“Mama’s Boy” as a term of derision implies no derision against mothers.
A lot of mothers — I suspect, mine included — tend to disbelieve that. Any guy could tell you that it is true, however. A “mama’s boy” is not something that any guy would want to be, but that is up to him to decide, which is what the term “mama’s boy” is really all about.
A mother is a mother. In the course of writing Mothers and Daughters, I had a lot of time to think about the nature of a mother, particularly when I began investigating the underpinnings of the obsession with safety that, it seems to me, is at the very core of every mother.
Let’s take, as an example, a very high place without railings or barricades. Let’s say, twenty-three floors up. Now, how close would you allow yourself to get to the edge? Sheer drop. Twenty-three floors straight down. Splat. The odds are your answer could be measured in feet, not inches, yards not feet, possibly “Are you kidding? Get me down from here,” and not yards. Even the bravest souls are going to be lying if they say, “Right up to the edge.” Even if they’re not lying, they would have to add: “On my hands and knees and very, very carefully.”
Now. Why is that? My own personal theory is that it has to do with the part of our brains, a separate self, whom we do not trust. In observing our own behaviours over the course of our lives, we have seen that separate self, that stupid self, do way too many stupid things to trust him (or, perhaps in your case, her) that close to a sheer drop of twenty-three storeys. The same reason a lot of people can’t stand anywhere close to the edge of a subway platform, whether the train is coming in or not. I would also maintain that the more things that you do which are self-destructive and inexplicable to yourself, the more you are apt to suffer from this condition and the further you want to be away from the edge of any sheer drop. I would suspect that women suffer from this condition more than men do, but feel free to disbelieve that last part if you’re a big Xena fan.
The part of our brains that we don’t trust would seem to be founded on pure experience and speculation on pure experience. It is an irrefutable fact that plunging from a height of twenty-three storeys would be a remarkable experience — seeing the ground rushing up at you, experiencing the adrenaline rush of hurtling through space at superhuman speeds. To quote Bob Burden, “I know how to fly, even if it is straight down.” I think any mother could tell you that the part of the brain that seeks out pure experience is well- developed before any issue of safety or caution enters into the equation. It is really up to the mother to develop that sense of safety and caution in a small boy which doesn’t naturally exist. The most effective way to do that is with fear, to make him afraid, to introduce consequence as a contributing reality in human existence and — where necessary — to magnify consequence as a way of reinforcing the lesson.
“Come down from there — you’ll break your neck,” “You could’ve been killed,” etc., etc.
I think it is very easy for a mother to lose any sense of degree in her concern for safety as an absolute. That is, I think many mothers do such an effective job of using fear to modify behaviour that they end up creating boys who are unreasonably fearful of virtually everything. They are afraid of germs, afraid of bullies, afraid of dogs, afraid of heights, afraid of being alone, afraid, afraid, afraid. They are bound with cast-iron apron strings. The boy becomes afraid on his mothers behalf, as well. He is aware that he is the mere custodian of his physical body, that his mother has en1rn it to him, and that if any physical harm cornea to it while he is in sole custody of it, he will have let his mother down, wounded her, and that becomes one of his biggest fears.
In the masculine world you are (or were, anyway) expected to get past that. Boys who aspired to be men took it as a given that their mothers were overly cautious. They all loved their mothers very, very deny. The fact that you knew not to drag the other guy’s mother into an exchange of insults — unless you were prepared to escalate the exchange into a physical fight — was evidence of that. In the sorting-out process. however, adhering to every one of your mother’s prohibitions was proof positive that you were a coward — you were too afraid. You were using your mother as an excuse to not be brave, braver, or at least less afraid. Everyone was in the same boat if there was a challenge to be met: jumping from a little too great a height or over a greater expanse than usual. No one’s mother would be happy seeing her son do it. It is the whole point of the exercise: to prove that you have a level of individual bravery, an ability to take a calculated risk, to meet a challenge. Another step-on the way for a boy becoming a man.
