Raising boys is sticky business. Case in point: Right now, I'm trying to toilet train my son without clogging our plumbing with Cheerios. And this week, research from the University of Wisconsin confirms what generations of sitcom writers have long exploited — mothers worry more when their sons marry than when their daughters marry. Studies like these make me hope that my little boy is never toilet trained. Who'd marry a man in a diaper?
Moms and sons have a special bond. We all know guys who morph into slump-shouldered teens around their mothers. Laundry gets folded! Meals are made! Errant facial hair is fussed over! Even the most macho man can crumble to mush when presented with his mother's apple pie, usually proffered because macho man looks "too thin."
Moms are protective of their sons in ways that they're not with daughters. Moms and daughters see themselves in one another: They tend to bicker more, compare themselves to one another more, and flip-flop between intuitive closeness and ambivalence. Conversations can swell with latent resentments and derail with passive digs (just read You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tanen for proof). But you-can-do-no-wrong protectiveness seems to be the provenance of mothers and little (or not-so-little) Mama's boys.
Until a spouse enters the picture. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting take on this sometimes tense dynamic — a love triangle that pits meddlesome mommy-in-law against cradle-nabbing bride. It's the stuff of a thousand laugh tracks: take emasculated Ray Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, whose feral mother Marie lived next door and seemed to harbor resentment that he didn't marry her. Or Sex and the City's houndstooth icepack of a mommy, Bunny MacDougal, who practically rendered her son impotent. The patron saint is notoriously overprotective Sara Delano Roosevelt, who built and furnished a home for her son Franklin and his bride ... only to move in on their wedding day. Of course they were doomed.
According to the Journal's take on the study, "The insecurity [is] centered on the son's relationship with his parents and nuclear family. Will he visit or call less often? Will he spend holidays with the family?" Sons, it seems, are apt to drift away from mom, maybe because they're ambivalent about the family's social calendar. Mothers-in-law also fret over more frivolous concerns, says the Journal: "His interests have changed dramatically. Is he eating enough? My daughter-in-law is a bad cook." (Note to self: Learn to make pie.)
And, as in days of old, some antsy parents are actually involved in the dating process. Did you see this New York Times story on matchmaking sites where mothers can sing the praises of their children? (In my opinion, these sites aren't about dating. They exist to convince validation-seeking parents that their spawn are considered special by someone other than Mommy, as long as that affection doesn't interfere with Sunday dinner.)
Anyway, to keep things amiable, researchers urge daughters-in-law to invite their husband's mothers to dinner, try to make them feel included, and ask for opinions every now and then (assuming Mommy Dearest doesn't volunteer 'em already). Researchers also tell husbands to present a united front if things get dicey. A spouse's allegiance should be to his partner, not his mommy, no matter what. Meanwhile, to put it in nonscientific terms, mothers-in-law should please back off and find a hobby more urgent than shopping for her 35-year-old son's dress socks.
While I admit that this advice makes sense — and I would balk if my child asked me to tuck him in at age 30 — it really makes me treasure the days when I'm the only lady in his life.
Except for his preschool "girlfriend." And she better treat him right.
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