The enormity of my predicament hit me like a Tonka truck last winter as I was navigating the normal morning tumult of getting my boys ready for school. To speed the process of getting dressed along, I had come up with the nifty idea of running their clothes through the dryer for about a minute. It worked brilliantly. The clothes came out all toasty, and the boys couldn’t get that underwear on fast enough! But several weeks into this routine, the dryer was full of wet laundry and the boys had to (gasp) put on room temperature clothing again.
They whined: I can’t wear these pants. My shirt isn’t warm. You have to warm these clothes up.
As I began light-heartedly pulling the soppy clothes out of the dryer so that my boys could have warm socks, I was suddenly crippled by horrific visions of my sweet little sons at age thirty, griping to their wives that they needed their clothes to be warmed each morning because that’s what their mother did for them.
Oh my god, I thought, I’m raising mama’s boys. I had mysteriously grown apron strings, despite the fact that I don’t cook.
Before my husband and I had children, it was assumed by all who knew us that when we became parents, I would be the bad cop. Call central casting for the disciplinarian, and I would be the first sent down. While I was a Type A, stick-to-the-rules, eat-what-you-kill kind of gal, my husband was incredibly laid back. Nothing seemed to bother him. Ever. Even I was certain that our future children would figure out quickly that when Mommy says “no,” Daddy will say “yes.” But it didn’t turn out that way at all.
Within twenty-six months, I gave birth to two little boys, and transformed into a completely different person. I became extremely proficient at nurturing my sons and fairly impotent at disciplining them. To this day, I am the first to cave on punishments and the last to say no to double dessert.
Don’t like what we are having for dinner? No problemo! I’ll fix you something special.
You just earned a thirty-minute time out, mister! Okay, maybe fifteen minutes. Alright, six, but that is it!
I see that Lego set costs $49.99. How much do you have? Alright, I’ll make up the extra $42.
Even worse, I actually enjoy doing things for the boys that they should clearly be doing for themselves. Somewhere deep inside, fixing snacks, making beds, packing schoolbags, combing hair, and picking out clothes makes me feel happy and motherly. Meanwhile, my husband, Mr. Mellow, has slipped easily into the role of authoritarian. He used to just roll his eyes at my indulgences, but lately he’s been pushing back.
What he wants to know is, why would a woman who is hard-wired for dealing with the world in a certain manner undergo a complete personality change when dealing with her children? Does the fact that I am the only female in my house have something to do with it? Could there be unknown forces at work here?
While it would be convenient to blame my over-mothering entirely on chromosomes, I know better. Not all mothers of boys are like me infavoring the “seventeen strikes and you’re out” rule. Some don’t even offer second chances. Here, according to the experts, is where our pasts come into play big time.
“Because they have never been boys themselves, mothers project a great deal of their own experiences with men onto their sons,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 and the New York Times best seller, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. “If they look at their sons and see in them a loving grandfather, father or brother it is tremendously positive, but if they view an ex-husband or an abusive boyfriend, it can be quite the opposite. We all project our biggest disappointments and greatest happiness on the opposite gender.”
So, for my award-winning role as doormat, I would like to thank my father, who was largely absent during my teen years, as well as boyfriends #1, 3, 4, and 6 for inspiring me to please my little men at all costs. Without those male influences, I never would have been able to cut up the meat of an eleven-year-old boy with such genuine enthusiasm.
Thankfully, I’m not a lost cause. According to Dr. Thompson, the one thing keeping me from being totally overbearing and creepy is the fact that I grew up with a normal kid brother who evolved into a fully functioning adult. Without that experience, I might worry much more about my boys.
Is my close, enabling relationship with my boys too much? “Mothers who grew up with brothers tend to have faith that everything will be okay,” says Dr. Thompson.
This faith is born out of the experience of watching brothers go their through natural stages of development, including those wild and weird stages, and having it all work out in the end.
Despite the genetic and psychological rationales for my mothering style, the fifty-million-dollar question remains: Is my close, enabling relationship with my boys too much?
“Every boy has his mother to thank for his emotional foundation,” says Dr. Thompson. “A mother has tremendous psychological power. But as he grows, a boy must be able to leave his mother without losing her completely and return to her without losing himself.”
At some point, and that point is rapidly approaching, I will begin to cut my apron strings, not all at once, but thread by thread. I’m counting on my boys to give me some clues about when, and which ones to cut first. The clothes-in-the-dryer trick is largely a thing of the past. And this year I resolved to stop laying out their clothes for them and hovering over their homework. Still, I hope even when they grow more independent, we will remain connected for life. And if they ever need a little extra warmth, they’ll know where to find it.