Throughout the history of Mankind mother-son relationships have been considered special. Many women say that having a son gives them a sense of completeness. One woman affirmed, “It is as if through him I have found the missing part of me.”
Patriarchal societies place greater value on sons. At times ‘male child-centeredness’ can become obsessive. In India, special rituals are held to invoke Divine intervention in granting a son. Sons are required to maintain lineage, to care for parents in their old age and ensure the salvation of souls after death. As such, boys receive preferential treatment, with best of food, health care, education and protection. This ‘son- preference’ has led to extensive female foeticide in several countries, resulting in a skewed sex ratio.
Researchers of Richmond University in Virginia found that women develop a set of ‘maternal neurons’ that operate like ‘bad mother’ or ‘good mother’ switches in the brain. These clusters of brain cells created during pregnancy and switched on after birth, are responsible for good or bad parenting. A certain number of neurons have to be switched on for ‘good mothering’ to take place.
A team at Yale University uses brain scans to study areas of the brain that drive good or bad mothering. Dr. James Swain says, “We have identified certain areas of the brain where there is a link between neuron activity and measure of ‘adequate’ or ‘inadequate’ parenting.”
So far no one has come up with a scientific explanation why a mother loves her son more than her daughter. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” suggests that this maternal devotion is a selfish strategy to ensure her genes live on. She knows that after a certain age, she cannot reproduce. So she protects her male offspring as he will eventually spread her gene pool.
When a mother has this protective love for her son she becomes fiercely protective of his life, crippling his emotional growth and tying him to her apron strings as ‘Momma’s Boy.’ This tendency has been documented even from Biblical times in the story of Rebekah, who encouraged her favourite son Jacob to steal his brother’s blessing through impersonation. But she had to suffer heartbreak as he was separated from her for many years, to protect him from Esau’s fury.
The Greek mother Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the magical River Styx, to make him invulnerable. But of course she left him with an unprotected heel.
Just like mother-daughter relationships, close mother-son relationships are important in the early formative years. Infants begin to show distress when separated from their mothers. But every mother should bear in mind that this is only a temporary phase. Physical distancing should start early in the case of a boy because of the erotic potential of such a bond. Mollycoddling is harmful to the emotional health of both mother and son.
The Oedipus Complex is a well known phenomenon. It is based on the Greek myth in which Oedipus considers his father a rival for his mother’s love. So he kills him and marries his mother Jocasta.
The period between 18 months and three years is when a child becomes aware of his own sexual identity. He develops a concept of himself by exploration of his own body. Between three to five years, libidinal and ego development takes place. This can well be defined as the Oedipus phase, when a child has the desire to possess his mother, and even begins to see his father as an opponent. This is a passing phase, and a wise mother will gradually wean him away from such feelings until he begins to identify with his father.
Reasons for a mother’s abnormal feelings:
• When a mother has experienced abandonment from her father in her own childhood, she may be overprotective of her son, to compensate for those feelings of abandonment. She wants her son to remain in that oedipal phase for her own fulfillment. Sons cannot be surrogate husbands or fathers; neither are they playthings for her pleasure.
There are many great men who have suffered due to this over-protectiveness. Andrew Carnegie’s mother made him promise that he would not marry until she died. It must have been a frustrating experience. He eventually married one year after her death, at the age of 52.
Dwight Eisenhower also had an obsessive mother. Once when he was quarantined for Scarlet Fever, she used a ladder to climb up and see her son daily through a window.
However, a mother who suffers abandonment from her father in childhood could also experience difficulty in bonding and become abusive to her son.
• If a wife’s emotional needs are not fulfilled by her husband either because of his career, or his inconsiderate nature, or due to infidelity, she may turn to her male child. She may shower him with kisses or cuddles or verbal professions of love. This form of ’emotional incest’ seeks to alienate the father from her son’s love. Actual incest is not ruled out.
• Single parents either unmarried or widowed, may also show overindulgence and overprotection of their male children, to compensate for the lack of a father.
Destructive Effects of such Dysfunctional Relationships:
On the Child:
1. Over-dependence on mother leads to stunting of emotional and mental growth. He is unable to face life’s challenges, has behavioural problems and is often considered a ‘sissy.’ The mother does not want her son to grow up and plans to keep their relationship exclusive.
2. Inability to maintain healthy relationships with others. This may even damage his sexuality and destroy his ability to have a happy partnership. He will avoid commitment. If he marries, it may end in divorce due to constant interference by his mother. He will not have the courage to stand up to her and protect his wife from constant bullying by his mother.
3. A manipulative seductive mother and a passive distant father can turn the boy into a homosexual.
4. Smother love can prove to be a dangerous emasculating attachment, rendering the son sexually dysfunctional.
On the Mother:
1. A woman who transfers her time and priority to her son will lose out on her husband. There will be a lack of intimacy and many sexual problems. Her husband will begin to look elsewhere for his fulfillment. He might become a workaholic or forge extramarital liaisons or indulge in drinking or gambling.
2. A mother whose life revolves around her son is lulled into a subconscious assurance that he will never leave her.
3. An incestuous relationship may develop. Inappropriate feelings for her son is a form of child abuse and can be demoralizing.
How to maintain a healthy mother-son relationship:
• Respect your son’s personhood. Treat him with deep respect and help him develop his personality.
• Raise your son to be a well balanced human being mentally physically and spiritually. ‘Smother love’ kills. So don’t hold on too tightly.
• Define healthy boundaries and know when to physically distance yourself.
• Parenting is a joint venture. Fathers must not be excluded from the relationship. They too should be allowed to bond with their sons. Parental responsibilities involve equipping them with strategies for living such as respect for elders, respect for the opposite sex, discipline, love and good example. The aim should be to foster maturity, independence and self reliance in adulthood.
• Do not neglect your husband. Take time off from mothering for ‘togetherness’ with him. Talk, care, and be intimate. Let your love for each other grow as you share responsibility for his rearing.
• Be a good and worthy role model. Let him learn from you how to respect and treat his wife when married.
• Always remember that the child is not your husband. So don’t force adult responsibilities on him.
• Change your focus. Use some time to care for the needs of your other children. Find new activities to keep your mind off your son.
• Pray and ask God to give you the wisdom to handle your emotions with responsibility and self respect.
As the feminist Naomi Lewinsky said, “We shouldn’t need our children. We shouldn’t merge with them except when they are infants. We shouldn’t let our messy feelings leak all over our children’s development. We should raise them to become separate individuals.”