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Men and their mothers

By Peter West - posted Friday, 9 May 2008


So much has been written today about gender. We seem to have heard it all. Women, women and feminism, how men are changing, working mothers, single parents, gay men, gay and lesbian parents. But nobody could accuse the Australian media of originality; and so much of the conventional wisdom on gender is rehashed from US and British sources.

One recent example in The Sydney Morning Herald (April 26, 2008) was a British article about male sexual dysfunction, written of course by a woman (with some additions by a male). Yet in all this abundance, one topic has rarely been discussed: men and their mothers.

Men have very passionate feelings about their mothers. My Mum died last year at the age of 95. It’s made me think very hard about the mother-son relationship. Forgive me if I start with the personal.

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A lot depends on what the mother has done in her lifetime. A mum like mine went to school until she was 15. She worked in the Post Office for a few years. Then she met my Dad and was married to him for the rest of her life. She had five kids. We were Catholics, after all, and the priests told all the Catholic mothers to go forth and multiply. Mum saw herself as a wife and mother. I was always her little boy who’d grown up. At six feet four (193.5cm I think) as an adult I was rather a large little boy.

When the babies leave the nest, Mums often feel anxious about them. They feel a kind of separation anxiety and dream up reasons to call their children and get them to do things.

Mum used to call me and ask me to bring her yogurt, or milk, or bread, or anything, really. Then when I got there she would start into a rant about something. She would tell endless anecdotes about the woman over the road or something that was bothering her. Sometimes there seemed little point to the stories, except for me to listen to her. I think what she needed was comfort, validation and reassurance. She felt she had given her life to the family and quite reasonably expected something back.

Like most men, I would try and be a good son, but my Mum drove me a bit crazy. She could never be satisfied - it was like appeasing some god who made more and more demands. And she seemed determined to find something to complain about. Then we would get angry with her and then feel guilty we hadn’t been better sons and daughters. Italian, or Jewish, men and their mothers, might be different.

Perhaps today’s working mothers are not much like this. But they are still mothers; and research suggests that mothers do experience powerful changes in their bodies, their hormones and their thinking. I suppose we are still allowed to talk about a mother’s instinct without being afraid of attack.

Of course, Mum used to come and rescue us when we were small. Some kids shouted at us or maybe bullied us. And she would kiss away our tears.
But we must grow up in the end. We walk out into the world and go on our own feet, we enter relationships, we muck things up, we raise kids, lose jobs, are betrayed by false friends.

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James Hollis says the question for the first half of our lives is: what do my parents want from me? In the second half of our lives, we ask: what else should I do? What does the soul, or the universe demand (I have added to his own thoughts here)? We can’t go successfully through life revelling in youth and exuberance and pleasing other people. We men smile at our own failings: we dream of driving a fast red sports car; some lust after beauty queens and models; or turn to drink or gambling to recapture that youthful exuberance.

I can’t pretend to be better than everyone else. I recently went to watch a pile of young people hammer each other with paintballs and was sorely tempted to join in. I smile at my own desire to run faster, lift more weights and stay forever young.

There must be wonderful feelings engendered in a mum carrying a baby. It must be satisfying to have a baby at the breast, totally dependent. Or on the bottle, for that matter. But as a boy grows up, he needs less and less mothering. Adolescence is a time in which a boy reaches out. He rejects, ridicules and questions his parents’ statements. My Mum and Dad were fond of absolutes:

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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