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open-road

There is a stretch of road, not far from here, that lazily sweeps round one way and then uncurls the other way like snaking hips. The road surface is good, smooth gun metal tarmac, and the carriageway in each direction is wide enough for two side by side. It always seems underused, a grey lungful of fresh air between two stretches of slower road. The sun sets and rises along its length and a gentle camber eases its slicing path through the gently undulating countryside.

Seeing the open road ahead, I gather up my reins in anticipation, harnessing the power. I open up the engine, pushing my foot further and further to the floor until, at the perfectly sweet moment, I change gear and the car starts to fly, fly. I ask for yet more power and the hindquarters sit down onto the tarmac, and I sink into my seat, the wide tyres furiously pounding the road. I am no longer aware of a separation between me and the car, and the adrenalin released by the speed shuts out everything on the periphery until the road ahead and the few cars to be consumed are the only distractions. The engine gives more and more, until we hit the top, always at roughly the same place. I am in awe of this machine, of the acceleration that flows like oily cream, unleashing its reservoir of potency. The road and the car and I are fused and, like the Princess and the Pea, every small inperfection in the surface runs up to my fingers. Utter joy. Alone, in charge. Then, smiling without wanting to, sated, I take my foot off the pedal, and allow the car’s resistance to slow itself down until, just as we arrive at the end of this beatiful stretch of road, the speed has fallen to a permissible level and we take our place behind all the others, waiting our turn.

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There is something profoundly wrong with our society here.  Listen to my teenage daughters, and they will tell you tales that will make your hair stand up on end.  From the age of 12, your success is determined by the number of boys you have “pulled”.  Whilst at this age, pulling may only involve kissing, by the time they are fourteen the activity has escalated through blow jobs to full sex.  All of it indulged in through a mist of alcohol, and often taking place in alleyways or parks.  In London the alcohol is supplemented by weed.  Girls go to school nurses to arrange contraception, morning after pills and then to deal with unwanted pregnancies.  The police and a local church pick up limp paralytic dummies that were earlier bright girls.  Vomiting, their makeup spread over their cheeks, this is supposed to be what they wanted.  Numbed. 

Boys are cool if they have had sex.  I suppose it was ever thus.  They announce, aged thirteen, that this summer they are going to get laid.  And they will, because there will be some willing girl, with a tossed over fringe and a Jack Wills T shirt who will have so far lost herself that she somehow concludes that a blow job will bring her more than it brought Monica Lewinsky.  She concedes all her power, hands it over.

The cohort that I know most about are privileged girls being privately educated, at single sex girls’ schools, at co-educational day and boarding schools.  Those being educated in all girls schools lag behind a bit, and more escape the pressure to conform with the male fantasy of easy availability.   Sometimes, waiting for my daughters after school, I watch these girls in their identical uniforms and free.  Free to be who they want to be, free to excel at Maths and Science, free to play musical instruments and sing in choirs.  Free to run about like the children they are.  Free, just for a few hours, from the relentless pressure to conform. 

For at mixed schools the pressure is relentless.  You are either popular and sexualised, or geeky and a failure.  But when did it become cool at fourteen to announce on Facebook that you’ve lost your virginity?  Why do you think you only look attractive when you are pouting your glossy lips into a camera through black windowframes?  Why do you need to be a hollow object for rampant teenage boys, sexual on the outside and empty inside?  When did it become cool for a girl to greet her friend with “Yo, bitch!”.

I despair sometimes.  All I can do is to try to help my own daughters steer a path through the sprawling, intoxicated bodies.  My daughter tells me the behaviour is “normal”, by which she means that most girls do it.  We talked about whether “normal” is “desirable”, and I reflected afterwards that perhaps they wanted to tell me about these things because they are as shocked as I am and it helps to hear my reaction which supports their uncertain resistance to this way of being.

We talked about the children (yes, children) having no place to go to meet up.  But providing a meeting place is not the solution, they say, because it needs to be a meeting place where the girls can drink to excess and then give the boys what they want, and what adult is going to tolerate that?

