April 11, 2014 at 7:40 AM ET
In "Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men," pediatrician Meg Meeker provides advice on how mothers can strengthen relationships with their sons and achieve happiness as a family. Here's an excerpt.
Janie was, to the outside world, the perfect mother. As an imperfect one, I envied her calm demeanor, her unflappable personality, and her devotion to her two children. She was the kind of mother who baked chocolate zucchini cake for her boys, boys who loved it because she’d taught them to eat and enjoy healthy foods. She packed their lunches every day, with organic snacks. She worked part-time in a bookstore, but got home each afternoon before school let out so she would be there when her sons Jason, thirteen, and Drew, eleven, arrived home. She volunteered at her sons’ school for recess duty and as room mother, and even canned her own vegetables. She was the kind of mom the rest of us love to hate.
I will never forget the tormented expression on Janie’s face that early January morning in 2005. She came alone to my office to talk about her son Jason, despite the heavy snow, which always made driving in northern Michigan a harrowing experience. But she was desperate.
When I opened the exam room door, I was startled by her ashen face. She looked exhausted. Not the usual “I just had a terrible night’s sleep” exhaustion, but a fatigue that had set in over many months. Something was clearly terribly wrong at home.
“What’s going on?” I immediately asked.
“It’s Jason,” she said apologetically. “He’s out of control. Jim can’t handle him and neither can I. I just don’t know what to do.” He was thirteen at the time. I had known Jason since he was two and he had always been a handful— spirited, curious, and volatile. Janie and Jim had adopted him through an open adoption from his young birth mother, and had graciously cared for her during the first three months of his life. Even as an infant, Jason was one of those boys who just seemed to be wired a bit differently. He was cute, cuddly, and affectionate but also slightly unpredictable, prone to occasional explosions of his temper. At eight, a psychiatrist and education specialist diagnosed him with ADHD and I reluctantly went along with medicating him with a small dose of a stimulant. I wasn’t quite convinced that ADHD was the reason for his behavior problems, but I thought that a trial of a stimulant might not hurt. He took the medication and it seemed to help—at least for several years.
“I just don’t understand his behavior,” Janie told me. “One minute he’ll be joking with us at dinner, then the next minute he erupts! He’ll jump up from the table and start yelling at me or his dad for no reason. We’ve tried grounding him and taking privileges away from him but nothing seems to work. Two nights ago, he snuck out of the house in the middle of the night and got caught by the police drinking beer with some guys in the Walmart parking lot.”
Janie began to cry. Her son—the apple of her and his father’s eye—was suddenly a “troubled kid,” like the sullen, angry teenage boys depicted on highway billboard ads for drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. The trouble was, Jason didn’t look like that kid on the outside. He was clean-cut, always nicely dressed (no tattoos or piercings), and he addressed his parents’ friends politely. He was an outstanding hockey player. He went to church regularly, even attended a few youth groups, and once went on a trip with a local church to help families in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. His parents loved him, spent a lot of time with him, and seemingly attended to all of his needs.
“Where did I go wrong?” Janie wailed. “Tell me and I’ll fix it. Please, tell me. I need to know because I can’t go on like this any longer. How could this little boy who I’ve poured my heart into for thirteen years suddenly hate his father and me so much? I’ve tried, but there’s nothing left. And the worst part is he scares me. When his dad’s not around and he flies off the handle, he gets physical. One time he pushed me hard up against the kitchen wall! I think it was an accident, but who knows; all I know is that I was really scared. He’s twice my size.”
We sat together for many minutes and I wondered whom or what Janie was crying harder for: Jason, herself, or the loss of the beautiful thirteen-year-old boy she had always envisioned that her son would become, but hadn’t.
That day, I tried to help her sort through the gnarled complexity of Jason’s emotions and hers so that, while she couldn’t fully understand them as yet, she (we) could at least devise a plan. She needed to have a plan so that she could move forward. She needed to be able to find hope in the midst of this anguish, which was making her feel as though her life was collapsing around her. And I do believe that I helped Janie find hope. After all, helping her was the best way I could help my patient, her son.
Janie would tell you that particular day in January was a turning point in her life. It was the day she realized that Jason wasn’t who she really wanted him to be; but even more important, that she wasn’t the mother she wanted to be. It was a day that began a significant new freedom for her. It was the day that Janie recognized that she not only had one problem on her hands— whatever was driving her son’s out-of-control behavior—but equally important, that she had her own issues to face, the demons within her, that had festered for over thirteen years, the ones that were embryonic even as she finished college. But where would she start, with his pain or hers? Her new freedom felt exhilarating, but also overwhelming. I suggested that if she were to understand her son, she would have to start by understanding herself. And as it turned out, she had a lot of emotional baggage she brought to her role as mother.
