Kate Stone Lombardi and I have something in common.
We have both explored this question in our books: Is there a healthy love between the opposite sexes which is passionate, deep, tender, close, vulnerable, and physically affectionate which is not sexual?
In a Freudian world, there is no such love.
To answer the question with a yes is to go against our sexualized world and the sexualized evangelical sub-culture. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know this territory. Page by page, as I read Lombardi courageously exploring the deep connection between gender, sexuality, and closeness, my respect and admiration toward her grew. She argues that mother-son closeness is healthy in her book, The Mama's Boy Myth. The book is getting some good press.
Just like the conventional wisdom via thru Freudian prohibition, says it is wise to avoid close cross-gender friendships, cw also says raising a mama’s boy is never a good thing. Lombardi and I both challenge the conventional wisdom of Freud.
Mothers as Sexual Temptations
Showing how brave she is, Lombardi goes straight after popular author Anthony E. Wolf in his book Get Out of My Life, but Firs Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? where he writes:
“Most adolescent boys are attracted to women. For most boys there has already been one particular woman in their life whom they have loved deeply. Unfortunately, that woman is their mother (Lombardi adds italics to original quote). ..The possibility always exists that strong feelings in connection with a boy’s mother might be tinged with sexuality and might therefore become really unacceptable. In fact, because everything with adolescent boys is so sexualized, strong feelings toward anybody are a problem until that sexuality is better focused.”
Now before I continue on with Lombardi, does anyone else here see the connection with Wolf’s observation about adolescent boys and evangelical fears about adult males?
As Lombardi notes, the take-home she got from Wolf was that as a mother of a teenage boy, she became a problem. Strong feelings between mother and son are so problematic mothers must avoid deep connection.
She quotes one mother struggling with this issue: “Is it that society told us that there’s something sick or pathological about loving your son so much because he’s the opposite sex, and that there’s some sexualization that we just can’t admit to ourselves?”
Lombardi shares her experience talking with another mother who began to openly share about her close relationship with her nineteen year old son. They were both cherishing their respective close relationships when another woman joined them. After this woman had listened quietly she said, “You two each sound like you are discussing an illicit love affair.” Both Lombardi and the other woman were put on the defensive to explain it wasn’t anything sexual.
But there it is.
Here is the tragic thing: well-meaning evangelical mothers raising their children up in Freudian-inspired communities are caught between yearning for close love and not wanting to be viewed as a sexual temptation to their sons. Pam Hogeweide nails it when she observes this in Christian circles pertaining to all women in relationships: “Christian women are instead conditioned that our sexuality hovers at the edge of lasciviousness” (Unladylike).
It would have been great if Lombardi could have looked to the evangelical community to receive guidance and wisdom on the difference between healthy closeness and sexual temptation.
But where would she find it?
In the recent book, Five Conversations You Must Have with Your Son, Christian author Vicki Courtney tells mothers, “Much like a fawn’s mother, a boy’s mother knows when it’s time to pull away for the well-being of her son…Deep in a mother’s heart, she knows that it when it comes time for a son to leave, he will leave her physically and emotionally.”
She adds with much of the stereotypical gender scripts among evangelicals, that a son’s feelings won’t be manifested in the same way as a daughter’s feelings for her mother.
Lombardi: “Mother’s instincts might tell them one thing, but they are constantly bombarded with messages that tell them to back off from their sons. There is no end to this critique, some of it subtle, some overt.”
Mothers Reclaiming Closeness and a Robust Sexuality
In order to reclaim healthy closeness between mothers and sons, we have to reclaim closeness and deep tenderness from the Freudian world of romantic closeness. Lombardi knows this. My respect and admiration grew leaps and bounds as I saw her reclaiming closeness between mothers and sons as virtuous.
She boldly reclaims closeness from the only place in the world where deep closeness is allowed to flourish: romantic relationships. She quotes Stacy, a psychologist, “I think that mothers and sons with good relationships often have that magical feeling of when they first fall in love.”
Yes, Lombardi audaciously goes there.
She has to.
It’s the only place in the Freudian world where closeness is prized and honored.
Stacy continues, “It’s kind of being a little bit under a spell.”
Diane, a mother, described her time alone with her son, a high school junior, as “heaven on earth.” Another mother, Lisa, states it matter-of-factly: “It’s like romance without the sex.”
Lombardi knows the territory and follows up with: “While the talk and feel of romance might be innocent, it inevitably produces anxiety and distaste because of implied eroticism.” She finds healthy difference in psychologists like William Pollack: “Do mothers and sometimes tread on something that feels sexual? Yes, but it is also almost always true that it’s not sexual at all. We’re still in a very puritanical society and we worry about any kind of sexuality.”
She does not go into the history of mother-son love before Freud inspired such anxiety and fear over closeness. Because sexualization has so monopolized closeness, we cannot avoid looking back to any kind of closeness thru the lens of sexualized love and calling it romantic even when it wasn’t romantic.
Mothers and sons enjoyed affectionate closeness before Freud. Rebecca Jo Plant in her recent book, Mom documents how mothers and son “expressed their desire for one another in romantic terms that would later come to be seen as decidedly pathological.” An adult son, prior to Freud, could unself-consciously refer to his mother as his “best girl.”
Plant reveals mother-son closeness was not pathological but embraced as good. Plant for example, notes how then Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy in the 1910s began every letter to his mother, “Darling Mama.” In one letter, prior to WW I, he wrote to her, “I will be home with you in a few days and we will walk and talk just like the lovers we are.” In another letter, this man of great respect and participating in the highest court of the land wrote, “Tonight if I could sit near you or brush your hair or stroke your forehead or just feel your presence I would be in paradise.”
Kate Stone Lombardi understands some of the post-Freud reaction if one is going to reclaim closeness between mother and son: “Thrilled as they might be by the emotional closeness with their teenage sons, these mothers are quick to tell you that their feelings are not sexual a form of deep parental tenderness.”
This is part of reclaiming deep tenderness and emotional connection from Freud. As Lombardi points out, no matter how benign their love is, mothers who desire to stay close with their sons will receive criticism.