Perhaps things are not much different than when I was growing up in a small market town of 3,000 or so people.  The Sea Scout Master used to arrange monthly discos in the Sea Scout hut.  They were sordid affairs, looking back.  Mattresses were arranged around the walls, and by the end of the night the floor was swimming in beer.  There was a group of girls in my class who were much more desirable than me, and they circulated amongst the coolest boys.  I hung around at the side – and part of me would have loved to have been as popular and accepted as these girls who were taller with longer hair.  The discos were populated by the pupils of only two schools – the girls grammar school and the local private school for boys which allowed in a trickle of girls insufficient to meet the voracious demands of the boys.  One or two interlopers were allowed in from the secondary modern school, and almost every disco was temporarily interrupted when two boys from a notoriously troublesome family tried to gain admission and were refused and violence broke out as they tried to force their way in.  Tribal.  It wasn’t long before one brother was dead of an overdose and the other banged up in prison.

Inevitably that trickle of girls were on hand to satisfy the boys.  And now, thirty years later, I can see, in the women those girls became and whom I’ve known for that long, the hunger and twisted thinking that pulled them towards those too-early sexual experiences.  Boys are sexually attracted to me: I am OK.

It didn’t stop there, though.  Believing what they did, believing what others wanted them to believe, they needed to insist on their view being held by all of us.  The rest of us were left to wrestle with the opposite view which they imposed on us.  Boys are not sexually attracted to me: I am not OK.  I am only fourteen or fifteen.

Much of what happens now would not happen without alcohol.  You need alcohol to remove the sobriety that knows that this is deeply damaging and futile behaviour.  But alcohol is only the drug of choice used to numb the unhappiness that is the root cause.  Take away the alcohol, and the girls would have to look clearly at what they are doing, but they’d still have the hole inside.

This, from the Guardian today.

The government yesterday faced fresh calls to increase the price of alcohol, after research showed young people in the UK reported some of the highest levels of teenage binge drinking, drunkenness and alcohol-related problems in Europe.

British girls aged 15 and 16 are binge drinking more than their male classmates, with fresh evidence that their behaviour is contributing towards high rates of teenage alcohol-related accidents and unprotected sex. Yet British teenagers were the most likely to claim that they expected “positive consequences” from drinking, such as “forgetting my problems”.

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (Espad) is the most detailed international study of its kind, covering teenagers’ drinking, smoking and drug-taking habits in 32 European countries. The UK sample involved 2,179 teenagers: 1,004 boys and 1,175 girls.

The study was carried out in 2007 by the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol. Professor Martin Plant, who led the exercise, said: “The UK retains its unenviable position in relation to binge drinking, intoxication and alcohol-related problems amongst teenagers. This problem is both serious and chronic. I hope that the government will prioritise policies that are effective to reduce heavy drinking and alcohol-related disorder and health problems amongst young people.”

Read the rest here.

[and more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jan/29/teenage-drinking-plan; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/27/binge-drinking-teenagers]

The debate about whether single sex education is better for girls will rage long after my daughters have benefitted from it.  I am not persuaded by arguments that mixed education reflects the real world and, it follows, is therefore preferable.  School is not the sum total of a child’s experience.  Children belong to families.  Girls have brothers, fathers, grandfathers, cousins and their families are friends with other families with sons.  Girls take part in activities and sports outside school alongside boys.  This outside world is the real world.  Expecting schools to provide all the education – academic, religious, social, emotional – absolves parents and our wider society of responsibilities which belong to all of us, not just those paid to teach. We may be keeping our daughters safer by educating them apart from boys, and helping them create less traumatic and more respectful histories for themselves, and we may be fortunate to have the means to do that.  It may be our small gesture of rebellion against the standards those who do not have their interests at heart would wish to impose on them.  Perhaps I should do more.

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The mysterious spring equinox spectacle at Barsham Church

“A SUFFOLK church was packed yesterday as a large crowd gathered to witness a mysterious spectacle which appears to honour the spring equinox.

Visitors at Barsham Church, near Beccles, watched in awe as a beam of evening sunlight filtered through a small window, and bathed a sculpture of Christ on the Cross in a golden light.

The phenomenon was only recently rediscovered by a vicar after being hidden for centuries because the sculpture, also known as the rood, was taken down.

The Rev John Buchanan discovered it in the early 1990s, but has only recently been able to make sense of it after recording its occurrence over a number of years. It may date back as far as the 1300s when the window was built.

He predicted that the entire rood would be directly lit yesterday shortly after 5pm and within minutes the figures were bathed in gold. The figures may also be partially lit today , depending on conditions, and the phenomenon is repeated at the autumn equinox in September.

