The scene is the kitchen/dining room of my sister Sheila’s immaculate and spacious Victorian house in a small town outside of Hamilton, Ontario. The date is Mother’s Day, 1997. The family (my father, mother, sister, Great Aunt ma — and she really is a great aunt, by the way — and my maternal grandmother Lii whom I still call Grandma, though she wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I called her Lii) have just finished a very nice dinner and a... certain amount of wine. David Groenewegen’s letter is on my mind. I’m still wrestling with the idea of answering it in an upcoming issue, but the answer is looking more like an essay all the time. Since my mother had stopped reading Cerebus through the course of Reads and I had only recently (when that fact came to light over another dinner) persuaded her to finish it and read Minds (ahem), I was wary of an essay of that kind just arriving in the old mail box of the old homestead. Since it was a family get-together, I didn’t want to get stuck on the subject and end up monopolizing the conversation, but I did think that notification was- in order.
I paraphrased the gist of David’s letter and told Mum that I was thinking of answering it with an essay called “Mama’s Boy.” Now, whether she answered “Ohhhh, dear”- or “Dear Sister” or just Mmmm’ed her “Mmmmm” that rises up at the end and signals a kind -of simultaneous interest in and dread of the future course of the topic at hand... I couldn’t say. It was one of those, anyway.
Still in expediency/sound bite mode, I plunged in: “The first thought that I had about being a mama’s boy was the ‘cry-baby’ thing. You know, Cliff and his broken little finger.”
Now, I have to interrupt myself to explain this little piece of family lore. Cliff is my Uncle Cliff, my mother’s younger sibling and only sibling. Symmetrical it was that the same structure existed between myself and my sister. Two kids. Older one a girl, younger one a boy. Now, I don’t have a clear mental picture of myself before the age of, say, ten, except that I was a mama’s boy and a crybaby. That is beyond dispute. My mental impression of myself is of a boy who simply started crying at birth and stopped only intermittently until he was about eight or nine years old. No, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to exaggerate when you consider reality through infant memories. I cried too much for a boy, that much was true. Big boys don’t cry. My crying and the little traumas I cried about were well over into the girlish range (such distinctions being allowable back when the earth was still cooling in the early l960s). Anyway, I have a very vivid memory of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” You know, he cried wolf so often that eventually the villagers didn’t believe him, and when ‘the real wolf came no one came to help him and he got -eaten. This had a particular resonance in my mother’s family, since we had the more immediate example of “Cliff’s broken little finger” which had the same high moral outcome as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Uncle Cliff was a cry-baby too, you see. And he cried at the least little trauma, so that when, one day, he broke his little finger, no one believed he was hurt for (some period of time — part of my mental block — a day? two days? a week?). And then they took him to the doctor and, lo, verily, the finger was broken.
We return you now to the Victorian kitchen/dining room.
“His arm!” my mother, father, and grandmother said in unison, laughing.
“His arm?” Something convulsed inside of me-in that moment, I have to confess. -And then I laughed.
“You mean to tell me that a little boy had I broken arm, and no one believed him and the only,” I was really laughing now — it was quite a punch line, “the only moral you could draw from it was ‘you shouldn’t be a crybaby’?”
That cracked up the room, let me tell you.
“It served him right,” said my Dad in. his mock serious tone by way of emphasizing the fundamental (albeit somewhat grim) humour of my observation, and we all cracked up again.
“Served him right” It was a great line that was-taken two ways at that Mother’s Day table. Black, black humour for the women and an exaggeration of the soiling out process for my Dad and myself. “It served him appropriately” is the other half of the double meaning. A cry-baby is stuck, between the baby state and the intended boy state. A broken arm served as a wake-up call that there are things that are worth crying about and things that are not worth crying about. It moved my Uncle Cliff along. It not only served him appropriately, it served me appropriately — years and years after the fact. Served me so well that I didn’t need to have my arm broken to know I had to get past where 1 was.
I think the essential moral is pretty sound, constituting how things work best on the masculine side of reality (what there is left of it, anyway).
Baby, boy, man.
