From The Times, April 27th 2008.

Men and their mothers. What’s it all about?

Ask any man when he last phoned his mother, and he will pull a guilty face. Ask him when he last talked about her to his friends and he will look at you as if you are insane. Why is the mother-son relationship so complicated? To find out, our correspondent asked someone who should know – his mum



Men are more likely to confess to a predilection for pornography than admit to a close relationship with their mother. There isn’t much left that the modern man is made to feel ashamed of, yet confessing to your friends that you sometimes call your mum for a chat is something few do. Even though a man’s mother is likely to be the second most important woman in his life, even though he may have deep feelings of love for her, this is a relationship about which men are sheepish, secretive and often outright embarrassed.

Why are men ashamed to be seen being kind to their mothers? Cultural pressure is a factor. On film or television, if you see a man talking to his mother, or (heaven forbid) listening to her advice, you are probably watching a comedy, and the conversation will be the screenwriter’s way of letting you know this is the kind of guy you can push around. But is there something more complicated at work here? And how do mothers feel about their sons’ reticence? There is only one person to ask: my mother.

I call her up. She is pleased to hear from me. Of course she is – she is my mother. When I explain why I am calling, she tells me that she is, at that moment, listening to a radio dramatisation of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the arch-creep Widmerpool is always talking about his mother.

“Isn’t this very hard on mothers? And unfair?” I ask her. She responds by reminding me that she is a woman as well as a mother, and every woman knows that there is something unhealthy and unattractive about a man who is too close to his mother. As a mother of boys, you know that your job is to prepare them to be handed on, she tells me. You know that you harm them by keeping them too close for too long. “I was constantly torn between not being overinvolved and not seeming indifferent,” she tells me. “It’s a hard balance to strike, and you never know when you’re getting it wrong. I still don’t know.”

I have just written a novel about adult men and their mothers, in which three women, all with childless, thirtysomething sons, persuade one another to go and visit their uncommunicative progeny, uninvited, for a week, to find out who they have become. My mother has read the book, and she says she likes it (she is my mother, so that is not saying much), but only now, on the eve of publication, have I asked her if she thinks I got it right. The book, ultimately, is rather hard on the sons. It puts forward the idea that mothers get a pretty raw deal from the men they raise. It suggests that, after all the effort women put into the first 18 years of their sons’ lives, what is subsequently given back is a pretty meagre reward.

Her initial response comes as a shock to me. Having written a book about how cruel it is that sons don’t give their mothers a second thought during their twenties, I’m now told that she didn’t give me too much thought at that time. It was, in some way, a relief, she says, to reach the “job done” stage and to be able, at last, to throw herself wholeheartedly into her work. She reminds me that if adolescence is the process by which children cut themselves loose from their parents, it also works the other way. Teenage behaviour helps parents to cut themselves loose from their children: as your children love you less, they, rather helpfully, become less lovely.

I remember the urgency with which, as a teenager and a young man, I sometimes felt the need to get away from my mother. Stupidly, I never paused to wonder if she felt a complementary urge to get away from me.

As we talk, her take on the subject softens. “All mothers feel the pain of no longer being needed, but we don’t admit to it,” she confesses eventually. “It’s not an unmixed pain, though,” she says, hiding a little behind the double negative. “You wouldn’t want it any other way.”

When I ask her why nobody admits to it, she says: “You don’t want to seem abject.” She is rather pleased with her choice of word. I ask her what she means by it, and she comes up with another. “Discarded. You know that you’ve been discarded. You passionately want your son to find the right woman, but you know that when it happens, you are cast aside.”

A psychoanalyst might have something to say about her use of the word “passionately”. Perhaps it does all come down to Oedipus after all: the mother-son relationship is a deep and intense one during childhood, but, unlike the mother-daughter bond, a specific rupture has to be made before the child can be fully adult.

This is why men don’t look cool talking about their mothers. Women – with good reason – run a mile from a man who loves his mother too much. However wonderful and adorable a man’s mother is, the slightest mention of this fact makes him look as if he has not quite grown up and, therefore, deeply unattractive. A woman who reveres her parents will make a different impression.

There is an irony in all this, of course. That the pressure to disavow our mothers might come not from fellow men, but from women – the very women who are theoretically sizing us up as the person who might, ultimately, turn them into a mother – is curious to say the least. Are men, perhaps, merely the intermediaries in an intergenerational rivalry between women?

There is, however, another phase of life that changes everything. When a man becomes a father, his mother becomes a grandmother and everything is transformed. The process of separation goes into reverse. Quite aside from all the pleasures of becoming a grandmother, my mother tells me that you also, in some way, get your son back. Sharing love for the same child and interacting in new ways around the child pulls the whole family back together.

It was only as I looked after my own baby that I gave any thought to the first three years of my own life – to the time when my mother was my universe. And as I struggled with the exhaustion of parenting, I began to get my first genuine inkling of what my mother once did for me.

It’s a little late, of course, for gratitude, but I now know that as a parent, gratitude is not really part of the equation. At the very least, I now have something meaningful to talk to my mother about on the phone. And for the first time in years, I call her relatively frequently. Even if it is just to ask her to baby-sit.

Whatever Makes You Happy by William Sutcliffe is published by Bloomsbury on May 5, priced £11