Rev Buchanan said: “The rood figure of Christ on the Cross was taken down in about 1550 and was not put back until 1870. In 1875 a large picture covered the little window and it wasn’t until after a fire in 1979 that we took the picture down.

“It was only after that, providing that conditions were exactly right, that there was a chance of seeing it. Then it was a case of realising what we had seen and trying to remember to check the dates for the next year.

“I got a good set of photographs in 2003, but I was still trying to confirm it, and I got a lovely one for the harvest festival in 2007. Then I decided I had nearly enough information to start predicting it so other people could see it. “

Rev Buchanan said that as far as he is aware this phenomenon was unique to Barsham Church.

The purpose of the spectacle is not clear, but Rev Buchanan suggested that without a compass the easiest way for stone masons to align a building was to use the sun. He also thinks that it may have an agricultural purpose to mark the time between winter and summer.

Margaret Wiseman, who travelled from Norwich to witness the event, said: “It was marvellous. I have never experienced anything like that before – it is just absolutely beautiful.”

(From the East Anglian Daily Times)

The John Bowlby Memorial Conference over the weekend has left me with many rich pickings. This is one. A video of a talk given by Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist. Wanting to understand the brain of her schizophrenic brother motivated her to research the differences between people’s brains. She woke up one morning, having had a stroke, and found that half her brain didn’t work. Using a real brain, with a dribble of a spinal cord like hanging down like a lamb’s tail before it drops off, to show us the division, she discusses the left and right brain approaches to the world. Most of us prefer to live in one or other hemisphere. Some of us find one or other hemisphere far to scary to visit. Some of us straddle the hemispheres quite well, some of the time. Some of us are rediscovering one hemisphere that has been full of cobwebs and needs springcleaning.

Watch it on TED here.

The four of us were privileged yesterday evening to be invited to celebrate the Iranian New Year, falling on the Spring equinox, with our several Iranian friends.  With eight of our happily age matched children, we met up in London to eat together, and then to endure the vagaries of our disintegrating rail system as we battled our way back home.  In our small railway carriage we talked and laughed and read and inspected our new toys and sucked our shared sweets and fell silent as the conductor announced yet another delay.  It was early morning before the train arrived back at the station from whence we had departed.  It was freezing cold after the nice warmth we had built up in the carriage, and we all fled to our cars and the long empty drive home.

Where the grass is not greener

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Shah Abbas

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Camilla Batmanghelidjh

During the day we’d all been engaged in our different activities.  Our friends had spent the day at the British Museum where festivities had been laid on to accompany the exhibition honouring Shah Abbas, my family had tried out a different riding stable and different horses and found that the grass was not greener, and I had absorbed the learning of a new world for me – of attachment-based psychotherapy – at a annual conference in memory of  John Bowlby, the institigator of attachment-based therapy, and listening to the huge energy of the Persian founder of the Kid’s Company, Camilla Batmanghelidjh. We all brought our day to the dinner table, swapping books and gifts, and not missing the alcohol at all.

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The tradition at Nowruz is to have a table in the home on which are placed a copy of the Koran, candles, a mirror with an egg on top, goldfish in a bowl, a bowl of water in which are floating a slice of orance and a rosebush leaf, and the Haftsin – usually seven edible items beginning with the letter “s” in Persian. Sib (apple), somaq (sumac), sir (garlic), samanu (a paste made with wheat sprouts), senjed (jujube fruit), sohan (a candy made with honey and nuts), siyahdane (sesame seeds), serke (vinegar), and sangak (bread baked on a bed of rocks) are the usual edible items from among which seven are chosen.  Growing herbs or sabzeh and non-edible items such as sekke (coins), sonbol (hyacinth), spand (the wild rue), sepestan (sebestens), samovar (samovar), or sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts) are often found on the Haftsin.  Some say that Haftsin used to be Haftshin, comprising items beginning with the Persian letter for the sound “sh”, including sharab, or wine, but that this was replaced by the seven “s” items when Islam outlawed the drinking of alcohol.

“Just before the change of the year, all members of the family, in their new clothes and holding a new coin in their hand for good luck, gather around the haft-sin display and, quietly and patiently, watch the solitary white egg on the mirror. Each one imagines a huge bullfish in the ocean of time carrying the world on one of its horns. Any moment now, the bullfish will toss the world over to the other horn, resulting in a tremor that will dislodge the egg and send it rolling to the side of the mirror.

