More and more moms are raising sons single-handedly. A challenge that can be done, says psychologist Richard Bromfield.
As if the task of single parenting is not demanding and guilt-ridden enough, single mothers are sometimes made to feel as if they’re at fault for not providing their child with a father figure.
Sara McLanahan, researcher for the Bendheim-Thoman Research Center for Child Wellbeing at Princeton University in the US, reports that the sons of single moms are more apt to abuse alcohol and drugs, to commit crimes and to experience depression, anxiety and suicide.
But, it is vital to bear in mind, no less than do boys who live with single fathers. In fact, new research suggests that these problems may be due as much or more to poverty than single parenting itself.
Mothering solo is a challenge
Whatever the statistics may say, they are statistics about groups of boys. For centuries, single mothers have been raising their boys to be good men – with or without the presence of a father.
Look around you. With understanding and effort, it can be, and is, being done every day.
The nuts and bolts of boys
We know what boys are made of, don’t we? Most are made of frogs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, a lot of energy, curiosity and aggression, not to mention a Y chromosome and a heap of testosterone.
In general, they like to run fast and play hard and prefer wrestling to talking.
Sons need to have their high energy, adventurousness and impetuous curiosity understood, admired and confirmed.
They also need their mothers to patiently accept and work with their vulnerabilities, such as their tendency to learn reading and self-control more slowly than their female peers.
Some mothers welcome the rodents and racket their boys bring home. Others find their boyishness less enthralling.
It’s in the match of temperaments. If you find it hard to embrace your son’s boyishness, think in terms of his behaviour and not his character.
The last thing you want your son to feel is that he’s somehow less of a person for being male.
However, don’t write yourself off as a poor mother just because you can’t stomach his boyishness.
Rather work on understanding where your bias comes from. Make it clear that it’s you, not he, who has the problem.
And keep in mind that much of today’s noise and bluster will evolve into traits such as leadership, boldness and curiosity that will serve him well as an adult.
Boys have feelings, too
The new psychology of boys is proving to the world what mothers of sons have always known. Boys have feelings, too.
Research suggests, in fact, that baby boys may feel emotions even more strongly than girls. But boys tend to be less adept at putting it into words.
Boys are also more apt to keep a stiff upper lip, holding back their tears and not running to others to be consoled.
Is it any surprise that so many little men grow into big boys who hide their true selves and hurts behind their tough-guy veneer and who use their fists instead of words?
Psychologist William Pollack, in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Random House), cautions about the boy code, the ‘outdated and constricted models, assumptions, and rules about boys that our society has used since the 19th century’.
The boy code says don’t cry, mask your true feelings, be tough, be aggressive.
What can single mothers do?
Let your little boys be little boys. Whoever said boys shouldn’t cry had it wrong; they shouldn’t (have to) cry all alone.
Get to know the real boy inside your son, not what you or society says he should be. Listen to his feelings and patiently help him learn how to speak his mind and heart.
Nurture the gentler side of your son as well as the rough and tumble.
Some mothers reasonably fear that treating their sons too gently will make sissies out of them and leave them unprepared for the harshness of life.
Relax. As long as you teach him how to know and express himself and don’t try to make him into something he isn’t, all will be well. Rather than turn him into a girl, you will make him a surer, emotionally richer boy and man.
On the other hand, forcing your son to act more masculine can lead to his developing a false self that brings lifelong misery.
Respect and tend to his genuine interests and temperament, even if they don’t exactly meet your own expectations.
Discipline is one of the hardest parts of parenting.
Because there are 2 fewer hands, disciplining as a single mom (or dad, for that matter) is that much tougher.
But you know as well as any child psychologist that your son needs both love and discipline to grow up good and strong.
By discipline is meant all that you do to teach your child to behave well and learn to live a moral life.
Discipline involves limits, structure, discouraging bad behaviour, setting clear expectations, and encouraging and inspiring good behaviour.
Boys who don’t learn to manage their impulses and abide by limits, particularly in their first five years or so, are prone to grow into adults who consider the laws of society beneath them.
Delivering the disciplinary goods can be the hardest part of being a single mother.
You may be too lenient because you don’t want to be anything like your own stern parents.
Sometimes you may mistakenly believe that keeping your child ‘happy’ is the road to self-esteem.
Guilt, about divorcing or choosing a life that denies your son his dad (or a mom), can lead you to give in too easily or to indulge.
Whatever the reasons and whatever his age or behaviour, your son can’t wait for your psychoanalysis to be over.
Start tightening the reins, spoiling him less, and setting better examples today (before he ’s taller than you are).
A man in his life
Boys do not need fathers to learn to be good men. Men hold no monopoly on morality. Mothers can discipline, teach virtue and inspire goodness as well or poorly as any father can.
What sons need is a good man’s attention to admire and nurture their own boyness whatever form it takes.
Seeing how men cope with everyday life teaches boys to accept themselves as boys and the men they will become.
Where can boys find good men to bond with, considering that most primary-school teachers are women?
Look in your family, your neighbourhood, your community centre. Before trying to introduce new men into their lives, support the good ones they already have, such as their fathers, family members, teachers and sports coaches.
However, be wary of prematurely pushing your son into relationships, especially against his will or with teens or men you don’t know well.
Know, too, that sharing your son can be hard.
Finally, be compassionate and patient with yourself and your best efforts to parent a son on your own.
What makes a single mother heroic is not that she’s female, single or possesses mythological parenting powers.
What conveys her heroism is her steadfast willingness to do what’s needed to meet her son’s developmental needs, step by step and day by day.
With a constant mix of love, discipline and all the rest, you can provide him with a solid and happy childhood, ultimately making a good man of your son.