An illustration of this is when you learn you’re pregnant for the first time, you notice just how many pregnant women are living in your street,. In the same way, when your son reaches adolescence, you suddenly begin to notice how often the news features a story about the death or serious injury of an adolescent boy.
A gorgeous boy, somebody’s son, killed in a car accident; assaulted in a random act of violence on a night out with his friends; or, dead after taking part in a prank with his mates that involved jumping from one apartment balcony to another 19 floors up.
Almost every day we read or hear of another gorgeous boy dying before his time. We absorb this as we see our boy stretched out on a couch and/or glued to a screen somewhere close-by and in that moment we pause and wonder if we would have the strength to cope with the pain that would inevitably come if something similar was to happen to him, our beloved son.
Women are natural crisis merchants. A child falls from a tree, not too far, but far enough to give them a fright. If the child’s father is closest, he will wander over to the child, look to make sure they are still breathing and then say, ‘That was a dumb place to put your foot, huh?’ If the child’s mother is closest, she rushes over and immediately makes plans to take the child to Accident & Emergency for a CT scan and to check for any broken bones.
If our teenage son has negotiated a night out with his friends, agreeing as part of the deal that he will be home by 10 p.m., if he isn’t home by 10.15 p.m., we start to panic because he is obviously dead.
Our logic is simple - if he wasn’t dead, he would be home. In my case, in those moments I not only knew he was dead, I knew how he’d died. He’s not yet 30 minutes late and I have the whole scenario of what’s happened to prevent him coming home on time written in my head. I am now awaiting the arrival of the police to tell me the bad news.
One of the reasons for on-going marital disharmony when there is an adolescent boy in the house, is that while we are stressing about what has happened to prevent our son, our good boy, coming home on time as agreed, his father is asleep, apparently not at all concerned.
His father, of course, knows that the boy is fine and will be home soon, albeit later than agreed. He has retained enough memory of himself as an adolescent boy to know only a timekeeping issue is at play here, something he will deal with in the morning.
I will never tell mothers not to worry about their sons. The fear we feel for our boys is real, very real. The sorrow many women have had to endure following the loss of their gorgeous boy is immense and in some cases, insurmountable.
I have looked into the eyes of a woman who lost her only son a week before his 16th birthday in a horrific car accident that claimed the lives of several adolescent boys. The decision made by the boys to get into the car was made inside a 30-second moment. Less than 15 minutes later, all the boys were dead. One of the boys was heard to call out for his mum as he lay dying.
I watched a close friend of mine spend many years trying to manage the pain associated with her son’s suicide at the age of 17 after his relationship with his 16-year-old girlfriend ended. That mother battled to make sense of what had happened and why: what her part in it might have been? What she might have done differently?
She never did overcome her grief, she simply lived with it and as a result is no longer here; gone too early from the lives of her remaining sons and grandsons.
The fear is real and we can’t change that. What we can change, however, is our response to it. It is our fear, not his – not our son’s. It is our fear to own and to manage. It is not up to our son (or the men in our lives) to manage the fear for us by moderating what they do and how they do it.
As mothers, if we are to do the right thing for our sons and help them to become the good men we want them to be, one necessary step in that journey is to own the fear as ours. It is real. We are not imagining it. But we have to own it and walk through it and out the other side, doing whatever might be necessary to let it go. We cannot hand it to our son and expect him to manage it for us.
Why am I so emphatic about this? In recent years, I have been witness to a significant number of relationships between mothers and sons that have been poisoned by her fear. The resulting gap between mother and son is heartbreaking to see and often has a significant negative impact on both their lives.
If you let the fear take hold, it will influence every interaction you have with him. It will bring an intensity to every aspect of your life with him. As an adolescent boy making his way towards manhood, his way of dealing with that will be to shut down and move away.
When I think about my experience as the mother of an adolescent boy and integrate that experience with all I learned in the course of the Good Man Project, I have only one regret. And it’s a regret that is to do with me, not with my son.
If I had known back then what I know now, I would have done only one thing differently: I would have laughed more with him.
I can recall some of the intense moments we endured; me reaching for some sort of guarantee from him that he would be sensible, that he wouldn’t put himself in harm’s way, that he would remember that I loved him and so he would work hard to ensure he would never cause me the heartache I had seen other mothers experience.
The paradox is that when we push our sons to give us that sort of guarantee, when we pass our fears onto him and ask him to manage then for us, we are pushing him closer to the very behaviour that scares us. Cut adrift from us, one of the mainstays in his life until this point, he is more vulnerable in the 30-second moments that begin to come his way. He is then much more likely to make a ‘dumb’ decision while in that moment.
It is when we can laugh with him, we show him that while we worry about him, we are able to acknowledge it is our fear to manage, not his. We are letting him know that we see him for who he is, that we not only love but also like him and above all else, that we trust him.
We trust him to find his way to who he is, rather than trying to make him who we want him to be. We trust him to know right from wrong and to make the right decision when a difficult moment comes. We trust him to take into account that we only ever want the best for him.
This is not about mothers stepping completely away from their sons and leaving them to their own devices. It is about owning your feelings, telling him in as brief and succinct a way as possible what your feelings are and leaving those feelings with him.
“I worry about you when I don’t know where you are.”
“I find that behaviour offensive and I think you know better.”
“You and I both know that behaviour wasn’t okay.”
True success for the mother of an adolescent boy, a moment of pure magic, comes when after he tells you an outrageous (and usually incorrect) piece of information or shares a story he knows will upset you. You look him in the eye for a brief moment, then throw your head back and laugh as you say ‘Go away, you’re an idiot’.