As soon as the egg rolls, the members of the family, rejoicing, kiss each other, exchange Nowruz greetings, eid-i shoma mobarak! (May you have an auspicious new year!), and proceed, especially in the case of children, to make the rounds of the elders of the family first and of the neighborhood.”

Everyone wears new clothes from head to foot, and traditional prayers from the Koran are offered for the coming year in Arabic.  The New Year festival predates Islam, just as Christmas continues a pre-Christian festival.  The celebration is neither religious nor ethnic, and so is enjoyed by the many disparate strands of Iranians around the world.  In part it derives from the practices of the Zoroastrians about  thousand years ago. 

All our friends’ children had listened in wonder to the message delivered to them personally by Barack Obama.  They wondered that this great man, the President of the United States, would bother to record a New Year message just for their nation.  Their parents approved of the change of tone that came with the change of President, but expressed disappointment at the official response of the Iranian government.

Elections are coming up in Iran, and a pro-America stance may not be a great vote-winner.  But we hope Obama’s message may have reached the ordinary people celebrating Nowruz in Iran, and found many willing ears, eager to build on our shared experiences, of celebrations and family get-togethers, rather than the differences which, for ordinary people, seem to be less important when we get to know each other than the humanity we enjoy sharing.

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More on Nowruz from Wikipedia here.

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“A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie. “

“The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. “

“Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.”

“A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.”

“A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest. “

“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

“A mother is not a person to lean on but a person to make leaning unnecessary.”

“What the mother sings to the cradle goes all the way down to the coffin.”

“The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.”

“Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother.”

“Over the years I have learned that motherhood is much like an austere religious order, the joining of which obligates one to relinquish all claims to personal possessions.”

“When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk you’ll end up as the pope.’ Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”

“Men are what their mothers made them.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There never was a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him asleep.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The commonest fallacy among women is that simply having children makes one a mother—which is as absurd as believing that having a piano makes one a musician.”

“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us when adversity takes the place of prosperity when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”

“A woman has two smiles that an angel might envy, the smile that accepts a lover before words are uttered, and the smile that lights on the first born babe, and assures it of a mother’s love.”

“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”
— Toni Morrison

THE PAINTING LESSON

by TREVOR HARVEY

‘What’s THAT, dear?’
asked the new teacher.
‘It’s Mummy,’ I replied.

‘But mums aren’t green and orange!
You really haven’t TRIED.
You don’t just paint in SPLODGES
– You’re old enough to know
You need to THINK before you work…….
Now – have another go.’

She helped me draw two arms and legs,
A face with sickly smile,
A rounded body, dark brown hair,
A hat – and, in a while,
She stood back (with her face bright pink):
‘That’s SO much better – don’t you think?’

But she turned white
At ten to three
When an orange-green blob
Collected me.

‘Hi, Mum!’

 

 

 

 

 

This clip is too funny to hide away in a reply to a comment …

I had never met my mother-in-law until she was invited to meet her son’s fiancée. In a log cabin in the English Lake District. The fiancée had left lying around her complicated knitting and a pretentious French book by some rabid feminist. My mother-in-law almost had a heart attack. We get on well now, but it was not the best start.

All of these recent posts are leading inexorably up to Sunday when I’m going to change direction. Until then, the landscape is dark, and, today, very dark.

So. Mothers and sons. Being unmothered.

The Guardian is one of two British newspapers allowed into court to report the trial of Josef Fritzl who, yesterday, changed his plea to guilty after having watched the video testimony of his daughter. His change of plea surprised everyone, not least his lawyer who said “I was indeed surprised, not least because someone with such a personality disorder as he has – which involves keeping up appearances and giving the impression that he’s the one with the power – finds it difficult to drop his trousers in front of the world”.

The Guardian reports the description given to the court yesterday of Fritzl’s psychological profile which tracks his behaviour back to his need to control his daughter as a result of the chronic failure of his mother to mother him in any real sense at all. He lived his childhood in a constant state of anxiety, always wondering if his mother was about to disappear. Rather than feel that pain of abandonment, he chose to control women around him, ensuring he was never abandoned again. His daughter was the tragic object onto whom he projected his worst fears, the fears that he could not bear to confront. If avoiding feeling that pain (because you believe it will kill you) is your goal, you can see how preventing another abandonment is a logical, albeit, warped step to take.  Just as mothers have to sacrifice their sons to their son’s wives, so a father has to give up his position in his daughter’s affection to his daughter’s husband. There is inevitably pain in that necessary sacrifice, pain which can feel all too much like a maternal rejection all over again for a father who has not been mothered.

