Freud warned about the unresolved Oedipal complex in boys: Sons who couldn’t break free from a smothering mother’s clutches were doomed to be sexually confused — or even homosexual.
Even Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatric guru of the 1950s and 1960s, advised that mama’s boys might grow up “precocious, with feminine interests.”
But now, author Kate Stone Lombardi contends in her new book, “The Mama’s Boy Myth,” that having a close mother-son relationship makes boys stronger and ultimately helps them be better partners and husbands.
Society fears the “blindly adoring mother, the emasculating mother, and the martyred mother,” according to Lombardi, 55, who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y.
“The myth is that any boy close to his mom will be a sissy, a wimp, forever dependent and never a man who can have a healthy relationship,” Lombardi told ABCNews.com. “And it’s everywhere we look, in the movies, on TV.”
In literature, so-called “mama’s boys” have been portrayed either as neurotic killers like the cross-dressing Norman Bates from the film, “Psycho,” or “lust-ridden, mother-addicted” Jewish bachelors like the protagonist in Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
Homophobia is one of the “big bogeymen” behind why society is so critical of the mother-son relationship, she writes. “The unspoken fear is that if the mother is too great an influence on the son, she will somehow make him gay.”
But Lombardi said that for this generation of mothers and sons, the stereotypes are simply not true.
A former writer for the New York Times, Lombardi got the idea for the book after wondering why she was uneasy about the close relationship she shared with her own son, Paul, who is now 23.
“From the very beginning I felt a really strong connection — literally when I was in the hospital and put him into my arms,” she said. “I looked at him and recognized him and felt this bond.”
As he got older, “he got my moods and I got his moods. But I thought it was something peculiar to us — that luckily, I had this sweet boy.”
Later, when talking to other mothers, she realized they were not unique, but also that, “no one talks about it.”
She set up a web site to reach other mothers and to learn about their relationships with their sons. More than 1,100 replied to say they, too, were emotionally connected.
Many said that like her, they felt compelled to keep the closeness “secret.”
Historically, mothers have been blamed for anything that goes wrong with a child, according to Lombardi. Schizophrenia and later autism were attributed to maternal mistakes.
She wonders why fathers are spared the same criticism.
“Tellingly, there seems to be much less general angst over the idea that if a father is too influential on his daughter, she might grow up to be a lesbian,” writes Lombardi.
She cites study after study that destroys the notion that motherly love is destructive.
In one 2010 research project, Carlos Santos, a professor at Arizona State University, followed 426 middle-school boys to determine to what extent they bought into traditional masculine roles.
Those who had warm and supportive relationships with their mothers had better tools for communication and lower rates of depression and delinquency than their “tougher” peers.
“These boys had a broader definition of masculinity and didn’t buy into the idea that men had to be stoic and not fight back at every moment,” said Lombardi. “Being close to mom was good for their mental health.”
Mama’s Boys Are Less Aggressive and Troubled
She said research shows that these boys are less susceptible to peer pressure to do drugs and alcohol, and they tend to delay their first sexual experience and have less unprotected sex.
“We don’t know why — if it’s specifically because of the nature of the mother-son communication,” she said. “But dad’s tend to have a big sex talk or big drug talk. Moms weave it into everyday conversation. It’s more subtle and more often.”
Dads are important, too, according to Lombardi. “Parenting is not a zero-sum game,” she said. “You don’t have to be close to one parent and not the other. They both bring something.”
Lombardi said she shares the same closeness with her 26-year-old daughter and her son is close to his father.
She knows readers might deem her relationship with her own son as “deeply inappropriate” and even “creepy” — they are affectionate and even have their own song.
Many other women also described to Lombardi the “love affair” they felt with their boys.
But many, fearing a mother’s love can be a “dangerous influence” close the door on their sons too early.
Some studies suggest boys are more fragile than girls, at least earlier in life. Sometimes that “hearty shove” is premature and can be devastating.
She cites a 2010 study of 6,000 children by psychologist Pasco Fearon of University of Reading that found those boys who were “insecurely attached” to their mothers were more aggressive and hostile in their teen years.
“Sons really need their moms and the last thing they need is withdrawal of support,” she said.
Lombardi insists she doesn’t want to turn boys into girls. “I don’t think they are the same,” she said. “The differences between them will always be.”
But society has changed, and so have cultural constructs of masculinity and femininity.
Lombardi argues that sensitivity, tenderness and the ability to talk about feelings have traditionally been female characteristics, but they just might help boys in the future.
One study from Northeastern University predicts that by 2018, the social sector of the economy will gain at least 6.9 million jobs will require “brains over brawn.”
“Our sons need to be ready for these jobs,” said Lombardi. “They need communication skills and the ability to work in teams and have emotional intelligence.”
Her son, Paul Lombardi, seems to be on the right path now that he is an adult, training to be a teacher in a residency tutor program at a Boston elementary charter school.
“I am the person I am today because of the values she instilled in me and the guidance and love she showed me,” he said of his mother. “It’s definitely unfair and stigmatizing to say a mother and son can’t be close.”
Both admit their relationship has changed over time.
“You don’t treat a 23-year-old the same way as a 5-year-old,” said Paul Lomabardi.
“I still feel like we have a connection,” said his mother. “But I don’t need to know everything that goes on in his life. We are adults now.”
As for the book, Paul Lombardi said there were some surprises when personal anecdotes became public, but nothing too embarrassing.
“She went through the process and vetted with me,” he said. “Like a good mom, she is protective and knows her boundaries.”
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