I have always been close to my son Paul. Our mother–son bond is built on a mutual love of debate, bad puns, and cooking. I don’t know what most adult sons text about with their moms, but we often exchange pictures of what we made for dinner.
One evening in the run up to his wedding, my iPhone pinged. It was a photo of a plate, captioned: “Tomato herb rice with white beans and spinach—not bad.”
“No meat?” I reply.
“Protein in beans,” followed by a heart emoji.
I was filled with a rush of joy, with some hope and fear added in. Hope that we could always have these wonderfully casual exchanges, and fear that, after he was married, everything might change.
I couldn’t help think of that well-known ditty:
A son is a son ’til he takes a wife.
A daughter’s a daughter all her life.
Testing My Own Theories on the Mother–Son Bond
When Paul was a teenager, I wrote a book on the mother–son relationship, called The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. Research backed up the subtitle—studies revealed that boys who have a strong emotional bond with their mothers fare better in school, in the workplace, and in relationships with friends and significant others. They had lower rates of anxiety and depression.
Common wisdom held that when your son hit adolescence, it was time to start letting him go.
In interviews, many moms rejected the idea that by keeping our sons close, we’d raise wimpy, dependent—even effeminate—“mama’s boys.” As a feminist, I thought that was homophobic nonsense. I believed I had a lot to teach my son—and not just about making a perfect omelet. From a strong work ethic to empathy toward others, I wanted to model the same values to Paul as I did to his older sister, Jeanie.
Yet something nagged at me. Common wisdom held that when your son hit adolescence, it was time to start letting him go, for his own mental well-being. Obviously, I didn’t want to stand in the way of my kids’ healthy evolution toward independence. But there seemed to be an expectation that I was supposed to detach emotionally from Paul in a way that I wasn’t with Jeanie. Again, this seemed dated and sexist. I just didn’t buy that our bond would prevent my son from becoming a well-adjusted man.
Warnings and Stereotypes
But another warning was tougher to dismiss. Ultimately, you will lose your son to another. Separating from him will preemptively protect your heart—and, the implication is, prevent you from becoming another outmoded stereotype: the overbearing mother-in-law, competing for attention and affection with “the other woman.” Paul trading a mother for wife, only enough room for one woman in his heart. Meanwhile, Jeanie and I would be tight forever. Ridiculous. And yet . . .
My theories are being put to the test.
Now Paul is getting married, and my theories are being put to the test.
First things first. I love his fiancé, Afroz. She’s moral, smart, and funny and has a great dynamic with Paul. They’ve dated for years. I’ve watched their relationship mature and had time to really get to know Afroz. We also share much in common, including a deep fear of flying and an abiding love for Jane Austen, The Golden Girls, and, of course, Paul.
As they fell in love, I had to adjust. Paul, who lives in another city, would call when he was sick.
“Sounds like you should rest and take some Tylenol,” I’d advise.
“Yeah, that’s what Afroz told me,” he would say. “She made me ginger tea with lemon and honey.”
I was happy he was cared for, but I felt a twinge that I wasn’t his first consult. Then there was the cooking.
“Mom, Afroz made these amazing potato, cauliflower, and onion patties. It’s her mom’s recipe.”
This felt like encroachment. But, hey, I really wanted the recipe.
When they called to tell us they were engaged, my husband and I were thrilled. But I overstepped—right out of the box, joyfully babbling to Afroz, “You’re going to be the mother of my grandchildren!” This was met with radio silence, followed by a polite, “Um. Someday. That’s the hope.”
Could We Share Him?
My future daughter-in law is a lawyer. In college, she majored in politics and gender studies. I’d never asked about her feelings on my close relationship to Paul. Now that wedding plans are well underway, it seemed time.
Her answer surprised me: “When we started dating, I thought, ‘He’s really close to his family and his mom. This is so great.’” Encouraged, I asked if she’d ever heard the maxim that if you want to know how a man will be as a husband, watch how he treats his mother. She hadn’t. She thought it made sense, but that it was somewhat limited.
I was happy he was cared for, but I felt a twinge that I wasn’t his first consult.
“Of course, there’s something to be said about respecting the women in your life,” Afroz told me. “But it extends beyond being a good spouse. He was raised to be an incredibly good person to all the people he’s close to.”
Pretty nice words for any parent to hear.
Paul, of course, has his faults. Afroz and I exchange eye rolls when he gets that dog-worrying-a-bone way of endlessly making his point, or, worse, breaks into his victory dance. (Paul’s not a bad loser, but he is a truly obnoxious winner.)
But you know what? I believe Paul will be as good a husband as he is a son. It’s brought me joy—not resentment—to see Paul and Afroz’s love for each other. After all, love is not a zero-sum game. There’s plenty to go around. Besides, I just remembered another proverb:
You’re not losing a son. You’re gaining a daughter.
Kate Stone Lombardi has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Ladies Home Journal, Parenting Magazine and other national publications. Lombardi is the author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger.