Comments about my recent post on “The Return of Masculinity” raised an interesting question,
Can a woman raise a man?”
Or in other words can a mom, especially a single mom, raise a son to be a man? Can she teach him what he needs to know as a man? Guide him in being a man?
I am a single mom, but I have two daughters, no sons. So while I cannot comment on mothering a boy as a single mom, I can comment firsthand on watching my mother try to do so.
My father survived Vietnam but tragically passed away in a car accident after his return. My mom was 27. I was 2. My brother was 4. Now this affected all of us in in profound ways, to be sure, but I have often thought perhaps it affected my brother most of all.
Someone said to him, shortly after, that he was now “the man of the house.” Why people say the things they do when people die I will never know, but I am not sure whether it was to inspire him, or somehow comfort him, but I think what it did, at the tender age of four, was terrify him. That’s a lot to put on a four-year-old.
My mother had no job skills so she went back to school and a wonderful lady, who lived nearby, whose own children were grown, and had lost her own husband a few months prior sought my mom out and offered to babysit us, everyday while she was in school, for free. She was such a blessing to us, this spunky short spitfire of a lady from Kansas, and she made a tough time easier on us all.
But back to my brother. He was a handful. I think while my mom denied her grief as her way to hold it together, he exploded in his. Add that to the fact that he already had ADHD, and now nobody to roughhouse with, or to push back on him, he literally did rule our roost. My exhausted mother placated him with candy and other bribes, just adding to his energy and escalating demands.
Everyone was afraid of my brother at school, and so I never wanted for protection. I was figuratively under his wing, even into my teen years once a guy heard my last name, he was backing away and bowing least he have to deal with my brother’s wrath.
But at home, he was out of control. I can see now he was acting out his pain, but at the time he was a tyrant. He spoke to my mother horribly, and as he got older he bullied her and intimidated her. He bullies me too, and could be very unkind, but while he regularly threatened to pound on me, he never actually did. The older he got, the worse it got.
He played sports and was in Scouts and here and there participated in men’s activities, but outside of that he lived in a world of women between our family, our sitter, and my mom’s friends.
I am told my father was brilliant, and his father as well. Geniuses, they say. My brother is also incredibly intelligent, but in school he was completely undisciplined, between the ADHD and the lack of any real structure or support with homework at home, his grades were abysmal compared to his potential. (my mom, bless her, was homecoming queen, but she is not an intellectual and could not really help my bother past a certain point. I am told I take after my father in temperament and brains, but my brother is far, far smarter than I am.)
One man who took my brother under his wing was his high school band teacher. My brother was a musical prodigy, he said, able to pick up and play pretty much any instrument you put in front of him. He played alto saxophone in the band, and mostly electric guitar for fun at home. He loved Heavy Metal and his heroes were the lead guitar players from these bands.
My bother liked his band teacher (who was also a foster parent) a lot, and he asked my mom when he was in his sophomore year if he could move to his house. My mom was horrified, and said no, but thinking back I wonder if that would not have been the best thing that could happen. I think my brother wanted, and needed, very much a man to guide him.
I am surprised he graduated high school, between the skipping classes, smoking pot, drinking alcohol, minor run ins with the law, and riding his dirt bike at full tilt. But he did, somehow. His grades were equally bad when he went to the local community college. When they dipped below the level for him to continue to get his VA benefits, my mom gave him a choice, join the military or move out on your own. (My father was active duty when he died and so both my brother and I got monthly checks for college under the GI Bill.)
He joined the Marines, not because of his grades but because of his scores on their intelligence tests. Unfortunately he told them he had never smoked pot or used drugs. On his way to boot camp, they asked him again. He again said no. Their background checks confirmed different and they told him, “Son had you been honest with us, we would have been ok with it. But since you ;lied, you cannot become a Marine son, good luck.” My brother had to call my mom collect, from a city four hours away, for a ride home.
The next week he went to the Navy recruiter, told the tale, and signed up. I didn’t think he would last ten minutes in the service, with his attitude toward authority, but instead he was like a duck in water. He thrived with the structure, and the discipline, and the limits. They noticed he liked to boss people, so they put him in charge. He worked on aviation electronics and computers. He served 8 years before he left the military for a career in civil service. Because he could instantly see all the ways to hack into a computer system, he was assigned to electronic security and helped keep hackers out of some of the most important government offices in Washington DC.
He recently left the DC area and has moved to be near my mother and I. He’s looking for a job and is doing well. He never married, has no children. He desperately wants a partner, but he has always been unlucky in love. He falls had and fast and scares the ladies off, as far as I can see.
Anyway, back to the point, my mom raised my brother, but as hard as she tried she could not be both a mom and a dad to him. I would say many if not most of his life struggles are all related to not having my father. From small things like not having someone to teach him how to pee standing up, to big things like how to talk to girls, he was on his own to figure it out. It was a lot for a little guy of four, and I think it’s still a lot today.
I could tell of other examples, men I have dated who were raised by single moms and how that affected them, but maybe another time. For now I will leave it with this one tale.
If you ask me, “Can a woman raise a man?” I would say, “No.” She can do her damn best, and be a good mom, but if that boy has a father who wants to be a part of his life, she should set any feelings of her own aside and make sure her son gets regular and frequent time with his dad. If like in my brother’s case, that’s not possible, the next best thing would be to get him around his male kin: grandpas, uncles, and such. Failing that, get him into a male organization and try to find a stable and long term man to be a part of his life (maybe a neighbor or family friend, not a romantic interest of mom unless he’s going to be around for life.)
To be clear, I am not saying a single mom can not do right being a GREAT mom to her son, but she cannot be his dad too. She needs to make sure her son is around a man, as above. It’s best for her, and him, and his future.
To do any less than make sure her boy is around men, a mother will unintentionally cripple her son no matter how much she loves him or how hard she works. It’s not because she isn’t doing enough, it’s just the way it is. Boys need men. Men make boys become men. Boys who become men (chronologically) without a man in their life may continue to struggle in life into adulthood.
That’s my two cents, anyway. Take it for what it is, one firsthand account.
Let those with ears hear.