Editor’s Note: “When your son gets married you lose a son”—it’s a concept that certainly hit home for our readers. This article about the author’s mother/son bond was one of our most read pieces in 2017 and 2018. Check out her follow up “My Life as a Mother-In-Law” here (after reading the below, of course).
With Mother’s Day 2017 right around the corner, I’d been pondering the mother son bond even more then usual. Then, almost on cue, my iPhone bings. A photo of a plate, captioned: “Tomato herb rice with white beans and spinach—not bad.” I don’t know what most adult sons text about with their moms, but Paul and I often exchange pictures of what we made for dinner.
“No meat?” I reply.
“Protein in beans,” followed by a heart emoji.
Common wisdom held that when your son hit adolescence, it was time to start letting him go, for his own mental well being.
Paul and I have always been close. Among other things, we share a love of debate, bad puns, and cooking. The food bond started early. Paul claims that when he was 8 years old, I snapped at him in the grocery store produce section, “Didn’t I raise you better than to buy peaches out of season?” In my defense, my son, now 28, is an inspired cook and a careful shopper.
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.
In interviews, many moms rejected the idea that by keeping our sons close, we’d raise wimpy, dependent – even effeminate – “mama’s boys.”
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 towards 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 towards 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.
A Son Is a Son: Warnings and Stereotypes of a Strong Mother Son Bond
But another warning was tougher to dismiss. Ultimately, you will lose your son to another. Separating from him will preemptively protect your heart. Many moms I interviewed sing-songed this rhyme:
Would Paul trade a mother for a wife, only having enough room for one woman in his heart?
A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife.
A daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.
I’d tried to write off the verse as 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…
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. 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.
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.
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.
“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.)
I believe Paul will be as good a husband as he is a son.
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. She 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.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2017.