Two easy steps—or at least they used to be. The baby was expected to become a boy, and the boy was expected to become a man. The baby was expected to aspire to become a boy, and the boy was expected to aspire to become a man. If a boy isn’t “measuring up,” the other guys are going to call, him a baby. It can be mean, sure — it’s an icon of literature written by and for “mama’s boys.” “They all-called me a baby and I went home crying.” Well, duh! But it can also be a friendly bit of cajolery: “Don’t be a baby.” Don’t cry so easily, don’t give up so easily, don’t sulk or throw a temper tantrum when you don’t get your own way. In short keep moving, keep progressing. Stop being a baby and become a boy, a guy. Pain is a big part of it. There are three ways to deal with physical pain: one, behave as if it hurts more than it does; two, behave as if it hurts just as much as it does; three, behave as if it hurts less than it does. You know? Strength? Become better, learn to take it, walk it off, spit on it, and run a few laps. Reaction to pain constitutes a significant conscious decision. If someone cracks you on the ankle with his stick while playing road hockey, and you drop to the ground and roll around clutching the ankle and it doesn’t hurt — but it looked like it hurt —- well, the guys aren’t going to know. You can milk it for sympathy. and theatrically limp around for a minute or two, but you’ve really made a conscious decision to stay a baby inside even though you’re a boy outside. It’s just as... unprogressive?. . .to milk sympathy out of the guys (okay, attention and maybe concern) as t is to run• home to mama crying. It’s a -bad interior choice. The right interior choice is to widen the gap between the pain and the reaction. As little exterior reaction to as much interior pain as you can manage. Shorten the reaction. Wince and hobble when, you know, that’s really all you can do. The moment you can look okay, look okay. In the “sorting-out” process, once you get into the bad habit of imagining pain, anxiety, fear, and all that stuff, you’ve really set a self-destructive pattern. You never properly jump from baby into boy, so the odds are not good that you’ll ever make the jump from boy to man.
Unable and/or unwilling to make the jump from baby to boy, the “mama’s boy” misinterprets cajolery — and the fact that very, very quickly in the boy stage, everyone else is getting sorted out. There are guys who are natural leaders, natural athletes, natural everything. There are guys who are fair, good, okay, and better than okay in all the same aspects. But the key thing is not just athletic ability or popularity or whatever. It is being a guy: And a big part of being a guy is accepting who you are and where you are in the pecking order. To the “mama’s boy” the world is full of bullies and mean guys who make fun of him and pick on him. They exist, but a lot fewer of them exist in the “mama’s boy’s” world than exist in the “mama’s boy’s” mind. The “mama’s boy” takes himself too seriously. He sees himself the way his mother sees him: fragile, special, better than most if not all. Self- importance is a no-no in the guy’s world. That’s where the “ribbing” comes in, “taking the piss” out of someone. Just like physical pain, you’ve got to be able to take it. Not take it and sulk, or take it and lash back, but take it good-naturedly, take it as if you put your pants on one leg at a time in the morning same as everyone else. Not take it as if Mother’s Little Prince just got a footprint on his coronation robe.
Super-hero comic books are tailor-made for “mama’s boys.”
Much has been written about them as “power fantasies” and as “wish fulfillment,” but (at the risk of being really offensive) most of what has been written has been by “mama’s boys” for “mama’s boys.” And I think, naturally enough, that they miss the point. Super-hero comic books interpose themselves in the jump from baby to boy and from boy to man. The “mama’s boy” misses the point out on the playground when he is seven or eight years old. He has an inflated opinion of himself. He sees himself through his mother’s eyes. He takes to super-hero comic books because he has to retreat into a world where he can make the jump from baby to boy without abandoning his high opinion of himself. He misses the sorting-out period when the babies who are turning into boys figure out who is who in the pecking order. Choosing up sides for a team sport, he obsesses about the fact that he was picked last when everyone else just wants even teams and a good game. Once the game is on (say, road hockey), he obsesses about the fact that no one will pass him the ball, that he hasn’t scored, that someone else scored. At no point does it occur to him whether his team is winning or losing; he is just obsessed with how he is doing. If he misses scoring a goal or lets in a goal the only thing he thinks about is his personal humiliation, the unacceptable disparity between his performance and his self-image as Mother’s Little Prince.
