The Mother-Son Relationship in Anglo-American Feminist Theory

From Clytemnestra and Orestes to Thetis and Achilles; From Estrangement to Connection: The Mother-Son Relationship in Anglo-American Feminist Theory

In “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” African-American poet and essayist Audre Lorde (1995) asks us to “consider the two western classic myth/models of mother/son relationships: Jocasta/Oedipus, the son who fucks his mother, and Clytemnestra/Orestes, the son who kills his mother” (76). These ancient myths are continually retold and reenacted in Western culture and function, in Louis Althusser’s terms, as ideological apparatuses that interpolate mothers and sons into specific relationship positions that are most fully dramatized in the narratives of Clytemnestra and Jocasta. The sanction against mother–son closeness and connection is signified and achieved by the incest taboo, while the enforcement of mother–son separation is represented and enforced by the murder of Clytemnestra. Both patriarchal narratives are enacted through the denial and displacement of the maternal presence.

I open this chapter referencing the above narratives because it is my contention that maternal erasure and disconnection are central not only to patriarchal thinking on mothers and sons but also to Anglo-American feminist thought on mothers and sons as well. This paper will, examine how the early Anglo-American perspective on mothers and sons scripted mother–son attachment in terms of these hegemonic narratives of maternal erasure and disavowal. Next, I consider how recent Anglo-American feminist writings on mothers and sons call into question this patriarchal and early feminist view of maternal displacement to emphasize mother–son connection. 

Patriarchal narratives
The story of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta was first told by the playwright Sophocles, but is known to us today through Freud’s psychological theory of the Oedipal complex. The son’s first love object, according to Freud, is the mother, but the son renounces this love upon the realization that this desire is forbidden and will result in his castration by the father. In the story of Clytemnestra and her son Orestes, the mother, as most accounts tell it, kills her husband Agamemnon upon his return from Troy to avenge his sacrificial killing of their daughter, Iphigenia, and because he has brought home with him a concubine. In retaliation against his father’s death, Orestes kills his mother, which he defends as just vengeance for the death of his father. 

These ancient myths are continually reenacted and retold in our contemporary culture. A cursory review of twentieth-century popular culture reveals many and diverse manifestations of the ancient patriarchal narratives of forbidden Jocasta/emasculated Oedipus, and of triumphant Orestes/defeated Clytemnestra. Philip Wylie in his immensely popular Generation of Vipers (1942) coined the term “momism”.

“Our land,” writes Wylie, “subjectively mapped, would have more silver cords and apron strings crisscrossing it than railroads and telephone wires. She is everywhere and everything … Disguised as good old mom, dear old mom, sweet old mom … she is the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding” (185). In the 1960s, the Moynihan report advanced the now infamous black matriarchy thesis that described the black family as dysfunctional and argued that mothers were to blame for the pathologies of the race. “In essence,” wrote Moynihan, “the Negro community has … a matriarchal structure which … seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole” (1965: 75). The 1980s gave us Robert Bly, the father of the men’s mytho-poetic movement and author of the best-selling Iron John, the notorious thesis which suggests the American man has grown up with too much mothering and not enough fathering: they suffer from what Bly diagnosed as “father hunger. Feminism has long critiqued Wylie’s momism, Moynihan’s black matriarchy, and Bly’s father hunger for their blatant misogyny and virulent mother blame. 

Early Anglo-American feminist theory on the mother– son relationship
However, the purpose of this paper is not to detail the patriarchal script of maternal displacement and denial. Rather, I am interested in exploring how this displacement and denial are represented, recast, and resisted in feminist theory on mothers and sons. The first section   offers a reading of one classic Anglo-American texts on the mother–son relation: Babette Smith’s Mothers and Sons: The Truth about Mother-Son Relationships (1995). in order to examine how this literature mimicked, albeit unintentionally, the patriarchal dictate of maternal displacement and denial. In the longer version of the paper published in Demeter’s recent collection on Mothers and Sons I also examine Judith Arcana’s Every Mother’s Son: The Role of Mothers in the Making of Men (1983) and Linda Forcey’s Mothers of Sons: Toward an Understanding of Responsibility (1987
Babette Smith’s Mothers and Sons: The Truth about Mother-Son Relationships (1995). Smith’s research, developed from a comparative study of postwar and post-1960s mothers and sons, explores how mothers’ and sons’ perceptions of one another and of their relationship have changed over the last fifty years. 

This study focuses on two interrelated questions: How do mothers perceive masculinity? And how do sons, in turn, perceive their mothers and their mothering? Of interest to us here in the discussion of the way motherhood is represented in feminist thought on the mother–son relation is Smith’s second concern: sons’ perceptions of maternal practice.

The postwar sons’ reflections on their mothers and mothering were both startling and sad. These sons, Smith writes, “were struggling to love where they had little respect, to believe they were loved when they remembered no affection, to justify their love by saying their mother was not typical” (33). While the ideology of “the Good Mother,” particularly as it was represented in the 1950s, demanded that mothers be selfless, moral, pleasing, passive, and subservient to their husbands, and led mothers to believe that they would be honored and appreciated for this, the views expressed by the now middle-aged sons interviewed by Smith reveal the contrary: the mothers were neither admired nor respected for their maternal devotion. As one son commented: “The worst thing I think was the way she made herself a martyr to what everyone else wanted” (34). 

