Breaking the mama's boy myth

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First aired on Q (08/05/12)

The mother-son relationship has never been particularly celebrated in our society. When a father takes his son fishing or to watch a sports game, it's seen as male bonding. When a mother and daughter go on a spa trip together or shop for a special dress, people think it's lovely. And when a father takes his little girl to the ballet or encourages her to buck gender stereotypes by teaching her how to play hockey, he's thought of as a pretty cool dad. But mothers and their sons being close? That's seen as a little weird by many people.

In popular culture, there also seem to be fewer healthy examples of mother-son relationships. For every Marge Simpson, you get overbearing clingers like the mom from Everybody Loves Raymond, power-hungry and manipulative moms like Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, or psychotically possessive types like Mrs. Norma Bates, from Psycho.

So why is the mother-son relationship stigmatized? Journalist Kate Stone Lombardi, author of the new book The Myth of the Mama's Boy: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger, believes the negative association has been part of our culture for quite some time.

"I would say it started with Sigmund Freud, but if you really wanted to go back to culture, he kind of took the myth of Oedipus ... that whole mythical background and turned it into the Oedipus complex," Lombardi said on Q recently. "And the Oedipus complex just has this unbelievable hangover into the 21st century. We've gotten this wrong idea that any close mother and son relationship must be kind of pathological somehow. That the mother is close to her son and she's going to turn him into one of these weak-willed, wussy guys who's never going to be independent."

Ah yes, the much maligned "mama's boy." Unlike "daddy's little girl," the term isn't likely to get a positive reputation any time soon, according to Lombardi.

"A mama's boy is still thought of as this very negative thing. No one wants to raise a mama's boy, no one wants to be mama's boy. There's no good way to unpack it."

Society has long supported the notion that for a boy to grow into a man, the mother must let go at some point. Lombardi says that part of the Oedipus complex theory suggested that a woman who remained too close to her son or had too much influence on his life could effeminize him and eventually lead him to homosexuality. This assertion was unfounded and has not been proved, Lombardi says, but the idea had spread to the popular imagination.

mamas-boy-myth.jpgWhich is unfortunate, because Lombardi found compelling research that suggests men who grow up in a close relationship with their mother derive all kinds of mental and emotional benefits. "The research shows that boys who aren't firmly attached to their moms go on later in life to have behaviour problems. They're more destructive, [and] they're more aggressive. In middle school, guys who are closer to their moms have better mental health, they're less depressed, they're less anxious, right through to the high school years, where boys or teenagers who are close to their moms are less involved with drugs or alcohol and risky sex."

The positive influence continues through to adulthood as well. It's been popular wisdom that women should avoid marrying mama's boys, out of fear that they'll always side with their mother or put her first.

"In fact, the evidence shows something very different. There's research that shows that women who marry men who are close to their mothers are quite happy with the communication in the relationship and the more romantic aspects of the relationship. Now again, when I say close, I don't mean calling mama every day, having mama make decisions about what they're supposed to eat, or where they're supposed to go. I mean healthy adult closeness," Lombardi explained. "And in the workplace too, our sons are entering an economy where their brute strength and a kind of dominating work style is not going to help them. They're entering an economy where they need to have communication skills and work in teams, and work with and for women. And guys who have these communication skills, which is one of things they tend to learn from their moms, do very well."

So to all the men out there who grew up close to their moms, be sure to say "thank you" this Mother's Day weekend. She may have had more to do with how you turned out than you think.



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