Ever since Oedipus unwittingly carried on with his mom and Freud built an extensive scientific theory around their mythical indiscretions, a cultural stigma has been associated with close mother-son relationships, especially those relationships that continue on well into a disaffected, serial-killing adulthood. However, according to Kate Lombardi, author of The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger, mother-son bonds can be intimate without being creepy, or at least that's how she explained her book to NPR this weekend.
Lombardi insists that, contrary to popular beliefs perpetuated by such Italian-American stereotypes (I'm Italian-American, so I can freely make gross generalizations about my maternal basement-dwelling forebears) as the infantilized forty-year old man whose mother unconsciously stunts his maturation by doing his laundry, cooking him dinner, and criticizing every woman he tries to date, mothers who are close with their sons can raise thoughtful, caring young men who don't feel pressure to fulfill traditional masculine roles that may privilege violence or aggression. Take the relationship she has with her own son, for instance, which she characterizes as a very close bond that her now 23-year-old son is "not ashamed of." She further explains that, among the possible parental relationships, the one between mother and son has attracted a peculiar degree of cultural scrutiny, a phenomenon she attributes to Freud's reading of Oedipus and cinematic creepers like Norman Bates.
"A healthy, loving [mother-son] relationship," Lombardi says, "is one where the mom is emotionally supportive of her son. She recognizes his individuality, his sensitivity, and his vulnerability along with his strengths." In reality, the mother-son relationship doesn't have to be especially stoic, an insight that Lombardi says runs counter to advice mothers are regularly given about resisting the urge to coddle their little boys lest they lose their sense of masculine agency. She says, "We get the strong message that the last thing a boy needs is his mother, when in fact the research shows just the opposite."
The mother-son relationship might attract so much scrutiny because mothers are, according to the Oedipus myth and sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond, the first threats to a Western man's masculinity, or, in pop culture terms, his John Wayne quotient. How much can the male — especially the American male — be a rugged, womanizing individual, thus fulfilling the cultural role a patriarchal society has ordained for him? Well, it all depends on how much his mom coddled him when he was just a little guy and how often his dad took him out of the domestic sphere to do man stuff like hunt and arm wrestle. Though some would argue that a very real, very masculine arrested-development problem exists in places like Italy, where women complain that all the fellas are too attached to their mothers to count as eligible bachelors, such a phenomenon only becomes an acute social problem when a society expects (often unreasonably) men to behave in a certain way in order to fulfill their manly obligations.
Lombardi doesn't offer much — at least in her NPR chit-chat — by way of empirical evidence to back her claim that intimate mother-son bonds are essential to emotional development. Certainly mothers can teach their sons "emotional intelligence," but so can fathers and so, for that matter, can any other empathetic relative. And parents — both mothers and fathers — can definitely overindulge their kids, which is how young men (and women) grow up to frustrate future roommates by tossing their clothes all over the floor or leaving dirty dishes in the sink.