"The only cultural image we ever see of mother-son closeness is a negative one" observed Kate Stone Lombardi. She has written a throught-provoking book, The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close makes Them Stronger. It is getting a lot of press. CBS here. NPR reviewed it. New York Times also provided some space toward it.
This book drew my attention because I have developed a passion for researching emotional closeness between men and women. The winds are blowing. Even though Freud is in the air, men and women in the twenty-first century are gaining some distance from a man who has inspired so much anxiety about closeness.
Since Freud sexualized closeness in imaginations of the Western world (including evangelicals who ironically stresss we are not to be conformed to this world) the romantic relationship is the only relationship where you could not freak out or be uncomfortable about expressing mutual deep tenderness. Of course, for many contemporary evangelicals, Freud holds sway.
The transformation from Freud for evangelicals is not going to happen overnight but it's happening in mother-son closeness and cross-gender friendships. Freud has so much power in the evangelical community and inspired much discomfort and anxiety over closeness.
But God is raising up men and women from a variety of places to debunk Freud.
Kate Stone Lombardi is a courageous woman. She understands the deeply embedded Freudian anxiety of a mother who chooses to relish and nurture deep emtional connection with her son.
Identifying the Freudian inspired taboo.
Lombardi so accurately identifies the notion the fears that mothers have that any closeness with their sons is in danger of an inappropriate sexualized connection. Ever since Freud, the conventional wisdom for mothers was that if they got "too close" to their sons, the closeness would be interpreted as something sexual. She nails it when she observes that love between mothers and sons after Freud became some kind of psychopathology.
She shines the light on social pressure on mothers to conform to outdated Freudian sexism and fear. In our culture, even more so in the evangelical sub-culture, closeness in the mother-son relationship is very suspect. People are going to think something strange or inappropriate is happening between mother and son if they detect physical affection, attention, or "unusual" emotional bonding.
She notes a how single mothers get the eye or are criticized. If they get too close, they are called to the carpet for creating a "mama's boy." It starts early on. Almost as soon as mothers discover their sons yearn and long for emotional closeness and deep tenderness with their mothers, mothers are told by husbands, brothers, fathers, even female friends that they are "too close" to them.
Lombardi does a courageous job of nailing how our culture has equated physical tenderness with a Freudian sexualized tenderness. Since I began developing cross-gender friendships, I understand the territory Lombardi sketches for us. In a Freudian world, there is no such thing as innocent, precious, intimate physical tenderness--it is all sexualized.
She notes the anxiety of mother after mother who longs for physical tenderness with their sons only to be told they are getting "too close." A mother who is criticized by her husband because she lies in bed with her seven year old after he comes home from school and opens his heartup to her. A mother who is warned by her sister that she was too affectionate with her young son because she enjoyed cuddling with him. One father told his wife, their son had "to learn to man up." Mothers who get strong messages to pull away and show distance to their teenage boys.
Lombardi's highlighting this made me think about evangelicals. In the evangelical world where for many Christianity is inherently "masculine," mothers run up against a Freudian-inspired "leave and cleave." For many evangelicals, the "leave and cleave" in Genesis 2:24 has come to mean deep emotional exclusivity in marriage. This is the outcome in a Freudian world for all closeness is a sexualized closeness. It makes sense.
In a world which interprets warm affectionate touch and emotional closeness as sexual (or something harboring unconscious sexual desires) the "leave and cleave" of Genesis 2 must mean emotional distance and divorce between mothers and sons. In the evangelical world post-Freud, there is a great pressure for adolescent boys to become detached from their mothers and learn to "man up" as they age into young adulthood.
Well, what about enmeshment? In the world of psychology, to become "enmeshed" with someone is to become emotionally entangled or ensnared with with a lack of boundaries. Lombardi courageously walks through this as she notes the mother-son relationship which experiences deep empathetic closeness is liable to be criticized as a relationship which is "enmeshed."
But Lombardi bravely sets forth a healthy emotional closeness is very different from an overcontrolling mother or one who has overidentified with her son: "It's not a slippery slope but rather two different dynamics. The two are often mistakenly conflated."
Of course, this is exactly what many in the evangelical world do when they see emotional closeness between a man and woman in cross-gender friendship. They interpret any kind of closeness or deep tenderness as sexualized (romanticized) because of the Freudian-inspied "leave and cleave" interpretations of Genesis 2:24.
More to come.