You Are His First Love
(But Never Tell Him That)
The moment that little bundle of pink, squirming flesh slips into our arms, love touches us. We feel it, not just in our hearts, but also on our skin. He is there. Our son. He is the one who will teach us what male love is like in its purest form. He will be devoted to us and care for us as no other man will.
In my practice, I’ve seen something extraordinary, almost spiritual, in the eyes of young mothers who hold their sons for the first time. It’s as though we know we have to hold on tightly, while we can, because deep down, we realize that we can’t keep them. They will grow up, fall in love, and another will take our place. At that point, sons must leave their mothers. We can’t be in the middle of those relationships. Our daughters, on the other hand, don’t need to leave us in the same way; somehow, we can maintain an intimacy with them even when they are grown and have fallen in love. We are connected to our sons by the same deep love we have for our daughters, but there is a different makeup to the mother-son relationship. One day, when he falls for someone, the nature of his bond with us will shift; we will no longer be his first love. And the moment he is born, our deep sensibilities know this.
For your infant son, you represent nurture and safety. You are the giver of joy, food, trust, love, and all good things. The moment he hears your voice and smells your skin he knows he will be taken care of. He intuitively believes that you will not go away, that you will always be there for him.
As he matures into his toddler years, he watches your face to see what you are feeling. He doesn’t watch you because he is interested in you; rather, he watches because he wants to know what you think about him. If he reads your face and concludes that you are happy with him, then he will feel good about life. He needs your attention: He needs to know where you are and what you are doing. When he is unhappy or scared, he may even get mad at you because you are the one who should prevent these negative feelings, and if you haven’t, he expects you to fix it. In his mind, you are his whole world.
Fathers are critical to the healthy emotional, physical, and intellectual development of boys, but their role is different, particularly when boys are young. It is generally true that mothers are more emotionally tuned in to children than are fathers. It’s mom who gives the child his emotional and psychological vocabulary. It’s mom who provides the physical and emotional nurture.
From the moment your son is born, he knows that you are different from him—not just because you are an adult, but because you are female. Even as a tiny infant, he realizes on some level that you are his introduction to female love. When you respond to him kindly when he is an infant, he learns to associate kindness with females. If you soothe him when he is afraid, then females are trustworthy. In a very real sense, you lay the foundation for how he will relate to women for the rest of his life. You set a template over his heart that will guide his actions from his earliest years through adulthood.
You are his world for the first few years of his life, but equally important, you are the prism through which he will see all women. If you are trustworthy, he can trust his sister, his grandmother, his teacher, and yes, his wife. As you love him he realizes that being loved by a woman feels good. Then, as he grows older, he will love and be loved by other female figures in a healthy way.
On the other hand, if he has perceived that you are unpredictable in your love, he will learn to protect himself very early on. He will withdraw from women and refuse to open his heart to them for fear of being hurt again. If he has felt rejection from you, he will believe that other women will reject him as well. Depending on how deeply a boy has been hurt, he may well recoil from all women throughout his life. Many of us have encountered men who can’t trust women, either because they have been hurt by a woman they loved or, quite often, because the woman who was their first love (mother, grandmother, or any female who cared for them as an infant and toddler) emotionally abandoned them. Being a boy’s introduction to female love is no small responsibility.
Showing Them What a Woman Can Be
When John was ten years old, his father died of pancreatic cancer. As the oldest of three children, he immediately assumed the role of “man of the house.” This wasn’t something that his mother told him to do, he later recalled. He simply assumed it because that’s what he believed his father would have wanted. John and his siblings were thrown into what felt like a black hole, he said. His father left the family financially drained because he had gambling debts and no life insurance. When his father was alive, his mother had worked outside the home as a housekeeper for several families, but only part-time so that she could be there when her children came home from school. After his father died, all of that changed. Not only did his mother now have to work full-time as a housekeeper, but she also took an evening job at a local restaurant waiting tables to pay the bills and clean up some of her husband’s debt.
John described those years to me as “hell on earth.” As a ten-year-old, he was feeling the rumblings of puberty along with his all-consuming grief. He couldn’t study and his grades plummeted. When this happened, he felt guilty because he desperately didn’t want his mother to feel disappointed. He tried harder at school and dropped out of sports in order to bring his grades up. In the evenings, he couldn’t study because as the oldest child, he spent that time taking care of his siblings while his mother was at the restaurant. He helped them with their schoolwork and fed them dinner. And in addition to taking care of everyday chores, he assumed a more important role of protecting his younger siblings. He made sure that the doors were locked at night. But as a child himself, he too felt afraid. Keeping watch over his young siblings was frightening for him, especially because he felt insecure as a protector. “I don’t know what it was,” he told me, “but I was so afraid for them. I was scared that something bad would happen to them, too, and I would be responsible. I just remember sitting so many nights alone frightened and feeling overwhelmed.”
When John first told me his story a year ago, he was a grown man with a family of his own. But as he recalled those nights trying to care for his younger siblings, I saw the fear he experienced as a child come alive in him. The frightened little boy inside the adult man began to speak for him, and I wanted to reach over to him and hug that small boy. The pain of those troubling days was still present and raw, and sitting next to him, I could feel it, too.