Fritzl is an extreme example of what happens when mothering fails. But he is also an extreme example of what happens when we suppress our emotions and refuse to feel our deepest fears – and the psyche cannot contain the conflict. Outward aggression, anger, violence are invariably the superficial symptoms of an aching soul.

I wish I could reassure everyone that they would not fall apart if, in a supervised and supportive setting, they were able to face those fears and, having felt them, heal them. Thing is, I am not confident enough myself. The pain is extraordinary, and in recent days I have wondered whether Tim Kretschmer abandoned his therapy sessions at the point at which it all became too painful, at the most dangerous point, and the rampage was the outward sign of the internal chaos that he was unable to see through to the calm afterwards.

I wish we supported mothers more, that we valued the work that mothers do instead of wanting to turn them into cash cows to stave up a failing economy.  Much better to prevent a catastrophe than to clear up after it.  I wish, too, that we valued the importance of good mental health care and easy, affordable access to the best psychiatrists and therapists.   You can break your leg playing rugby and people will feel sorry for you and sign your plaster cast: you can be in great pain because your parents did not do their job, and people look down on you as weak.  Perhaps the difference in attitude is explained our own reluctance to face our own psychological fears, to turn our backs on those who express our own stories too well. Strange that we associate strength with stoicism when facing our fears requires more courage.

Sometimes that essential therapeutic treatment will need to be provided in a residential setting. Sometimes a supportive network of family and friends can cradle a person during this time. Blogs can be part of that too.  Sadly, in Britain you would need to be very lucky to receive free NHS therapy unless the treatment is precipitated by a breakdown. Short of a breakdown, your choices are to cope as best you can, often with medication, or pay. Therapists are largely unregulated and finding a good therapist is not always easy, and at between £40.00 and £60.00 an hour, once, twice or three times a week, the costs are beyond many people’s means. Having said that, if you knew that a year’s therapy, costing between £2,000 and £6,000, was going to change your life, and the lives of your own children, beyond recognition for the better, wouldn’t it be worth finding that money somehow?  You do not even need to find it all at once. A car, a holiday, a new camera, a football season ticket, a motorbike, two handbags, a new sofa and a laptop.  Displacement activity.

As a wise woman said, “You cannot heal what you refuse to feel.”

Power-hungry unloved son who was ‘born to rape’

Kate Connolly

The Guardian,

Thursday 19 March 2009

A court psychiatrist yesterday described how Josef Fritzl had locked up his daughter as a way of compensating for a loveless childhood as she detailed his troubled relationship with his mother.

Adelheid Kastner told the court in St Polten that Fritzl was a dangerous man and recommended his transfer to a psychiatric institute for intensive therapy for a serious personality disorder. She said if it was left untreated even at his advanced age, Fritzl could go on to commit other crimes so great was his “need to dominate and control other people”.

Kastner said Fritzl had developed strategies to learn to cope with life, including “pushing his feelings into the cellar of his soul”. She said there was “much of the volcano about him,” explaining that violent sex had provided the main outlet for his pent-up feelings. She said he had told her: “I was born to rape”.

In an hour-long testimony to the court, based on extensive interviews she carried out with Fritzl last year, Kastner said that his behaviour had its roots in his troubled childhood, describing a mother who did not love him, who left him to cry when he was in pain, who regularly beat him and left him on his own for hours at a time. “Herr Fritzl spent most of his childhood in a severe state of anxiety,” she said.

She described how his mother Maria, who herself had been fostered as a child, had had him “solely in order to prove to the world that she was not infertile” following a marriage which broke up because it produced no children.

“Herr Fritzl was a ‘proof child’, an ‘alibi child’,” she said, adding that this “was his only function as a child”. “As a consequence he was a burden to her, something she was forced to look after”. She said that Fritzl, now 73, struggled throughout his childhood to form a relationship with his mother but that “it was impossible to build up any sort of bond of trust with her”.