Super-heroes feed into the misapprehension of the baby who refuses to become a boy. If he could just get bitten by a radioactive spider or get hit with some gamma rays, he would become .the biggest, strongest boy. Not only would he score a goal, he would score all of the goals. He could beat all of the boys on his own without breaking a sweat, and his performance would match his self-image as Mother’s Little Prince. He just completely misses the point He would not become popular by beating everyone. Any guy worth his salt wouldn’t let him play because it would be too uneven. Uneven equals bad game. It removes the point of the game.
Choosing up sides is a perfect example of the masculine dynamic that is at work in changing a baby into a boy and a boy into a man. Know who and what you are in the pecking order. Play for the team. Get into the spirit of the competition. Play as well as -you can. Work hard. If you suck, work hard so that you don’t suck as bad.
But to the “mama’s boy,” choosing up sides exists purely to humiliate him and any kid who is picked last. It makes him feel unloved, which is a very, very strange emotion to drag into a mad hockey game. If the object were to humiliate guys who suck, you would just say, “Okay, everybody who sucks down at that end. We’re going to blow you to shit, beat you 150 to nothing.”
He just completely misses the point of the masculine dynamic. He has no interest in finding out why and what he is. If he can’t be the top one, the best then he wants to quit In the masculine world that’s a giant step down. Nobody sucks as bad as someone who quits. A dead guy is better than a quitter. A dead guy you could lean up against the crossbar and he’d stop a few shots just by being there.
I was never really that bad. Once Uncle Cliffs broken (gulp) arm dried up the waterworks, I had a pretty good idea where I stood. About a half a foot shorter than everyone else. Not athletic, not popular. But I had made the leap from baby to boy. I learned not to act as if I was entitled to more than I had, I learned not to sulk, I learned how to try and fail and forget about it.
Yes, Cliff’s broken...arm (gulp) did the trick. Did it pretty well, because I remember it occurring to me around the age of twenty that I could not remember the last time I had cried. So not only hadn’t I cried in a decade or more, I hadn’t even been aware that I had not cried. What brought it to mind? Funny you should ask.
Two things: feminists started turning the world upside down in 1970, and I had my first girlfriend, Deni. The opinion had spread very far and very wide and very quickly that it was Okay For Men to Cry. In pretty short order (as things moved closer to full upside down position), that became It’s Good For Men to Cry. At full 180- degree out of whack, but perpendicular, that became It’s Mandatory for Men to Cry with the undertone of Good Men Cry, Bad Men Don’t.
Well, I gave it the old college try, let me tell you. And for a period of time (maybe a year? probably less) I was capable of crying if I was sufficiently frustrated, angry, or unhappy. There was a sense of. . . weird achievement. . .1 guess I would call it: “Getting with the Program.” There was just one small problem. I didn’t like it. Whatever it was that women got out of crying wasn’t there for me. I didn’t feel as if I was letting it all out.” I was still frustrated and angry and unhappy, except now my eyes were all red, I was all “squishy,” and my stomach and brain were tied up in a knot.
In theory I will accept the proposition that I just didn’t go far enough, that I had to work at it more, dredge up more unhappy memories and reasons to feel sorry for myself to really get the waterworks pumping, but “in theory” is as far as I’m willing to go. In retrospect it was a stupid regression from man to boy to baby, to no good purpose, and fortunately, from my standpoint, it didn’t “stick.”
Having opted out of the “sorting-out” process, the “mama’s boy” is unable to distinguish this kinda guy from that kinda guy and just divides the world into “mama’s boys” and homicidal maniacs. He uses the term “cool” and has no idea what it means (i.e., “Dungeons and Dragons is cool!”). “Cool” is what the sorting-out process is all about. Mother’s Little Prince is not cool. A quitter is not cool. The guy who scores the most goals is not necessarily cool. The guy with a sports car and a different girl every night of the week is not necessarily cool. The first one could be a “hotshot” — someone who is good but thinks he is much better than he is and acts like it. If he is stupid enough to say it out loud, he is an “asshole.” “Hotshots” and “assholes” are not cool. Nice ones are funny and good to have in your corner when the cutting gets close and there is not too much at stake. Then they are sort of cool or off-and-on cool. The second guy is cool if he isn’t scooping other guys’ girlfriends and wives, and as long as he knows who he is and who he is okay. If the thinks he is his sports car or he thinks he is the best- looking women he goes to bed with, then he’s really-no different from the “mama’s boy” with his super-hero comic books. He is filling up the gap between who he is and his self-image with a sports car and sexual conquests He is not cool.
