Mothers teach their sons how to love. We show our sons that loving others makes for a richer, more valuable life: We teach them how to feel safe with love. And the more successful we are at this, the greater their life experiences will be. If we are jealous of others and never let other women –or men- close to our sons, we teach them that others cannot be trusted. This is a common, but cruel, mistake that mothers make. If we teach our sons that they are safe and loves only when they are with us, we cross the line into unhealthy territory, moving from nurture into overprotectiveness.
Bringing other women and men into our sons’ lives has many different developmental and emotional benefits. Loving mothers gladly open up their sons’ word to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and other trustworthy adults. When Ed’s mother did this for him, he told me, it completely changed him.
Even at forty-five, Ed told me that he was a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy.” “I admit it,” he told me. “With a fabulous wife and four kids, I still adore my mother. No one will ever replace her in my life and she knows it. I talk to her on the phone several times a week”.
I wondered how Ed came to be so close to his other. When I asked, he began offering many stories of his experience growing up with his mother. “Well,” he said, “if I have to point to one thing, I suppose that it would be how well my mother loved other people”.
This surprised me. “It really expanded my life. My mother loved so many people. She felt comfortable doing it with complete abandon, and it seemed to open her life and mine. She never showed any fear of being hurt or rejected. My mother was a teacher. We lived in a modest ranch home and many young teachers lived in our neighborhood. She was constantly inviting them over for dinner. I’ll bet that four days a week, someone other than a family member was over at our house.”
I asked Ed a question that seemed obious : “Did you feel that you were being ignored or pushed aside by your mother ?”
“Just the opposite,” he replied. “Whenever other adults were at our house, my mother never told me to leave the room. She included me in conversations. She told me people’s stories. She told me if they were having others around because I could see that they loved being around my mother. She cooked for them. She helped them with their students and I was always right in the middle of everything. In fact, I learned to enjoy being around adults more than being with my peers. They had would often give me nuggets of advice on what I should do and not do. In many ways, I had a houseful of mentors who look an interest in me. That made me feel every important.”
As Ed spoke, I reflected on how much I had exposed my own children to the other people in my life as they were growing up. I hadn’t actually done it very often, aside from time with aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Why was that? When I pressed myself for an answer, I realized that in order to have done that, I would have had to surrender some of my time with my kids to other adults, embracing the love and support that those adults could have given my kids. At the time, I Hadn’t been willing to do that. Now that I recognize how helpful it could have been, I wish I had.
What we show to our sons teaches them more about how to love and be loved than what we tell them. Not only did Ed’s mother show him how to love well; she allowed him to be loved by the young teachers that came to his home so frequently. Their words and interest in his life changed who he became. “I learned to enjoy being with adults, I felt important and I gained a lot of self-confidence.”
Before we finished our conversation, Ed made certain to tell me one more story about his mother. He couldn’t stop talking about her. “One day,” he said, I got the surprise of my life. I came home from school and my mother told me to sit down. She had something that wanted to tell me. I was the only boy in the family. She said that she met a student who was visiting from Thailand. He didn’t speak English well and needed a place to live. She told me that would be moving in with us. Rather, me. He was moving into my bedroom with me. It wasn’t a big room, but we were going to cram in together because she felt that having him in our home was the right thing to do. Sometimes I felt that I was living in the middle of a circus-there was so much activity going on.”
Did having another boy share his room for the year upset him-particularly since no one had asked beforehand how he felt about it? I wondered. I couldn’t have imagined saying that to my own son in high school without asking him! After all, wasn’t my son’s room his own, personal place?
“Not really,” Ed said. “It didn’t bother me at all because I had come to the point where I liked having others around. My mother was so giving, so loving, that it all seemed to work. He moved in and now, after thirty years, he is still a big part of our family. He became as close to me as brother. I really love him.”
I am embarrassed to admit that even after he said this, I still felt incredulous. Wasn’t that mean of his mother to disrupt his routine that way? How could she do that without asking?
“I am so grateful that my mother showed me how to love others. She showed me that opening yourself to others really can be good. Was I mad at her for this? Suppose I might have been at the time. But not long, because he melded into our family.
I believe that the key to my mother’s success at making this work was the fact that she never told me that I had to like him. She didn’t put things on me; she took them on herself. And she gave me enough attention so that never felt slighted. I wouldn’t have traded having the extended family in our home for anything.”
Sometimes teaching our sons to love can be done in ways that counter our maternal instincts. When we feel compelled to pull our sons close and keep them –particularly when it comes to teaching them what really matters in life-is to allow others into our private space to love them, too. In this way, strong mothers provide to their sons a road map for enriching relationships and connecting deeply with others. We are ones who give the clues. We are the ones whose behavior instructs them to either be comfortable or uncomfortable with intimacy. Fathers have much to teach their sons, but for most boys, it is their mothers who show them how fulfilling it can be to forge connections with others built on love, affection, admiration, and respect.