Shortly after that visit, she began seeing a counselor who meticulously unraveled the hidden anger Janie harbored toward men, anger that she’d been carrying around for years. When she was in her early teens, she had been assaulted by a male neighbor and told no one—not her parents, her husband, or even her best friend. She hated the man for what he did and, for a number of complex reasons, she blamed herself for what happened. When Jason hit puberty, something triggered that pent- up rage in her and she subconsciously took her hurt out on him. In hindsight, she realized her own behavior had changed. She’d become sarcastic and demeaning and secretly felt a sense of disgust toward her own son. She was aware of that disgust, but was so appalled by it that she persisted in pushing it away and trying to ignore it, neither of which stopped the feeling from persisting.
Jason was not immune to the secret war his mother was having with herself. While he didn’t know the cause, he understood enough to assume it had something to do with him. What he felt coming from his mother was anger toward him. At times, he felt she was ashamed of him. In response to these feelings, he fought back verbally, determined to prove to his mother that he didn’t need her and that he could make her life as miserable as she seemed to be making his. Until Janie sought some answers, this vicious cycle just kept escalating until she found herself scared of her own son.
Both Jason and Janie received the help they each needed in order to restore the sanity and joy to their relationship. When both were schooled about their feelings and their behaviors and how the two intertwined, only then were they able to begin changing. But the process took a lot of time. Janie, in particular, was determined to revive her relationship with Jason because she never once wavered in the intensity of her love and adoration for him.
She learned to interact with him differently. She changed her language, her tone of voice, and even guarded her body language. And then, by continually putting these changes into practice, her feelings toward her son began to evolve. She peeled the hatred she felt toward her old neighbor off her young son and the stranglehold those feelings had on her relationship with Jason broke. Both mother and son felt a new warmth and intimacy. And Jason began getting along better with his younger brother.
Jason is currently finishing his senior year at a very good college. He is excelling at school and he no longer lashes out at his mother and dad. Shortly after her initial visit with me in which we first addressed Jason’s problems, his parents enrolled him in a local residential school for troubled kids. He spent eighteen months there learning to live in a very tightly scheduled and demanding environment. Jason and his parents spent hundreds of hours counseling with the school’s psychologist and Jason learned to understand himself, his emotions, and their power— but most important, he learned how to take responsibility for his feelings and his behaviors. And Janie learned to understand how she projected her own suppressed anger onto her young son. More important, she learned how to keep her long hidden anger toward her past abuser out of her relationship with him.
Janie and Jason are the lucky ones. How many other mother-son dyads exist, fraught with untold pressures and tensions, that don’t get enough help? That is why I felt compelled to write this book, for all the mothers of boys who love their sons but are confused about how to be good mothers to their sons. And for sons who face inordinate pressures to be the embodiment of the mother’s greatest hopes, something they can neither envision nor understand, and who end up enduring a vortex of internal tensions that can lead to an explosion.
The mother- son dyad is complicated by the opposition of gender. Neither mother nor son can fully understand what it is like to be the other half of the equation. Boys face challenges because, as males, they feel responsible in many ways for their mothers’ welfare, which can lead to tension and anger within the relationship. Furthermore, mothers can too often subconsciously rely on sons for the kind of support they might look for from an adult. And the reality is that boys, simply because they are male, face trials in our culture that can easily overwhelm them, while mothers face stresses and place expectations on themselves that can become equally overwhelming. Put the two together and disaster can ensue.
But here’s the good news. Disaster is not an ordained outcome. Yes, young men today are experiencing what some professionals like myself call a “boy crisis.” As psychologist and author Dr. James Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys, “Boys, when compared to girls, are six times more likely to have learning disabilities, three times more likely to be registered drug addicts, and four times more likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. They are at greater risk for schizophrenia, autism, sexual addiction, alcoholism, bed- wetting and all forms of antisocial and criminal behavior. They are twelve times more likely to murder someone, and their rate of death in car accidents is greater by fifty percent. Seventy- seven percent of delinquency- related court cases involve males."
In discussing Dr. Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys, Dobson describes the academic troubles that many boys face. He cites that boys receive lower grades than girls from elementary through high school. He tells us that eighth- grade boys are held back 50 percent more frequently than girls, and that two- thirds of the students in special education classes in high school are boys. Finally, he says that boys are ten times more likely to suffer from “hyperactivity” than girls and that boys account for 71 percent of all school suspensions.
There are more troubling numbers to cite regarding the current crisis that boys in America face, but the point here is that the means to resolving this crisis often lie in the mother’s hands. We are the ones who can help reverse these trends for our sons. And I believe that we mothers can not only enjoy raising our sons in the process, but also help them thrive amid the pressures they face. We can teach them to rise above the problems and flourish. I know this because I’ve seen great mothers parent their sons through difficulties over and over in my twenty- five years of pediatric practice. I’ve seen single mothers duke it out with their sons and become closer than ever. I’ve watched married mothers with stable home lives struggle with sons who have become involved with drugs and alcohol and pull them through to healthy adulthood. With help and encouragement mothers and sons can find a way to survive and thrive.