What separates a boy who will become a man from a “mama’s boy” who will stay a boy has a great deal to do with the extent to which he can overcome the fear that she has instilled in him. To most mothers — to most women — bravery is synonymous with stupidity. If there is no discernible reason why you should jump from too great a height or across a greater than usual expanse, then it is just a stupid thing to do so. To a boy who wants to be a man, the risk of getting a little banged up, twisting your ankle, or getting a nice big bruise is more than outweighed by your willingness to take the chance, to put yourself in harm’s way to a small degree to prove to others — but primarily to yourself — that you have what it takes, you have the right stuff, or, at the very least, you are building an inventory of “challenges met” which will serve you in
good stead if a real challenge should come along. No question a lot of guys go too far in trying to prove that they are the bravest of the brave. That’s part of the sorting-out process as well — finding out for yourself where the borderline between bravery and stupidity exists, where you exist in the spectrum between “coward” and “fool.” Which brings me (finally!) to David Groenewegen’s question about “what would a generation of Communist-era men be like?” I think many of the exam- pies that he used point up the inadequacy of the blanket supposition. From what I have read of John Lennon, he was indeed a “mama’s boy,” very much attached to his mother, Julia. He was also a “toff.” He certainly did not shy away from the demands of the sorting-out process. Nor could he have, considering what sort of an environment Liverpool was and is. I think most of David’s examples — most examples of the overachiever “mama’s boy” — would fall very much into the conventional masculine pattern. They loved their mothers, revered their mothers, but knew very quickly that they could not conduct their life in such a way that if their mother was watching what they were doing minute by minute, she would be completely at peace with it. Even the most extreme example of a “mama’s boy” anytime before 1970 (let’s say) would still have been subjected to and willingly participated in the sorting-out process. There simply wasn’t any other choice. He would either be brave to one degree or an- other, or he would have bravery thrust upon him in the form of a challenge from the bigger boys. I think the danger that I see most often in this day and age is that it has become far more possible for a boy to grow up essentially and completely feminized. I think this is particularly true of day-care centers and a school system that has so completely abandoned any notion of discipline (at least in any definition of the term that I would acknowledge) that such feminization seems inevitable. It seems to me that there has been an extension of “safety über alles” to a ridiculous extreme. I certainly can’t fault the nobility of the motive. I think it springs from an opposing view of the nature of a human being. A maternal-dominant society is going to see babies as immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good creatures. If they can be kept safe from anything that is not immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good in the course of their upbringing, voilà, you end up with an immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good adult. I think any Saturday afternoon spent at the mail or a family-values environment will refute the argument. What you end up with are undisciplined, willful, noisy, destructive, self-obsessed little balls of Id protoplasm. Safe as houses, to be sure. Not only in no danger of being struck by a parent, slapped by a parent, spanked by a parent, but in no danger of being chastised by a parent, of hearing a word of discouragement from a parent. In point of fact, the only danger of bruising seems to come from being pled with, reasoned with too earnestly. Having asserted the maternal-dominant theory society-wide that children are in no way, at no time, and under no circumstance to experience any kind of physical pain directed at them by a parent (with which I agree), society seems to me to have hurtled along a trajectory from the point of that decision. Yelling is out, since it can bruise infant sensibilities and instill life-long traumas. So the children yell and the parents talk in hushed and modulated tones, “reasoning with” a bundle of Id protoplasm that is hurling itself bodily to and fro and shrieking at the top of its lungs. Of course in my experience, the parents are not usually reasoning with the child at all. They are either threatening it or bribing it with material possessions or privileges. So, it seems to me that the philosophical undercarriage comes off the vehicle at that point. The child is not learning reason, it is learning bribery and threats. A beloved toy will be taken away for a period of time or a trip to a favoured environment will be postponed. Materialism unviolated becomes evidence of good behaviour. Materialism divided becomes evidence of bad behaviour. But the focus is on material possessions, instead of the development of a sense of right and wrong. It is right to accurately perceive yourself as just another human being who is expected to be well-behaved. It is wrong to perceive of yourself as the centre of the universe whose willfulness has to be catered to.
I see this as being extended into the education system. Failure is traumatic, so the choice has been made to eliminate the likelihood of failure. “Grading against the curve” to me is a polite euphemism for “eliminate all standards.” A good high-jump event is one in which the bar has been lowered to a point where everyone can clear it. A good curriculum is one whereby everyone gets a passing grade and the majority are judged to be excellent. If the class troglodyte can get a 95, you’ve really accomplished something.