The sorting out process worked well for years and years. Probably centuries. You ended up with guys who knew who they were and guys who didn’t know who they were. And the guys who knew who they were knew which guys didn’t know who they were. Whatever the game, the quitters, the hotshots, the assholes, the bullies —all of them became apparent in any environment to guys who knew who and what they were. There were losers, but a loser used to be someone who was just relentlessly self destructive. The hair-trigger-temper types, the finks, the snitches, the weasels. The sort of guy who would hit a woman. Only a loser would hit a woman. The concept was that they were losing, bit by bit, one episode at a time, everything that meant anything. It seems to me that it is a mark of how degraded our gender-merging civilization has become that even the term loser has no specific meaning. Once women picked it up, it was used fur anything from a serial killer to someone with a bad haircut and plaid pants. Someone they wouldn’t go out on a date with.
The “sorting-out” process worked well because there were no rule books attached to it so an asshole or a hotshot of a loser could study how to pass for a guy. Things like “choosing up sides” — there are probably a million of them that are just part of baby becoming boy becoming man.
The fact that I have to coin the term “sorting-out process” indicates how much of what I’m attempting to discuss was just “the way it is” for many years. You didn’t discuss “mama’s boys” or quitters or hotshots or losers or assholes with guys who knew who and what they were. You didn’t discuss the pecking order. You knew your place. You stuck to being a guy who put his pants on one leg at a time in the morning just like every other guy.
So there were really no words when everything started turning upside down. “Male bonding.” I can’t think of a guy whose stomach didn’t turn over when he heard that one. But there was nothing to answer it with. “Oh, yeah? Well, what do you call it, then?” Uh. Hanging out? Shooting the breeze? Going for a beer? Sure didn’t sound as...scientific as “Male bonding.”
In retrospect it was a perfect bit of archery on the part of the long-delayed (but inevitable) alliance between “mama’s boys,” quitters, girls, and women. It turned out that they all had the same complaint. Guys were mean. Guys were bullies. Guys excluded anyone who wanted to “play” and wasn’t a guy. “Male bonding” — and its even more stomach-turning psychiatric term: homoeroticism — left every guy gasping for air. Bullseye, girls. That one really, really hurt.
Since there was no terminology, it was very hard to make a case. Why couldn’t others play? The most accurate answer was “he or she doesn’t know his or her place,” which sounded awful, because someone who didn’t know what was meant by it saw it as oppression, clear and simple. In a masculine sense, it was not intended that way. What was meant was: everyone has been sorted out in this particular context of “Us guys.” Another guy could come along and as long as he kept his mouth shut while he figured out who was who and what was what, he would do fine. You don’t mouth off. You remind yourself that you put your pants on one leg at a time same as all these other guys. If somebody asks you what you do or where you come from, you answer him and then you expect to get kidded about it — expect the guys to make a joke out of it Take it with a smile and a self-deprecating remark, and you’re on your way to finding your place. Keep your answers short and pay attention. Stand your round if you’re drinking. Don’t be a know-it-all. Even if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of what is being discussed, keep it to yourself until you know who is who and what is what. “Mama’s boys” are easy to spot because they shut up and they never care to whom they’re mouthing off. Nothing Mother’s Little Prince enjoys more than proving he knows more about any given subject than the person he is talking to. He. Doesn’t. Know. His. Place.
Next issue: “Mama’s Boy” part two.
“Mama’s Boy” as a term of derision implies no derision against mothers.
A lot of mothers — I suspect, mine included — tend to disbelieve that. Any guy could tell you that it is true, however. A “mama’s boy” is not something that any guy would want to be, but that is up to him to decide, which is what the term “mama’s boy” is really all about.
