There are plenty of pop culture references to the dangers of a close mother-son relationship. From the myth of Oedipus to the movie Psycho, narrative after narrative harps on the idea that mothers can damage their sons, make them weak, awkward and dependent.
But for millions of men, the opposite has turned out to be true, author Kate Lombardi tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. Lombardi — a mother herself — is the author of the new book, The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger.
Lombardi's own relationship with her son was a major inspiration for the book. "For a long time, I thought that what we had was kind of unique," she says, "that I was somehow blessed with this especially sensitive, caring boy." But in her research for The Mama's Boy Myth, she discovered that she was far from alone.
Her starting point was that mothers and sons face a stigmatization that other parent-child relationships don't. Mothers and daughters, she says, have no problems. "I'm very close to my daughter, and it doesn't raise any eyebrows," she says. Similarly, father-son relationships are viewed as very important, and even father-daughter relationships are valued. "But mothers and sons — that relationship is always looked at with a little skepticism and a little fear."
Lombardi speculates that it might be Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex at the back of many parents' minds. "I think some of this fear and anxiety around the mother-son relationship really predates Freud," she says. "But that said, Freud codified it. I was amazed how many moms in 2012 were still bringing up the Oedipus complex."
A Healthy, Loving Relationship
The stereotype of the unhealthy mother-son relationship is very familiar — a controlling or dominating mother that interferes with her son's life and refuses to let him come into adulthood on his own. But that's not how it has to be to have closeness, Lombardi says.
"A healthy, loving relationship is one where the mom is emotionally supportive of her son. She recognizes his individuality, his sensitivity, and his vulnerability along with his strengths," she says.
The ideal mother-son relationship is one where the mother can and does respond to her son's emotional needs — and perhaps it's not all that different from a healthy mother-daughter relationship, she says.
It often goes awry, though, when mothers of young boys are pressured to let their child learn to cope on his own. One mother Lombardi interviewed related a story where her pediatrician had accused her of "modeling anxiety" while comforting her son after a fall. "We get the strong message that the last thing a boy needs is his mother, when in fact the research shows just the opposite," she says.
A Good Bond Leads To Better Relationships
The research is actually quite extensive, as Lombardi tells it. Small boys who lack a healthy attachment to their mother are often more aggressive, disobedient and even violent. When boys reach middle school age, the differences are apparent in their views on masculinity.
"Boys who were closer to their mothers ... didn't think, for instance, that every time you got challenged you had to fight," Lombardi said, "or that being a guy means acting tough or going it alone." A better relationship a son has with his mother translates to better mental health.
As those boys reach manhood, the differences can be many, Lombardi says. For one, they often have an easier time in adult relationships.
"One of the things that moms tend to do with their boys is they teach them emotional intelligence," Lombardi says. "They teach them to recognize their feelings and talk about them."
Take the classic image of a little boy melting down in a grocery store, and the mother responding, "Use your words." Or when the sullen high schooler comes home, slams the door and yells, "I don't want to talk about it!" The mother with the healthier relationship, Lombardi says, can ask her son to cool off and talk it out when he's ready.
Lombardi knows it works — after all, her own son, now 23, now enjoys the benefits of having that healthy relationship while growing up. And now that his mother has shared it with the world?
"He's pretty proud of it," she says. "He's not ashamed of our closeness."
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
There are plenty of pop culture references to the dangers of a close mother-son relationship going all the way back to the Oedipus myth, or more recently, the movie "Psycho."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PSYCHO")
JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) Do you go out with friends?
ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) Well, a boy's best friend is his mother.
SULLIVAN: The idea is if you're a man and your mother raised you with too much affection, then she has prevented you from being tough and independent, or conversely, if you're a mother of boys and you keep them too close, you will make them feminine, weak or even awkward. But for millions of men, the opposite has turned out to be true.
That's the basis of a new book by Kate Lombardi, a writer and mother herself. It's called "The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger." Kate Lombardi joins us from NPR Studio in New York. Kate, welcome.
KATE LOMBARDI: Thanks for having me.
SULLIVAN: Kate, the common wisdom for decades has been that a good mother is one that leaves her son alone. Are boys who grow up with close mothers doomed?
LOMBARDI: Not at all. In fact, boys who grow up with moms who keep them close are kind of inoculated from a lot of behavioral problems they can have later on in life. They're lucky boys if their moms keep them close.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SULLIVAN: And you have a son too.
LOMBARDI: I do. He's now an adult. He's 23. And he and I were very close. And for a long time, I thought that what we had was kind of unique, that I was somehow blessed with this especially sensitive, caring boy. But as I came to find out, I was far from alone.