I don’t think the net effect has been what was hoped for. Far from having a world made up of immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good adults because they have been kept safe from any trauma — physical or emotional or spiritual — every step along the way, I think we are producing and continue to produce a world of adults who are obsessed with the fact that they “feel bad.” What a conundrum! When you engineer a society whose primary purpose is to make sure that no one is made to “feet bad” ever, the vast majority end up “feeling bad”: materialists unsatisfied with their material goods, secular humanists who either believe in nothing or who eventually believe in everything sequentially, one belief at a time, compulsive “careers” whose caring is the source of profound emotional pain, adults kept safe, safe, safe throughout their upbringing and who are terrified, terrified, terrified. Bravery having been dispensed with, belittled out of existence by the least-brave who have labeled anything short of absolute safety to be absolute stupidity, I think the result is inescapable: profound societal terror, the magnification of apprehension into anxiety, anxiety into fear, and fear into terror. With no sorting-out process, no incremental challenges met, no inclination or ability to push individual limits of endurance and capability, whole generations of males haven’t the first clue as to who or what they are, since they have grown up in a structure where their only measure of themselves is in female terms: how sensitive, how caring, how compassionate, how environmentally aware, how safe they are. Every other measure of maleness — forget masculinity — is deemed irrelevant and stupid. The only thing that can possibly fill that vacuum, in my view, is apprehension, anxiety, fear, and terror in varying degrees of severity.
Well, not the only thing. The problem of course is that I find it very difficult to discuss these issues without looking at where and how they have permeated so much of society outside of the home. I am sure that there are many good and effective day-care custodians abroad in the land, most — if not all — of them women. I’m certainly in no position to judge their performance sight unseen (and! do fervently hope that it remains an unseen sight for myself). I’m sure that if the sorting-out process has not been eliminated, it has certainly been curtailed in the interests of safety. I can’t say for certain that whatever has replaced it is wholly and completely inadequate. But I would be willing to bet that whatever system (or systems) has been introduced would be, at the very least, peculiar, having as its underpinning the interchangeability of the male and female genders. Doubtless little girls are being raised to be little boys to the same extent that little boys are being raised to be little girls with much resultant confusion all the way around with the possible exception of those little boys and little girls who are genetically predisposed to the borderland areas of genders (as it were). If little boys are being raised to be safe, to not take chances, to know nothing of their place (apart from being Mother’s and Surrogate Mother’s Little Prince), to be terrified of much that warrants smaller fear, and to be fearful of much that warrants no more than mild apprehension, well, they at least find themselves in a world better suited to their nature, Since bravery is not, for the most part, necessary, it would seem that an exaggerated sense of fearfulness is not the most helpful bit of baggage to be carrying around in a world which has been made— if not absolutely safe — at the very least considerably safer. I was thinking to myself a while ago as I was walking in downtown Kitchener and I had passed the umpty-umpth apprehensive pedestrian who was eyeing me warily, fearfully (since I am large enough and fit enough to look as if! could do severe bodily injury to most of the people that I pass on the street), I was thinking: How often do they get that apprehensive, wary, fearful look on their faces? How afraid are they? Are they afraid every waking minute of the day? It seemed to me that they were and are. And that seems so completely unnecessary to me.
I hope I’m not telling tales out of school here, but my mother is a very fearful person. I think most mothers are, for the reason that I outlined: they are so fearful on behalf of their children that they have an inclination to make themselves permanently fearful. I think my mother is less afraid than she used to be. I certainly hope so. As I said to her once (quoting something I had read somewhere): “The great thing about being permanently fearful is that your fear will eventually be justified.” That is, if you are fearful or apprehensive or every waking minute of every day for five years or ten years, eventually something bad will happen to prove that you weren’t worried for nothing. I can understand women being cautious, taking care, taking pains with their safety. I can even understand if such caution gets out of their control and makes them fearful, visibly fearful, wherever they go. That’s an individual choice to be made. What boggles my mind is when I see males in the same condition. I feel like saying: What do you think I’m going to do? Beat you up? Rape you? Pull out a gun? Have you so little rational control of your thoughts and emotions that you really think something is going to happen to you on King Street in a small town in Southern Ontario? Of course I can’t say that — I’d scare the little fella into a heart attack before I had five words out of my mouth.
