The Dance of Mother and Son
By Janet Allison
Recently I was substitute teaching in a 3rd grade classroom when one of the boys, I’ll call him Max, became upset, wanting to go home. With further inquiry, he told me some notes had been stolen (or dropped) out of his lunch box. “Notes?” I asked. “Yes, notes from my mom,” he replied, “Now they’re making fun of me and calling me a sissy.”
After some discussion, and reassurance that others likely have notes from their parents too, Max came to the conclusion that he didn’t want notes from his mom in his lunchbox anymore.
After school, he invited his mom to stay and talk with me. As I explained what had happened earlier, I saw Max take a deep breath and step forward. In a strong voice he said, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings but I don’t want you to put notes in my lunch box anymore.”
My heart skipped a beat as I looked to see how Mom would respond. What a choice point this word was for her!
Would she say, “Oh Max, honey, but I love you and I want you to know every minute of every day how much I love you!”?
Or would she say, “Okay Max, I won’t do that anymore,” even as her mother-heart was breaking?
When I tell parents this story, most moms are in tears, but most dads are cheering because they recognize the huge step Max took toward becoming a man that day.
As Michael Gurian stated in The Invisible Presence, mothering a son means you have both “an immediate, hands-on experience, and also a long-term visionary one.” When he is young, you are closely connected to him, deeply in love and firmly committed to his growth. But then, as he grows and learns to trust himself and listen to his inner voice, he must separate from you. And so attachment and separation become the life-long dance you do with your son.
All cultures (except ours!) have ritualized this necessary separation between mother and son. In Pygmy tribes, boys are ritualistically driven with sticks by their mothers towards their fathersand tribal elders. In Lakota tribes, boys are separated from their mothers for two years before being rejoined to them with great ceremony – as men.
One 6th grade boy lamented to his divorced mother, “Mom! I need my dad!” And it was a wise mother who packed him up and sent him to live with dad for the summer. Did she miss him? Of course! Yet, somehow, she was able to set aside her yearning because she knew this was an essential step towards manhood for her son.
If we don’t acknowledge and ritualize this separation from mother and push our boys towards men and elders, they will find a way to do it for themselves. A friend raised three boys and her youngest separated from her by disrespecting her, calling her names, fiercely “hating” her. Boys will also make that separation through alcohol, drugs, gangs, and other risky behaviors.
So, on this Mother’s Day and every day, savor your attachment to your son but also savor the impending separation. For, as a friend recently told me, her 24-year old son “is back” and better than ever. Just last week, he asked her, “How are you?” and then stuck around to deeply hear her answer. It was a moment she had longed for and yet was surprised by. Though it seemed a long time in coming, she knows that now they have the rest of their lives to dance as Mother and Man. And that Man will still and always be her beloved son, too.
Janet Allison is an author, educator, coach and speaker. As a parent educator, Janet knows that while parents are often overly prepared for the arrival of the baby, they are often under prepared for the life long task of parenting. Janet helps parents gain the skills they need to raise children who are confident and capable. Janet is especially interested in gender intelligence and why males and females learn and communicate so differently. She has written, Boys Alive! Bring Out Their Best , a compendium of relevant research coupled with practical strategies. Through Boys Alive, the workshop she teaches and the book, Janet helps parents and teachers understand the unique learning and social needs of boys and how to create a supportive environment in which boys can thrive.
Read more: Michael Gurian, The Invisible Presence, Shambhala Publications, 2010.
Hear more: Janet Allison, Nurturing Yourself, Nurturing Your Son ,MP3 audio, here.