If we tease apart the unique dynamics of this most wonderful relationship, we see that mothers have their own set of pressures, separate from those their sons experience. It is critical that we understand both sets: the pressures unique to boys and the pressures unique to mothers. Sometimes the two intertwine, sometimes they don’t. I will explore these sets in detail. First, I will attend to the issues mothers face, because research shows that the surest way to help a boy is to help whoever has the greatest influence over him. For millions of boys, that means mom.
What are the specific stresses mothers contend with? First, there is the common triad, which every mother in America feels at some point: guilt, fear, and anger. Mothers in the post-feminist culture feel internal pressure to be everything to everyone. In fact, I have yet to meet a mother who feels that she is good enough at the job. Working women feel that they must perform equally well both in the office and in caring for their home, husband, and children. Mothers feel that they must counsel their boys, cook for them, pay for college tuition, provide opportunities commensurate with their sons’ friends’ opportunities, and, on top of all that, they must be calm and upbeat at all times. They think they must be wholly sensitive and nurturing to their sons, yet tough enough to be a surrogate when dad is absent. Some mothers have husbands who are either too busy or preoccupied to be involved with their sons. Other mothers who are divorced parent sons whose fathers can’t or won’t be involved in their lives. The truth is, many of the 14 million single mothers in the United States feel that they must be both mother and father to their sons because the son’s real father isn’t in the home.
Clearly, they need encouragement and some help, because no mother can live up to the expectations that she (and others around her) puts on herself. Every mother lives with a mental picture of what she should look like and act like as the perfect mother to her son (or daughter). And every day we get up in the morning and try desperately to be just like that perfect version of ourselves. But we never get there. This book is about helping every mother understand and accept who she is and who she isn’t. I believe that if each of us mothers can come to this point, freedom ensues. The freedom that allows us to accept that we are good enough, just the way we are, for our sons.
Boys have their own pressures, both powerful and potentially destructive. They face confusion regarding the role of masculinity in a rapidly changing world, a role that morphs under their feet even as they learn about what it means to be a man. Consider the trends in boys and education, a very important part of healthy male development. Boys are falling behind girls. Fewer boys graduate from high school and college than girls. Dr. William Pollack of Harvard Medical School cites that “there is a gender gap in academic performance, and boys are falling to the bottom of the heap.” He says that much of this stems from the fact that boys lack confidence, in addition to an inability to perform. We can see a vicious cycle among boys emerging; many fail to graduate from high school or college and their self-esteem and productivity fall. As this happens, their sense of being strong men plummets and they become less motivated to excel.
This is a deeply disturbing trend.
Clearly, we need to develop new approaches to raising our boys. Research shows that mothers in any household still bear the lion’s share of daily parenting responsibilities and household chores. It also shows that on an average day, 20 percent of men engage in housework—such as cleaning or doing laundry— compared with 48 percent of women. Thirty-nine percent of men participate in food preparation or cleanup, compared with 65 percent of women.
And of course, for single mothers, all of the household responsibilities fall on their shoulders. Many of these single mothers are also the primary income earners for their families. According to a recent Pew Report, 63 percent of the “breadwinner mothers” were single mothers. And currently, 24 percent of American children live with single moms. So we can see that the workload on American women is enormous.
The burden on mothers is great, and many feel that it is simply too much when it comes to raising sons. For the most part, daughters seem easier; they are much less mysterious to mothers because of their shared gender— after all, every mother was once a young girl. But though it might be tough mothers cannot give up on their sons.
What this book offers is a road map to help mothers become “good enough” to raise extraordinary sons. It gives encouragement and practical advice, such as the need for mothers to exercise courage and be gutsier with their boys; the means by which mothers can express love in healthy ways to boys in order for them to learn to love women better as they mature; and the importance of hard work, service, and a well-developed inner life. In short, the topics I have chosen are the core issues I’ve seen mothers contend with as they raise their sons.
I also write about the unique needs all boys have. Once mothers learn to understand their boys better, they can help meet those needs, parent more effectively, and ultimately enjoy a more peaceful home life. On the surface, the topics may appear simple, but the reality is that homing in on the simple components of the mother/son relationship is the key to strengthening them.
This is a survival manual for mothers who adore their sons. Good mothers like Janie, who feel that their efforts never match up to their expectations. It is a tool mothers can use to come to grips with who they really need to be for their sons, and who they don’t need to be. I intend this book to be the gateway to becoming the mother you want to be— a sounder, healthier, less stressed mother— and to raising a boy you can be proud of.
Excerpted from Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men, copyright (c) 2014 by Meg Meeker. Used with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.