To me, it seems that this is the most regrettable net effect of trying to make the maternal nature into a template for society, to move it outside of the home, outside of the one-on-one mother-and-son relationship and take it to a society-wide level. I think it is far more destructive than smoking bans (second-hand cigarette smoke — in my view if a human body is so fragile that second-hand cigarette smoke is going to cause it to shrivel up and die, then second-hand cigarette smoke is going to be the least of its problems) or censorship or banning a chemical additive because consuming its body weight in the additive caused cancer in a mouse. To me this is fearfulness out of all reasonable — hell, out of all unreasonable proportion.
Inside the home? Well, I can only speak from my own experience, obviously. And here I can agree with David Groenewegen’s original point. The fear that a mother generates in her child is only one part of the equation, one part of the fountainhead resource of a mother’s love. Certainly it is out of love that a mother is so apprehensive, so fearful on her child’s behalf If a mother errs in making her child too fearful she does so with the best of motives of wanting what is best for her child — a healthful and long life topping the list.
But I think David G.’s point, the positive side of the “mama’s boy” is better reflected not in the fear that she imparts to him, nor in the love which is the fountainhead source of everything maternal, but in a mother’s belief. To David’s list I could probably add a dozen names off the top of my head, and I would be willing to bet that each of them had mothers who believed in their abilities, who encouraged those abilities, who believed in them when they themselves didn’t know that belief had anything to do with achievement, when they could see nothing in themselves to believe in or so little in themselves that belief seemed unwarranted, excessive, or at least disproportionate. Belief of that kind is not unwavering, not unshakeable. It would be nice to say that it is, but, alas, waver it does, shake it does with each disappointment, each wrongful act. But it does always restore itself, is always restored. Why? How? Well, not being a mother, I’m sure I don’t have the first clue.
To me, it is the fundamental flaw in attempting to use the maternal nature as a template for society-as-a- whole. Fear is exportable. You have only to watch a newsmagazine show on TV, read a newsmagazine or a newspaper to see that magnified fear is, indeed, exportable. Left unchecked, magnified fear can turn into fascism or can certainly endorse fascistic impulses and programs without batting an eyelash. Where safety comes first, it is very easy to make individual human rights, individual human liberty a close second, then a not-so-close second, a quite distant second, and so on. My mother has said on several occasions that she wouldn’t mind giving up some freedoms if it meant that greater safety would be the result I shudder when she says that, of course. I can’t help but shudder when anyone says that or something like it. But I never doubt for a minute that she is sincere in saying it and that her motives are completely unselfish and her intentions are good. But it does indicate to me the exact limits of where the maternal nature can be applied to society without unraveling everything that the paternal nature has built, brick by costly brick, century by century in its philosophical progress from the cradle of the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Constitution of the United States of America.
It is unfortunate for all of us that the far more valuable commodity, belief, is not exportable. It would be hard to imagine how a community of mothers could instill belief in a community of sons. Impossible, in fact, since it would lack the crucial element of the one-on-one relationship. “All of we mothers believe in all of you sons” just doesn’t seem capable of bearing fruit, does it?
Would that it were!
Would that my mother could have the kind of belief in the abilities of every aspiring cartoonist out there that she had in mine! Would that Julia Lennon could have believed in a hundred or even a dozen dreamy-eyed boys filling notebooks with squiggly little drawings and nonsense verse! Would that Gladys Presley could have seen Captain Marvel Jr. in even three other dirt-poor boys in Tupelo, Mississippi! Alas, it doesn’t work that way. It never has and it never will. What is the secret? What is the proper balance of love and belief and fear and every other element of maternal love that goes into making an over-achiever “mama’s boy”? What is the proper diet? What needs to be said and when?
Who could even pretend to have the answer?
I am convinced, however, that the one-on-one relationship and belief in the individual boy is central to the equation.