The fear he felt by her constant absences was never more intense than during the second world war bombing raids on their home town of Amstetten. She refused to take refuge in the air raid shelter near to the family home, insisting on staying in the house and sending her son into the underground shelter instead. “As a result he suffered from an overwhelming sense of anxiety, not knowing when the air raid was over whether or not the only person in the world to whom he had any relationship, would still be alive,” she said. “It’s the type of fear that over time has a huge impact on a person”.

She described how his mother ignored his screams when, as a young boy he suffered from the extremely painful, but easily treatable condition of phimosis, or a tight foreskin. Only the intervention of a neighbour prompted her to take him to see a doctor.

Fritzl listened attentively as Kastner delivered the in-depth psychiatric analysis of his character to the court. But at times he appeared nervous, twisting his fingers and his left foot, while glancing at the floor.

His decision to lock up his daughter stemmed from a need to compensate for the years during which his mother dominated him. “He developed an overwhelming desire to exert power – to dominate, control and possess another person. These were fantasies that grew and grew and which he managed to realise”.

She said one reason as to why he chose Elisabeth, his fourth of seven children, was because of her resistance. “If you conquer someone you consider strong and stubborn, the effect is all the more gratifying”. He told her he had chosen Elisabeth “because she was most like me, as strong as me, as stubborn as me”.

She said that the more incestuous children he had with her, the more powerful he felt. “The more children, the more power he had over his victim”. She said Fritzl was able to separate his two lives – the family he kept downstairs, and his official upstairs family.

“When I asked him how he was able to lead a double life, he said it was very simple. ‘As soon as I went upstairs the downstairs family didn’t exist any more’.” But he told her that when he woke up in the mornings he was flooded with feelings of guilt, “realising that he was breaking every rule in the book”.

And, finally (a happier interlude will follow this post, promise)

[Ooops.  Completely forgot about the promise.  Another misery post follows … ]but Mothering Sunday will change everything.]

Mothers and sons: honouring our mothers

Separation and rejection or honouring our connection? Bob Pease discusses the politics of the mother/son relationship.

While men’s relationships with their fathers have received considerable attention in writing about men and masculinity, there has been a resounding silence by men on their relationships with their mothers. It is certainly rare to see any examination of men’s experience of the ambivalence and pain associated with distancing and separation.

At the same time, there is a widespread view that mothers are a problem for men in Western societies.

A number of writers have commented on the tension men feel between their desire for intimacy with women and their fear of dependency, associated with their unresolved experiences with their mothers. Men fear dependency and commitment and are terrified of their own vulnerability (Jukes 1993). They associate dependency with their mothers and the resultant feelings this generates hinders their ability to form intimate relationships with women.

The question is: What is the source of this problem? Is it too much of mother or not enough? Mytho-poetic and men’s liberation writers posit that separation from the mother is necessary and healthy for men and Farmer argues that it is one of the main tasks in moving to manhood.

He acknowledges that the wound of separation may hurt but maintains that it is a healthy wound (1991). Similarly, for Keen, “mother is a problem that needs to be solved and we find it difficult to break the symbiotic bond” (1991). Separating from mother is seen as the only way to manhood. A boy learns that if he wants to be accepted into male society, he has to turn his back on his mother.

Defining the issue in such terms portrays mothers as the problem. Mothers are seen by these writers as getting in the way of masculinity and are regarded as inevitably emasculating boys. They are often accused of dangerously enmeshing their own identity with that of their sons and of over-protecting them whereby they “indulge for their own gratification, in compensation for an unsatisfactory marriage” (Gomez 1991). Bly posits that mothers typically exercise possessiveness over their sons (1990).

These writers attribute the estrangement of sons from their fathers to the involvement of mothers. Biddulph argues that a mother will often turn her son against his father (1994) and Bly blames mothers for getting in the way of boys’ relationships with their fathers. In his view, this constitutes a conspiracy between mother and son.

The major consequence of such “over mothering” is seen to be the creation of “mothers’ boys”. Men who become “mummy’s boys” are said to be “dominated by the desire to perform well to gain approval and to avoid female anger or rejection” (Keen 1991). Bly argues that “mummy’s boys” were “too tied to women as children, and then as adults are too tender, too empathic, too interested in women’s issues” (1990).