SULLIVAN: It seems like it's okay for mothers and daughters to have a really close relationship, or even fathers and daughters to have a close relationship, but why have boys been left out of this?
LOMBARDI: You know, it's the only parent-child relationship that's been stigmatized in some way. As you say, mothers and daughters, everyone thinks that's swell. I'm very close to my daughter. It doesn't raise any eyebrows. A dad who is close to his daughter, that's a lucky girl. And certainly, you know, fathers and sons, everyone think that's very important. And it is.
But mothers and sons, that relationship is always looked at with a little skepticism and a little fear. And I think it's really a hangover from the Oedipus complex - for its Oedipus complex.
SULLIVAN: Is that - I mean, is that what you pin all this on? Is that where you think that this mindset came from?
LOMBARDI: I think some of this fear and anxiety around the mother-son relationship really predates Freud. But that said, Freud codified it. And I was amazed how many moms in 2012 were still bringing up the Oedipus complex.
SULLIVAN: So what does a close mother-son relationship look like? What are we really talking about?
LOMBARDI: Well, you know, let me just start by saying what it doesn't look like. It does not - it's not one of these relationships where a mom is dominating or controlling and she refuses to let her son grow up. That's the stereotype. A healthy, loving relationship is one where the mom is, you know, emotionally supportive of her son. She recognizes his individuality, his sensitivity and his vulnerability along with his strengths.
And there's kind of like a synchronicity there. A mom is able to respond to her son with what he needs when he needs it. I don't think it's that different from what a healthy mother-daughter relationship looks like, although I realize that that is a provocative point of view.
SULLIVAN: What has the message been to mothers up until this point? What were they supposed to do with their sons?
LOMBARDI: Moms get messages from remarkably early ages to push their little boys away. And it starts when they're little babies, and it goes on - I mean, I talked to moms who, you know, were comforting, you know, toddlers and told that their boys should learn to man up. One Seattle, Washington, mom told me that her pediatrician told her that when she comforted her boy when he fell, she was modeling anxiety.
These messages go on through the middle school ages and certainly when our boys are teenagers. We get the strong message that the last thing a boy needs is his mother, when in fact, the research shows just the opposite. Teenage boys clearly need their moms, and their moms can play a very positive influence in their life.
SULLIVAN: What kind of research is out there that would say that it is important for mothers and sons to be close?
LOMBARDI: There's a lot out there, and it starts from the time when guys are just, you know, little babies. Starting from very early ages, you see the benefits of keeping them close and the dangers of not. Boys, in particular, really suffer if that attachment is not good. And they go on to have much more aggressive behavior, they're much more disobedient, they're a little bit violent.
There's also some really interesting research that's been done on middle school boys. Boys who were closer to their moms had a little more flexible definition of what it meant to be a guy. They didn't think, for instance, that every time you got challenged you had to fight, or that being a guy means acting tough or going it alone.
Well, it turns out that those boys were a little more flexible in how they viewed masculinity, have less depression and less anxiety than their kind of tougher peer. So the closer to your mom actually translates into better mental health.
SULLIVAN: What has it done for the men out there who can look back at their own relationships to their mother and decide, was I very close to my mother? What kind of difference would you see in the kind of man that comes out of that?
LOMBARDI: Men who are brought up close to their moms go on to have an easier time in a lot of ways. They have an easier time in their adult relationships, because one of the things that moms tend to do with their boys is they teach them emotional intelligence. They teach them to recognize their feelings and talk about them starting from really young ages.
You know, like when they're - you see that kid in the grocery store having a meltdown and the mother goes: Use your words, which is always kind of annoying to me, but in fact, that is what the mom is doing, you know, right through to when she doesn't accept her high school kid coming home and slamming the door and saying: I don't want to talk about it, and then, you know, saying: Well, I know you don't and cool off, but when you're ready, you know, let's try and see what's going on.
Those guys do better in relationships as adults. They have stronger friendships. And most interesting to me, too, is they're actually going to have a better time at work.
SULLIVAN: How old is your son now?
LOMBARDI: My son is 23, and my daughter is 26. I don't like to leave her out of the story...
SULLIVAN: Not to leave her out.
LOMBARDI: ...even we are talking about mothers and sons.
SULLIVAN: What does he think of the book?
LOMBARDI: He is conflicted. He's read it, of course, and I vetted everything with him because I didn't - you know, there are some personal anecdotes, and I didn't want him to be, like, surprised or embarrassed. You know, he's proud of it. And he's not ashamed of our closeness. And, you know, he's a pretty big boost around this stuff.
SULLIVAN: That's Kate Lombardi. Her book is called "The Mama's Boy Myth." Kate, thank you so much for joining us.
LOMBARDI: Thank you so much for having me. It was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.