A mother is a mother. In the course of writing Mothers and Daughters, I had a lot of time to think about the nature of a mother, particularly when I began investigating the underpinnings of the obsession with safety that, it seems to me, is at the very core of every mother.
Let’s take, as an example, a very high place without railings or barricades. Let’s say, twenty-three floors up. Now, how close would you allow yourself to get to the edge? Sheer drop. Twenty-three floors straight down. Splat. The odds are your answer could be measured in feet, not inches, yards not feet, possibly “Are you kidding? Get me down from here,” and not yards. Even the bravest souls are going to be lying if they say, “Right up to the edge.” Even if they’re not lying, they would have to add: “On my hands and knees and very, very carefully.”
Now. Why is that? My own personal theory is that it has to do with the part of our brains, a separate self, whom we do not trust. In observing our own behaviours over the course of our lives, we have seen that separate self, that stupid self, do way too many stupid things to trust him (or, perhaps in your case, her) that close to a sheer drop of twenty-three storeys. The same reason a lot of people can’t stand anywhere close to the edge of a subway platform, whether the train is coming in or not. I would also maintain that the more things that you do which are self-destructive and inexplicable to yourself, the more you are apt to suffer from this condition and the further you want to be away from the edge of any sheer drop. I would suspect that women suffer from this condition more than men do, but feel free to disbelieve that last part if you’re a big Xena fan.
The part of our brains that we don’t trust would seem to be founded on pure experience and speculation on pure experience. It is an irrefutable fact that plunging from a height of twenty-three storeys would be a remarkable experience — seeing the ground rushing up at you, experiencing the adrenaline rush of hurtling through space at superhuman speeds. To quote Bob Burden, “I know how to fly, even if it is straight down.” I think any mother could tell you that the part of the brain that seeks out pure experience is well- developed before any issue of safety or caution enters into the equation. It is really up to the mother to develop that sense of safety and caution in a small boy which doesn’t naturally exist. The most effective way to do that is with fear, to make him afraid, to introduce consequence as a contributing reality in human existence and — where necessary — to magnify consequence as a way of reinforcing the lesson.
“Come down from there — you’ll break your neck,” “You could’ve been killed,” etc., etc.
I think it is very easy for a mother to lose any sense of degree in her concern for safety as an absolute. That is, I think many mothers do such an effective job of using fear to modify behaviour that they end up creating boys who are unreasonably fearful of virtually everything. They are afraid of germs, afraid of bullies, afraid of dogs, afraid of heights, afraid of being alone, afraid, afraid, afraid. They are bound with cast-iron apron strings. The boy becomes afraid on his mothers behalf, as well. He is aware that he is the mere custodian of his physical body, that his mother has en1rn it to him, and that if any physical harm cornea to it while he is in sole custody of it, he will have let his mother down, wounded her, and that becomes one of his biggest fears.
In the masculine world you are (or were, anyway) expected to get past that. Boys who aspired to be men took it as a given that their mothers were overly cautious. They all loved their mothers very, very deny. The fact that you knew not to drag the other guy’s mother into an exchange of insults — unless you were prepared to escalate the exchange into a physical fight — was evidence of that. In the sorting-out process. however, adhering to every one of your mother’s prohibitions was proof positive that you were a coward — you were too afraid. You were using your mother as an excuse to not be brave, braver, or at least less afraid. Everyone was in the same boat if there was a challenge to be met: jumping from a little too great a height or over a greater expanse than usual. No one’s mother would be happy seeing her son do it. It is the whole point of the exercise: to prove that you have a level of individual bravery, an ability to take a calculated risk, to meet a challenge. Another step-on the way for a boy becoming a man.
What separates a boy who will become a man from a “mama’s boy” who will stay a boy has a great deal to do with the extent to which he can overcome the fear that she has instilled in him. To most mothers — to most women — bravery is synonymous with stupidity. If there is no discernible reason why you should jump from too great a height or across a greater than usual expanse, then it is just a stupid thing to do so. To a boy who wants to be a man, the risk of getting a little banged up, twisting your ankle, or getting a nice big bruise is more than outweighed by your willingness to take the chance, to put yourself in harm’s way to a small degree to prove to others — but primarily to yourself — that you have what it takes, you have the right stuff, or, at the very least, you are building an inventory of “challenges met” which will serve you in
good stead if a real challenge should come along. No question a lot of guys go too far in trying to prove that they are the bravest of the brave. That’s part of the sorting-out process as well — finding out for yourself where the borderline between bravery and stupidity exists, where you exist in the spectrum between “coward” and “fool.”
Which brings me (finally!) to David Groenewegen’s question about “what would a generation of Communist-era men be like?” I think many of the exam- pies that he used point up the inadequacy of the blanket supposition. From what I have read of John Lennon, he was indeed a “mama’s boy,” very much attached to his mother, Julia. He was also a “toff.” He certainly did not shy away from the demands of the sorting-out process. Nor could he have, considering what sort of an environment Liverpool was and is. I think most of David’s examples — most examples of the overachiever “mama’s boy” — would fall very much into the conventional masculine pattern. They loved their mothers, revered their mothers, but knew very quickly that they could not conduct their life in such a way that if their mother was watching what they were doing minute by minute, she would be completely at peace with it. Even the most extreme example of a “mama’s boy” anytime before 1970 (let’s say) would still have been subjected to and willingly participated in the sorting-out process. There simply wasn’t any other choice. He would either be brave to one degree or an- other, or he would have bravery thrust upon him in the form of a challenge from the bigger boys.
I think the danger that I see most often in this day and age is that it has become far more possible for a boy to grow up essentially and completely feminized. I think this is particularly true of day-care centers and a school system that has so completely abandoned any notion of discipline (at least in any definition of the term that I would acknowledge) that such feminization seems inevitable. It seems to me that there has been an extension of “safety über alles” to a ridiculous extreme. I certainly can’t fault the nobility of the motive. I think it springs from an opposing view of the nature of a human being. A maternal-dominant society is going to see babies as immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good creatures. If they can be kept safe from anything that is not immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good in the course of their upbringing, voilà, you end up with an immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good adult. I think any Saturday afternoon spent at the mail or a family-values environment will refute the argument. What you end up with are undisciplined, willful, noisy, destructive, self-obsessed little balls of Id protoplasm. Safe as houses, to be sure. Not only in no danger of being struck by a parent, slapped by a parent, spanked by a parent, but in no danger of being chastised by a parent, of hearing a word of discouragement from a parent. In point of fact, the only danger of bruising seems to come from being pled with, reasoned with too earnestly. Having asserted the maternal-dominant theory society-wide that children are in no way, at no time, and under no circumstance to experience any kind of physical pain directed at them by a parent (with which I agree), society seems to me to have hurtled along a trajectory from the point of that decision. Yelling is out, since it can bruise infant sensibilities and instill life-long traumas. So the children yell and the parents talk in hushed and modulated tones, “reasoning with” a bundle of Id protoplasm that is hurling itself bodily to and fro and shrieking at the top of its lungs. Of course in my experience, the parents are not usually reasoning with the child at all. They are either threatening it or bribing it with material possessions or privileges. So, it seems to me that the philosophical undercarriage comes off the vehicle at that point. The child is not learning reason, it is learning bribery and threats. A beloved toy will be taken away for a period of time or a trip to a favoured environment will be postponed. Materialism unviolated becomes evidence of good behaviour. Materialism divided becomes evidence of bad behaviour. But the focus is on material possessions, instead of the development of a sense of right and wrong. It is right to accurately perceive yourself as just another human being who is expected to be well-behaved. It is wrong to perceive of yourself as the centre of the universe whose willfulness has to be catered to.
I see this as being extended into the education system. Failure is traumatic, so the choice has been made to eliminate the likelihood of failure. “Grading against the curve” to me is a polite euphemism for “eliminate all standards.” A good high-jump event is one in which the bar has been lowered to a point where everyone can clear it. A good curriculum is one whereby everyone gets a passing grade and the majority are judged to be excellent. If the class troglodyte can get a 95, you’ve really accomplished something.
