Dorothy Halvorsen did. They both stepped forward to claim their rightful role; that of striving to engender in their sons a masculine power that includes greater generosity and love. But first, mothers must reclaim their essential right to shape their sons–without worrying about turning them into that worst-of-all-possible males: the "mama’s boy."

Stop Worrying About ‘Smotherlove’

Mothers have been inculcated with the idea that we need to cut the cord with our sons to make them men ready to take on masculine roles in the world, from worldly success to making war. God forbid that a boy suffer from "smotherlove."

The deep emotional connection between a mother and her son has been demonized for generations. As a research psychologist who has worked with sons and their mothers for over 25 years, I have seen how worried mothers are that they will emasculate their sons by loving them "too much."

Recently I was sitting in a park watching my 10-year-old daughter play, when I saw a 4-year-old boy take a minor tumble at the end of the slide. He stood up, his face tentative with tears, looked around for mom and ran straight for her. He clambered into her lap, seeking a little comfort and reassurance. His mom held him lightly, but she pulled away from his embrace.

"You’re fine," she said. He ducked his head and dived toward her neck again, intent on physical contact. She leaned even further back, rejecting his nuzzling hug. "Go on back to the slide now," she said. "You’re a big boy!"

Abashed and disappointed, her son turned away. Soon he was again engrossed in play. But why, I wondered, did the mother recoil? Was she preparing him for the day he might have to go bravely off to war? Did she feel her affection would feminize him and compromise his ability to make his way in the world?

Despite several best-selling books about boys’ need for emotional connection, mothers (and fathers) persist in believing that a mother’s love and protection is evidence of dangerous maternal attachment and will somehow weaken or emasculate their boys.

Kamala, a single mother, is raising two sons who are just entering their early teens. When she asked one of them what he thought was the most important part of being a man, he replied, "Taking care of others." She was proud of him; caregiving is not usually associated with teen-age boys. Still, his response worried her. Was he being weak by being kind and had she helped make him that way?

Mothers of all kinds worry about smotherlove. Married mothers worry about the damage they might inflict by spending time with their sons, especially if dad works long hours at the office or is often away from home. Newly single mothers worry about providing a solid foundation for their sons’ masculinity, since most boys see much less of their fathers after a divorce. Single moms by choice are on the desperate lookout for male role models for their sons.

Thriving Sons of ‘Maverick Moms’

My study of mothers and sons, as well as that of many other researchers such as psychologist Marion Winterbottom, show how mothers do indeed inculcate male characteristics in their sons. But mothers can do more than promote standard-issue maleness in their sons. In my studies of the sons of "maverick mothers"–single moms, divorcees, lesbian mothers–I have seen how today’s moms are quietly providing a new model for raising well-rounded boys. They are not just bringing up naturally masculine boys–without the help of fathers or other male role models. Their sons are also vibrant, courageous individuals, busily constructing their sense of self amid ordinary family love and extraordinary social change.

Boys I studied from "mothering families" are articulate and thoughtful, deeply aware of their own emotional lives. They are the products of what I call "mompowerment"–the ability of mothers not just to raise strong sons but boys who are generous, caring and loving.

Trisha, 49, an investment bank administrator, and the single mother of 6-year-old Dan, loves her son’s fascination with levers and dials–he’s "a little budding engineer," she says. "He always wants to play a cheetah or a lion." But along with his traditionally male interests and confidence, "he’s extremely in tune to feelings and emotions in others, and you don’t normally think of boys having such good antenna," Trisha says. She hopes her son will retain his emotional literacy even in a world that often discourages it in boys. "I would like him to grow up thinking of that as a strength, not an embarrassment," she says. "Friends will say to Dan, ‘big boys don’t cry,’ if he falls and starts crying. It started driving me crazy. Yes, big boys do cry and, if they hurt, they should."

How can we engender such strength and caring in our sons? The perfect time to start is this Mother’s Day, a holiday created by Julia Ward Howe (a mother of six who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the United States and Europe were bloodied and brutalized. After all, her 1870 proclamation for Mother’s Day said:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." This Mother’s Day, we can return to the roots of the holiday to restore what Howe called "the august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities."

Peggy F. Drexler, a research psychologist, is a scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. Her current book project is "Mothers Make Men."



For more information:

Univeristy of Pennsylvania–The Celebration of Women Writers:
"Julia Ward Howe":

Stanford University–
Institute for Research on Women and Gender: