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Mama’s Boy

I think I’ve just run across a rare instance in which my Jewishness makes me a cultural outlier. And I do mean rare: In late 20th- and early 21st-century America, once you get past ham (maybe) and Santa Claus, the little things that you make you different from the American cultural norm are pretty little indeed.

But there I was yesterday, listening to my radio crush Jian Ghomeshi on NPR as he interviewed author Kate Stone Lombardi on her new book Mama’s Boy: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. The premise of the book is that the mother-son relationship is characterized in a way no other parent-child one is and that close mother-son relationships are often presented as pathological in the broader culture.

I hung on just fine for the beginning. Yes, fathers and sons are portrayed quite positively if they play ball together, fish together, and otherwise stay close into adulthood. And yes, entire industries plug the closeness of the mother-daughter bond. And it’s undeniable that in the culture close father-daughter bonds are celebrated with things like father-daughter dances, positive references to “daddy’s little girl,” and even Facebook memes involving faux applications to “date my daughter.”

And, OK, I’ll concede that close mother-son relationships don’t fare so well in popular culture. The author talked about Psycho, Throw Mama from the Train, and Everyone Loves Raymond to name just a few instances in which close bonds between mother and son are portrayed as damaging. So that had me thinking, “Yeah, what’s up with that? Where are the mothers and sons in popular culture? Why is ‘Mama’s boy’ so different than ‘Daddy’s girl’?”

Then the moment of total disconnect arrived. The author began discussing her research, in which she interviewed hundreds of pairs of mothers and sons, most of whom were self described as being close. Except all the moms thought they were “different” or “odd” if they remained tight with their boys, and many of the sons would only describe the relationship they had with their moms if they were alone. Because of course, the author explained, in American culture there comes a time when moms are told they must push their sons away lest they ruin them. Lest they make Mama’s boys out of them. All these positive and close relationships are a cause for concern even among the involved mothers and sons.

At which point I thought, “Huh? Where? Who?” I was totally confused. Then it hit me. Did this woman talk to many Jewish mothers or sons? Because, speaking broadly and stereotypically, this is simply not the standard Jewish experience. We Jewish mothers do not expect to one day quit talking to or advising our sons. We don’t expect them to never feel comfortable confiding in us past the age of 10. We don’t expect to never hear about or advise on their personal lives. And while negative stereotypes of the overly involved and smothering Jewish mother are out there, I think the common assumptions are (1) it ain’t all bad and beats the alternative; and (2) the sin of Jewish motherhood is mostly one of degree, not type.

I fully expect to witness Simon’s increasing desire for autonomy and privacy. In fact, I consider it my job to help him become independent. I hope he’ll go away for college, enjoy living on his own when he moves into his first apartment, and find his own calling and life-partner without my interference. But I don’t expect to disappear from his life, and I sure don’t plan to push him away if he does need or want to talk to me.

So while Ms. Lombardi’s book might be a great read, and I hope it encourages mother-son closeness, I have no need to buy it. I just don’t have the cultural baggage that makes it necessary.*

*Nor do, I’m guessing, many other “ethnic” types. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Italian mother, Greek mother, Puerto Rican mother, Korean mother, etc. are similarly shaking their heads at this one.

Confidential to Amanda: I have heard that in Israel the type of mother we call “Jewish mother” is instead termed a “Polish mother.”

2 Responses to “Mama’s Boy”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    Once when your dad was sick Dr. Kommor told me I was a Jewish mother. He then added – “That’s not a bad thing. Everybody needs one.”

  2. Amanda says:

    I believe it. Except for the two years as a teenager when my brother quit talking altogether, he and my mom are really close. She wouldn’t recognize this either. Sounds like a WASP-y hang up to me.

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