I don’t think the net effect has been what was hoped for. Far from having a world made up of immaculate, beatific, intrinsically noble and good adults because they have been kept safe from any trauma — physical or emotional or spiritual — every step along the way, I think we are producing and continue to produce a world of adults who are obsessed with the fact that they “feel bad.” What a conundrum! When you engineer a society whose primary purpose is to make sure that no one is made to “feet bad” ever, the vast majority end up “feeling bad”: materialists unsatisfied with their material goods, secular humanists who either believe in nothing or who eventually believe in everything sequentially, one belief at a time, compulsive “careers” whose caring is the source of profound emotional pain, adults kept safe, safe, safe throughout their upbringing and who are terrified, terrified, terrified. Bravery having been dispensed with, belittled out of existence by the least-brave who have labeled anything short of absolute safety to be absolute stupidity, I think the result is inescapable: profound societal terror, the magnification of apprehension into anxiety, anxiety into fear, and fear into terror. With no sorting-out process, no incremental challenges met, no inclination or ability to push individual limits of endurance and capability, whole generations of males haven’t the first clue as to who or what they are, since they have grown up in a structure where their only measure of themselves is in female terms: how sensitive, how caring, how compassionate, how environmentally aware, how safe they are. Every other measure of maleness — forget masculinity — is deemed irrelevant and stupid. The only thing that can possibly fill that vacuum, in my view, is apprehension, anxiety, fear, and terror in varying degrees of severity.
Well, not the only thing. The problem of course is that I find it very difficult to discuss these issues without looking at where and how they have permeated so much of society outside of the home. I am sure that there are many good and effective day-care custodians
abroad in the land, most — if not all — of them women. I’m certainly in no position to judge their performance sight unseen (and! do fervently hope that it remains an unseen sight for myself). I’m sure that if the sorting-out process has not been eliminated, it has
certainly been curtailed in the interests of safety. I can’t say for certain that whatever has replaced it is wholly and completely inadequate. But I would be willing to bet that whatever system (or systems) has been introduced would be, at the very least, peculiar,
having as its underpinning the interchangeability of the male and female genders. Doubtless little girls are being raised to be little boys to the same extent that little boys are being raised to be little girls with much resultant confusion all the way around with the possible exception of those little boys and little girls who are genetically predisposed to the borderland areas of genders (as it were). If little boys are being raised to be
safe, to not take chances, to know nothing of their place (apart from being Mother’s and Surrogate Mother’s Little Prince), to be terrified of much that warrants smaller fear, and to be fearful of much that warrants no more than mild apprehension, well, they at least find themselves in a world better suited to their nature, Since bravery is not, for the most part, necessary, it would seem that an exaggerated sense of fearfulness is not the most helpful bit of baggage to be carrying around in a world which has been made— if not absolutely safe — at the very least considerably safer. I was thinking to myself a while ago as I was walking in downtown Kitchener and I had passed the umpty-umpth apprehensive pedestrian who was eyeing me warily, fearfully (since I am large enough and fit enough to look as if! could do severe bodily injury to most of the people that I pass on the street), I was thinking: How often do they get that apprehensive, wary, fearful look on their faces? How afraid are they? Are they afraid every waking minute of the day? It seemed to me that they were and are. And that seems so completely unnecessary to me.
I hope I’m not telling tales out of school here, but my mother is a very fearful person. I think most mothers are, for the reason that I outlined: they are so fearful on behalf of their children that they have an inclination to make themselves permanently fearful. I think my mother is less afraid than she used to be. I certainly hope so. As I said to her once (quoting something I had read somewhere): “The great thing about being permanently fearful is that your fear will eventually be justified.” That is, if you are fearful or apprehensive or every waking minute of every day for five years or ten years, eventually something bad will happen to prove that you weren’t worried for nothing. I can understand women being cautious, taking care, taking pains with their safety. I can even understand if such caution gets out of their control and makes them fearful, visibly fearful, wherever they go. That’s an individual choice to be made. What boggles my mind is when I see males in the same condition. I feel like saying: What do you think I’m going to do? Beat you up? Rape you? Pull out a gun? Have you so little rational control of your thoughts and emotions that you really think something is going to happen to you on King Street in a small town in Southern Ontario? Of course I can’t say that — I’d scare the little fella into a heart attack before I had five words out of my mouth.
To me, it seems that this is the most regrettable net effect of trying to make the maternal nature into a template for society, to move it outside of the home, outside of the one-on-one mother-and-son relationship and take it to a society-wide level. I think it is far more destructive than smoking bans (second-hand cigarette smoke — in my view if a human body is so fragile that second-hand cigarette smoke is going to cause it to shrivel up and die, then second-hand cigarette smoke is going to be the least of its problems) or censorship or banning a chemical additive because consuming its body weight in the additive caused cancer in a mouse. To me this is fearfulness out of all reasonable — hell, out of all unreasonable proportion.
Inside the home? Well, I can only speak from my own experience, obviously. And here I can agree with David Groenewegen’s original point. The fear that a mother generates in her child is only one part of the equation, one part of the fountainhead resource of a mother’s love. Certainly it is out of love that a mother is so apprehensive, so fearful on her child’s behalf If a mother errs in making her child too fearful she does so with the best of motives of wanting what is best for her child — a healthful and long life topping the list.
But I think David G.’s point, the positive side of the “mama’s boy” is better reflected not in the fear that she imparts to him, nor in the love which is the fountainhead source of everything maternal, but in a mother’s belief. To David’s list I could probably add a dozen names off the top of my head, and I would be willing to bet that each of them had mothers who believed in their abilities, who encouraged those abilities, who believed in them when they themselves didn’t know that belief had anything to do with achievement, when they could see nothing in themselves to believe in or so little in themselves that belief seemed unwarranted, excessive, or at least disproportionate. Belief of that kind is not unwavering, not unshakeable. It would be nice to say that it is, but, alas, waver it does, shake it does with each disappointment, each wrongful act. But it does always restore itself, is always restored. Why? How? Well, not being a mother, I’m sure I don’t have the first clue.
To me, it is the fundamental flaw in attempting to use the maternal nature as a template for society-as-a- whole. Fear is exportable. You have only to watch a newsmagazine show on TV, read a newsmagazine or a newspaper to see that magnified fear is, indeed, exportable. Left unchecked, magnified fear can turn into fascism or can certainly endorse fascistic impulses and programs without batting an eyelash. Where safety comes first, it is very easy to make individual human rights, individual human liberty a close second, then a not-so-close second, a quite distant second, and so on. My mother has said on several occasions that she wouldn’t mind giving up some freedoms if it meant that greater safety would be the result I shudder when she says that, of course. I can’t help but shudder when anyone says that or something like it. But I never doubt for a minute that she is sincere in saying it and that her motives are completely unselfish and her intentions are good. But it does indicate to me the exact limits of where the maternal nature can be applied to society without unraveling everything that the paternal nature has built, brick by costly brick, century by century in its philosophical progress from the cradle of the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Constitution of the United States of America.
It is unfortunate for all of us that the far more valuable commodity, belief, is not exportable. It would be hard to imagine how a community of mothers could instill belief in a community of sons. Impossible, in fact, since it would lack the crucial element of the one-on-one relationship. “All of we mothers believe in all of you sons” just doesn’t seem capable of bearing fruit, does it?
Would that it were!
Would that my mother could have the kind of belief in the abilities of every aspiring cartoonist out there that she had in mine! Would that Julia Lennon could have believed in a hundred or even a dozen dreamy-eyed boys filling notebooks with squiggly little drawings and nonsense verse! Would that Gladys Presley could have seen Captain Marvel Jr. in even three other dirt-poor boys in Tupelo, Mississippi!
Alas, it doesn’t work that way. It never has and it never will. What is the secret? What is the proper balance of love and belief and fear and every other element of maternal love that goes into making an over-achiever “mama’s boy”? What is the proper diet? What needs to be said and when?
Who could even pretend to have the answer?
I am convinced, however, that the one-on-one relationship and belief in the individual boy is central to the equation.
Next: “Mama’s Boy” part three.