Moms and GirlfriendsVie for First
For most moms, it comes about quite unexpectedly. All of a sudden the little boy who refused to part with his well-worn Toy Story pajamas, despite the fact that Buzz Lightyear’s face had faded to obscurity, is wearing aftershave. And he doesn’t even shave. That child who shrieked “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” when you returned home from work now grunts “Uh- huh” and “Nah” in response to your questions. Yet you overhear him speaking animatedly and loquaciously to someone on his cell phone.
This new, redesigned little boy has moments of unexplained extreme pleasantness, offering to take out the trash before you even ask. (Don’t get too excited; these moments are fleeting.) You attribute these changes to his entering puberty with its typical hormonal shifts and turns. While this certainly is true, what’s also happening is that your son has embarked on a journey to find a new—and different—love of his life.
Oh sure, you’ll still get the requests for money (you may actually recall with fondness his five-dollar allowance) or for help, but that pedestal you’ve been on for the past fourteen years or so is starting to crack. Now that your son has discovered girls—not just in a stealing-their-lunch-on-the-school-bus way, but as potential intimates— your relationship with him will change.
Meanwhile, as the girlfriend, you hadn’t considered how his mother could affect your relationship. You’ve fallen for a guy who may act one way when he’s with you, and another way—not all that pleasingly— when he is with his mom. You’ll find yourself treading carefully around this woman, knowing that regardless of what happens between you and your boyfriend, she will always love him.
It is rare that one can see in a little boy the promise of a man, but one can almost always see in a little girl the threat of a woman.
Who’s on First?
A natural order follows the birth of a son. A mother smiles knowingly when his first word is Dada and not Mama, because, as everyone knows, it’s an easier word to form. She directs the barber to cut his hair so he’ll mimic an adorable GapKids model when she dresses him for Easter. She arranges his plans for the summer, artfully working them around the family vacation. She anxiously gets him ready for his first school dance, straightens his tie, and takes a picture.
And then she moves over.
As difficult as it is for a mom to step off first base, in order for her to raise an emotionally healthy son who will enter an emotionally healthy adult relationship, she has to be willing to hit a sacrifice fly.
Most moms understand this, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Hope, whose married son recently became a parent, says that as much as she has been reluctant to share her only child with another woman, whom she likes, she recognizes that in order to keep her son in her life, she has to allow his wife to take her place. “If you’re going to fight that, you’re going to cause friction,” Hope says. “I’d never want to do that.”
Caroline, another mom with a married son, believes she has been replaced by her new daughter-in-law. “He would talk to me, rather than her, before he got engaged. I do feel replaced,” she says, adding with a little resignation, “but I should be. That doesn’t bother me.”
Family counselor Esther Ganz applauds the way these two moms handle their relationships with their adult sons. As much as a mom might want to maintain some control over her son, and maybe even his significant other, she really only has control over her own feelings. “I would work on myself. It’s not the girlfriend’s problem. It’s mine,” Ganz suggests.
For you moms, this may require taking stock of your own life. Has it become too centered on your kids, and not on yourself? Did you give up a career or hobby or other passion once you became a mom? Have you been living vicariously through your kids so that you fear feeling lost when they no longer need you? (A cautionary note to mothers of younger sons: They always will need you, especially when you’re ready to retire, play golf, and focus on yourself.) As mothers, you chart your children’s development along with your own aging, so the more independent they become, the more ancient you feel. Yet you are really never too old to add a new dimension to your life. You can still get a new job, develop a hobby, go back to school, take a cooking class, learn yoga, travel with your husband or friends. You can make yourself whole. The interesting consequence to all of this is that your sons will be so proud of you—and not feel smothered by your myopic attention to them—that they may even initiate an occasional phone call.
I used to play tennis with a very wise mother of two boys who were a few years older than my kids. When I told her how sad it made me to think of my first child going off to college, especially since I projected a lonely future as a single mom, she reminded me about the universal goal of mothers. That goal is to raise children to be independent, financially and emotionally, so they can develop their own productive lives. It’s why you gave them piano lessons, made them go to Sunday school, and insisted they brush their teeth. And those lives should, in the best of circumstances, include falling in love with your replacement.
Amy gets this. She has a thirty-year-old son who just got married. As close as she has always been with him, she claims she doesn’t feel less important now that he has a wife. “I really don’t. I feel that this is our goal as parents to see our kids become independent, find a loving spouse, replicate what our parents had.” She adds, laughing, “I think my husband feels he’s being replaced more than I do. When our son got married, my husband acted so depressed, like we were sending him to the gallows rather than to a wife!” Her husband insists, of course, that he has no personal take on this.
You should emulate these three women by being content to move over and give your son’s new flame your space, as in a chess game—a kind of queen for a queen, where, if you refuse to budge, you’ll end up in a stalemate. I know you understand all of this without my telling you. But deep down inside, it’s okay to feel a little saddened by this change.
When the boy’s mom readies herself to relinquish her first-place position to the girlfriend, if you are that girlfriend, you have your own set of responsibilities. Coming first in a guy’s life comes with a price. Dethroning this other woman (indulge me as I continue the queen metaphor) doesn’t mean you get to relegate the Queen Mother to the servants’ quarters. No one will tolerate that. And you’ll be unfairly viewed as the wicked, heartless daughter-in-law whose husband, by the way, will probably continue speaking to his mother behind your back. Since first place is yours for the taking, try to be magnanimous to the woman you bested. Hopefully, you’ll even grow to like her.
Twenty-six-year-old Kelly is trying. Even though she doesn’t particularly like her boyfriend’s mom, she genuinely feels sorry for her, believing her insecure behavior is in some way the result of her son’s own insensitivity. Kelly’s boyfriend frequently gets so caught up in his activities that he forgets to call his mom. Because Kelly speaks to her own mother every day, she understands how lonely her boyfriend’s mom must feel. Purely out of a sense of obligation—and not out of fondness—she encourages him to call his mother.
As a girlfriend or wife, your being considerate of his mom—giving your regards when her son calls her, offering to let her sit in the front seat of the car with her son (she should refuse but will appreciate that you asked), thanking her when she gives you that perfume that smells a little like Bubblicious—may not only improve your relationship with her but also stabilize her relationship with her son, which will, consequently, effectively strengthen your relationship with him.
And as the boy’s mom, you should recognize how difficult it is for the wife or girlfriend to fit in with your family. She tries to be on her best behavior but she feels ill at ease with your daughter, who acts possessively toward her brother, and with your sister, Aunt Jean, who relishes every opportunity to criticize, and with your elderly father, who resents her different religion. Just like the girlfriend, you, too, should offer to take the backseat—figuratively and literally.
One more word on the subject of gifts. My mother-in-law looked forward to giving me an Estée Lauder gift box every Christmas. I loved the gift the first year, but then by the seventh or eighth Christmas I had stockpiled so much makeup, I could have worn a different shade of lipstick every single day. I never had the heart to tell her I no longer wanted it. She also used to fill her candy dish with pastel- colored mint candies. Being polite, I once told her I liked them. I didn’t, but they turned up enclosed with my birthday present and Christmas present every year that followed. Today, four years after my mother-in-law has passed away, I’ve actually run out of makeup, and I’ve found myself searching store after store for those tasteless mints.
There will certainly be times that, despite the efforts of the mom and the girlfriend, the guy will do something to hamper their relationship, sometimes unintentionally. Jill, the mother of a twenty- four-year-old son, says her son’s girlfriend expects to be with him constantly. But when he needed to buy a suit for a job interview, he asked his mom, rather than his girlfriend, to accompany him. “She got angry because I went instead of her,” Jill says. “They fought for a week. She told him, ‘I can’t believe you took your mother instead of me.’ ” Now not only is her son feuding with his girlfriend, but the two women are at odds. This incident also emblematizes a dangerous crossing of boundaries in that the boy told his mother about the argument with his girlfriend. There’s only one reason for a guy to divulge this: He’s unsure of his feelings for his girlfriend, and he wants feedback. Even if he and his girlfriend easily move on from this disagreement, it won’t be readily forgotten by the mother, who will subconsciously store it away for the day she is inclined to list all the things wrong with this younger woman. And if the girlfriend learns that he confided in his mother rather than resolving matters privately between them, she will be angry and hurt, and rightly so.
Also significant is that this occasion involves a noteworthy event in this young man’s life. He has graduated from college and wants to make a grown-up impression on a prospective employer. His choice to help him pick out this new suit reveals how he views his relationship. If he chooses his significant other over his mother, then he is already comfortable transferring some of the trust he has in his mom to his girlfriend. If he selects his mother over his girlfriend—and she’s not offering to pay—then either he feels bad leaving Mom out because she’s already upset over his leaving home for good, or he just doesn’t feel all that serious with this particular girl.
A girlfriend should not have to fight to be number one in a guy’s life; she’s entitled to it. If the guy cannot see this, if he continues to seek out his mom’s voice rather than his significant other’s, then he’s not looking to be in a mature, committed relationship. Not only do his actions correlate with how he views his relationships—Is he ready to pull away from his mom? Does this girlfriend figure prominently in his future plans? —but they can create a competition between the two women.
Malcolm in the Middle
It’s ironic, then, that it’s often the guy who complains about feeling stuck in the untenable middle position. Rather than deal with the personality conflicts, unless he witnesses mutual enmity between the two women, he’ll just gladly imagine that they’re getting along. It’s not that these guys don’t care enough to get involved; it’s that they care too much—for both women.
“Life for the son is hell if the two women don’t get along. Unfairly, that’s the person who pays the price,” says Sue, a mom of a newly married son.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Beatrice Lazaroff, this role of middleman is inevitable. “Eventually some issue, some comment, some situation will come up and he will get a certain amount of feedback from the girlfriend and the mother. He will feel divided loyalties and will have to negotiate that terrain somehow,” she says. “The guy yeses everybody to death, and what happens is that the other people end up getting mad at him because they think he agrees with them, and then he doesn’t follow through.”
There is a simple explanation for why these guys fail to follow through. They can’t win. If, for example, the mother is annoyed with the girlfriend for avoiding her at a family christening, she’ll complain to her son. Her son knows that if he relays this to his girlfriend, he’ll find himself between two fuming women. All guys get this, and since most men would rather wrestle a hungry bear in the woods in a blinding blizzard than get between two females, can we women really blame them?
Sure we can. Because not only should they take some responsibility, but they also hold all the cards. They know both women will forgive them if they occasionally make a poor decision. In fact, we’ll probably transfer the blame to her because we don’t really want to denounce our son or our boyfriend.
Thirty-five-year-old Paul is one man who understands instinctively that eventually he may have to choose sides. Sensitive and compassionate and with a self-proclaimed strong feminine side, Paul finds any form of confrontation to be offensive. When he fell in love at first sight with his co-worker, Jess, he immediately called his mother. The two women met, enthusiastically greeting each other with a warm hug and a kiss. But the lovefest collapsed a few weeks later when Paul announced his engagement. His mother implored him to wait, insisting they barely knew each other.
“Jess was emotional and dramatic and very upset when I told her what my mother said,” Paul recalls. “She told me to stop listening to other people. ‘We don’t need more time. We know what we’re doing.’ I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, Mom is giving me advice to hold off the wedding, and the woman I’m about to marry is giving me a calendar date. I wanted to make two people happy.”
So Paul went to his “therapist,” actually his hairdresser, for advice. “She told me she was in a similar situation. She said to me, ‘My husband is very close to his mother. One time he put her before me. I told him that as much as you love and respect your mother, you’re starting a new family. You always put your wife first, no matter what.’ And hearing that, I made a change on the spot. I came home—my hair looked great—and I had a completely different outlook on how to approach the situation.”
Excerpted from It's Either Her or Me by Ellie Slott Fisher. Copyright © 2010 by Ellie Slott Fisher. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.