Profeminist men are often criticised by other men as mothers’ boys. Forrester (1992) suggests that the desire of one his clients to be a feminist man was “really a desire to be underneath, to be dominated sexually and politically by the feminist women he admires.” His profeminism was regarded as “a kind of masochism, or a kind of fascination with the all-powerful woman figure” (1992). MASA’s profeminist stance and its accountability to women’s groups invokes a similar response from Dunstan: “Really and truly, Mum is going to be very pleased with you MASA boys.” He argues that for a man to place being a feminist ahead of being a man is “to embrace a deep crippling shame” (1993).

Talking about the “deep crippling shame” of men supporting feminism, reinforces the view that to acknowledge the injustice done to women and to affirm women’s strengths is to be anti-male. It is thus important to challenge the framework within which these comments are made and to shift the terms of the debate about profeminism.

Masculine identity is reproduced by repressing the feminine and when boys separate from their mothers, they reject feminine qualities within themselves (Silverstein and Rashbaum 1994). One consequence of separation without attachment is that men are often unable to develop a sense of empathic identity with women and if we spend our lives separating from our mothers will we be able to reclaim the feminine parts of ourselves (Pasick 1992)?

As some men distance themselves from their mothers and do not get enough nurturing, they later feel needy of women. On the other hand, while many men recognise their need for mother, they are often unable to openly express it.

Men yearn for the mother and fear being trapped by her and these feelings of love and fear remain with them so that when they meet women, they exhibit ambivalence and fear as well as attraction. Such feelings obviously have implications for men’s capacity for loving and accepting women’s love and consequently, men keep their emotional distance from women for fear of both “entrapment” and abandonment (O’Connor 1993). Benjamin even goes so far as to argue that domination “begins with the attempt to deny dependency” (1980).

I would argue that boys do not need to repress closeness with their mothers to become masculine and that it is important for men to acknowledge the strong influence of mothers and women.

How then should we address our dependency needs in relation to our mothers and to women? As men we are often unable to accept that at different times and in different contexts we need what women are able to offer us. To acknowledge our dependency at these times does not mean that we are weak men. However, because dependence on others, particularly women, is seen as a sign of weakness, men frequently are unable to develop genuinely interdependent relationships with women and often end up expressing their needs in a demanding rather than interactive way. However, healthy development incorporates the learning of interdependence whereby attachment and separation compliment one another.

Given that the majority of men are pressured to distance themselves from their mothers, what can be done? Men can reflect on “how they would be different if they did not have to separate” (Carey 1992). Considering that, in losing touch with their mothers, men may have lost touch with parts of themselves could itself be a powerful force in provoking change.

It is also important that men endeavour to understand their mothers as women with their own life histories, expectations and needs. Such analysis can enrich their perception of women as a whole. Men can get to know their mothers better, to ask them about their experiences before they became mothers, especially in relation to experiences such as discrimination and harassment (Pasick 1992). A lot of men have difficulty seeing their mothers as women with separate lives before and apart from motherhood. To acknowledge the truth of our mothers’ lives requires us to recognise their oppression and our institutional power over women and the extent to which we are able to do this, we will enhance the potential for partnership with women.

References cited

Benjamin, J. (1988) The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon.

Biddulph, S. (1994) Manhood. Sydney: Finch.

Bly, R. (1990) Iron John: A Book About Men. New York: Addison Wesley.

Carey, M. (1992) “Healing the Mother Wound”, Dulwich Centre Newsletter. Nos. 3 & 4: 65-69.

Dunstan, G. (1993) “Proud Men Needed”, XY: Men, Sex and Politics. Vol. 3, No. 1, (Autumn): 3.

Farmer, S. (1991) The Wounded Male. New York: Ballantine.

Forrester, J. (1992) “What Do Men Really Want?” in D. Porter (ed.) Between Men and Feminism. London: Routledge.

Gomez, J. (1991) Psychological and Psychiatric Problems in Men. London: Routledge.

Jukes, A. (1993) Why Men Hate Women. London: Free Association Books.

Keen, S. (1992) “Rapacious Normality: The War Between the Sexes” in C. Harding (ed.) Wingspan: Inside the Men’s Movement. New York: St Martin’s Press.

O’Connor, P. (1993) The Inner Man: Men, Myths and Dreams. Sydney: Sun Books.

Pasick, R. (1992) Awakening From the Deep Sleep. San Francisco: Harper.

Silverstein, O. and Rashbaum, B. (1994) The Courage to Raise Good Men. New York: Viking.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/mothers-and-sons-tears-that-betrayed-the-unbearable-grief-of-a-little-boy-lost-820694.html

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