“It seemed like my teen years lasted twenty. I was so lonely for my mother. I was lonely for my dad, too, but I remember feeling mostly angry toward him. Not only was I mad at him for dying, and feeling guilty that I felt that way; I was mad because he hurt us so badly. My dad gambled and his debt forced my mother to have to leave us in order to work, but he drank a lot while he was alive. I hated him for that. In a way, I guess that you could say he left us before he died. He spent a lot of time drunk. I worried about my mother even before he died.”
As John spoke, I wondered how he had managed to process his anger and grief so well that now, at age thirty-eight, he was able to speak so openly about the pain. Had he been to a grief counselor when he was a child? I queried. “Oh no,” he said. “That would have been good, I suppose, but how would I have done that? I didn’t drive and the other kids were home after school. They were all I had.”
“So,” I began, “how did you make it through? I mean, if you couldn’t see your mother much and you really had no one to talk to, how did you get past the grief and move forward with your life?”
“It was really tough. But I have to say, my mother saved me. No, I didn’t get much time with her, but I could watch her. I took in everything that she said when she was around and I watched every move she made.”
I had to interrupt him because I couldn’t help thinking that he must have felt neglected. So I asked him, “Didn’t you feel neglected by your mother? She spent so much time working out of necessity.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Never. I know that she was doing the best she could. Plus, she realized that my father’s death was a terrible strain on us. She would ask us how we were doing. She took us out sometimes on weekends to the park or to do something fun. She would tell us that we needed to just be kids. I think hearing that validated our desires to sometimes live like ‘normal’ kids who had two living parents. Mostly, I never felt neglected because my mother showed us how to work together as a unit. We all had extra chores because my dad wasn’t around and we all did them together. She was extraordinary and she led us by example. She worked harder than anyone I had—or still have—seen, and her refusal to give up on life kept us all going. I saw how much she was doing, just to take care of her kids. And she was always happy—or at least it seemed that way to me. When I saw how much she loved me and how hard she worked for me and my sister and brother, I loved her all the more. I always felt loved by my mother, even though she wasn’t around all the time. She really showed me how to be a strong, good adult.”
As mothers, we want all our children to be happy. We rush to quiet their cries when they are infants because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable or sad. When they are first playing sports or going to school, we watch to see how their peers treat them so that we can help if they are rejected or bullied. Sometimes we spoil them with games and treats and sometimes we give in to their whims far too easily because we don’t want to say no. We want our sons to be happy; therefore we don’t want to disappoint them by telling them that they can’t do something or that we won’t give them something that they desperately want. We mothers are pleasers. We are willing to sacrifice our desires in order to meet the needs of our kids. This is good, but there are times when we cross a line and cause problems down the road for our sons because we are simply too nice. This is a natural trap for loving mothers to fall into, but there are some very concrete ways of avoiding it and instead behaving in a way that results in true, long-lasting happiness for our sons.
Love Him When the Going Gets Tough
As mothers, we know that feeling loved brings our sons deep satisfaction, contentment, and a sense of security that they will take with them into adulthood. When they are born we ogle over them and wonder how we can feel such intense love for one human being. But as our boys grow older, that perfect love can become complicated by the realities of day-to-day living. Sometimes our sons make us mad, or they disappoint us. Sometimes it feels as though they don’t appreciate us. Gone is the little boy who trusted us as his entire world, and in his place is a toddler who tells us that we don’t know what we’re talking about because after all, we’re just “Mom.” With our daughters, it’s easier to talk things out and get at the emotional core of the issues that arise. But girls are communicators and most boys aren’t. Though exact statistics vary among research, the number of words that females use per day is in the order of thirteen thousand more than men per day.1 Boys see through a different lens than we do and often it is hard to understand one another. In fact, many times when we try to make amends by discussing our feelings with our sons, we can be met with further rejection because boys don’t always want to talk things through. And then, hurt, we often end up pulling back, which creates unnecessary distance between us without solving the problem.
But it is important to remember that no son can be genuinely happy unless he knows deep in his soul that his mother loves him. Remember earlier when I said that mom represents safety? For our children, their mother’s love has to be nonnegotiable and constant. That’s why it sometimes seems that they take our love for granted; they do. We are the ones who won’t change. We won’t leave, run out, or withhold love. At least, that’s what they want to feel, deep down inside. So what are we to do when the going gets tough and our natural ways of communicating—talking, analyzing, exploring our feelings—don’t work with our sons?
When Aristotle wrote that men find complete happiness and contentment when life leaves them nothing else to be desired, he was not talking about material possessions.2 He was talking about living with a sense of such deep satisfaction that nothing feels lacking. Not that video game, or that toy or those cupcakes. This is a contentment wherein the soul itself feels satisfied.
St. Augustine put a theological bent on this when describing happiness. He taught that “perfect happiness belongs to the immortal soul, completely at rest in the beatific vision, for in the vision of God the soul is united to the infinite good by knowledge and love. In the divine presence and glory all the natural desires of the human spirit are simultaneously satisfied—the intellect’s search for truth and the will’s yearning for the good.”3
Excerpted from Strong Mothers, Strong Sons by Meg Meeker, M.D.. Copyright © 2014 by Meg Meeker, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.