The few sons who spoke or wrote favorably about their relationship with their mothers remembered their mothers as “female people rather than [just] ‘mothers’” (50). The memories of these sons “reveal that these women had also developed wide-ranging interests beyond the home, ‘artistic and intellectual curiosity,’ ‘stories from work,’ ‘has published a book’” (50). They felt their mothers were “adaptable,” or they had “broadness of outlook and knowledge,” qualities that their sons celebrated 

In contrast, the post-1960s sons genuinely liked their mothers and enjoyed being in their company. The reasons, the interviews would suggest, are: (a) the mothers of these sons were less invested in the ideology of the Good Mother; (b) as a result of increased education, work, and travel opportunities for women, these mothers had more in common with their sons; and (c) the familial, economic, and cultural changes occasioned by feminism gave women more confidence and clout. As well, and of particular significance to the discussion at hand, according to Smith, for the post-1960s son, “it was noticeably easier for [him] to agree that he admired or respected his mother when he did not have to pass judgement on her parenting at the same time … [in contrast], [1950s] sons had no choice but to evaluate their mothers in her maternal role” (182). 

Mothers who exhibited attributes valued in male culture, and/or achieved what was deemed success from the masculine standpoint, were more readily respected and admired by their sons. As one schoolteacher observed of the sons in the class: “Boys identify with mothers who are independent, freethinking, nice people, not only for security and emotional reasons, but also because they happen to like their mothers as people. These are mothers who actually present themselves to their sons as people without overt[ly] ‘being Mother’” (185, italics added). 

And while Smith argues that the variable is not so much paid employment as self-confidence, she nonetheless concludes that women’s work outside the home benefited the mother–son relationship because it, as noted above, “[provided] the boys with something about their mother which was understood and valued in their male world” (182). Male respect and admiration for mothers, Smith goes on to argue, is essential “because, without those elements, there is no basis for equality between them” (185).

Though not always explicitly acknowledged or addressed, the “beyond motherhood” thesis of Smith begins with the recognition that motherhood in patriarchal culture is neither valued nor respected, and that mothers do not acquire any real or substantive power, status, or agency— economic, cultural, or otherwise—for the work they do as mothers. Thus, as a mother, the woman is not able to secure the respect of her son. Though this is a concern for all three, it is of particular importance for Smith because her theoretical platform for improving gender relations hinges upon sons respecting and admiring their mothers. 

The problem, according to Smith, is “[how do] sons … hold their own mothers dear in a society which has little regard for mothers” (180). Smith argues, as we saw earlier, that this problem may be remedied through mothers fashioning an identity and role “beyond motherhood” in the public, male realm of work so as to, in Smith’s words “provid[e] [their sons] with something about their mother which [is] understood and valued in their male world” (182. Smith’s argument thus reinscribes, as did much of 1970s liberal feminism, the hierarchal gender opposition that privileges masculine values over those that are associated with the feminine, and in so doing both mimics and perpetuates the patriarchal disparagement and displacement of the maternal.

As Smith’s argument seeks to distance mothers from motherhood and downplay their maternal role and identity, it also calls for the abdication of maternal authority and power. Smith argues that post-1960s mother–son relationships are more successful because they are based on equality, and that this equality is what makes possible the respect Smith deems essential for a successful mother– son relationship. While equality in relationships is generally understood to be a good and desired thing, in the mother–child relationship such equality is problematic because it denies the mother the power and authority that is rightly hers as the mother of the child. 

“Smith argues that the less a mother relates to her son as “mother,” the greater the chances will be of raising non-sexist, non-masculine (as it is traditionally defined) boys and improving relations between mothers and sons and men and women generally In so doing it downplays, denies, and in some instances, disparages, the responsibility, authority, and power of mothers as mothers of sons, while according the same to women as women. 

New Anglo-American Feminist Perspectives on the Mother–Son Relationship
Feminist theory on mothers and sons has been informed by and has developed in the context of feminist thinking on mothering and motherhood over the last thirty years. More specifically, Anglo-American feminist theory on mothers and sons mirrors and reenacts the theoretical trajectory of Anglo-American feminist thought on the mother–daughter relationship. The 1970s feminist view that problematizes if not pathologizes mother–daughter identification has now fallen out of favor among Anglo-American feminist theorists. Indeed most Anglo-American feminists, since at least the mid-1980s, regard mother–daughter connection and closeness as essential for female empowerment. 

A similar trajectory may be observed in Anglo-American feminist writing on the mother–son relation, with an approximate ten-year time lag. The text  examined above tend to downplay women’s maternal role and identity. In contrast, the contemporary Anglo-American feminist view emphasizes mother–son connection, and positions it as central to the reconfiguration of traditional masculinity. 

Similar to the new Anglo-American feminist literature on mothers and daughters that recasts connection as empowerment by referencing the mythic mother–daughter dyad Demeter and Persephone, the contemporary Anglo-American feminist emphasis on the mother–son connection is also frequently conveyed through a mythic mother–son relation, that of Thetis and Achilles.
“Thetis, according to the myth, dipped her son Achilles into the river Styx to render him immortal. However, fearing that he might be lost to the river, she held onto him by his ankle. Achilles, as the story goes, remains mortal and vulnerable to harm. Thetis would be forever blamed for her son’s fatal flaw, his Achilles heel.” 

However, contemporary feminist theorists reinterpret the traditional reading of this narrative to argue, as Nikki Fedele and Cate Dooley do, that “the holding place of vulnerability was not, as the myth would have us believe, a fatal liability to Achilles. It was the thing that kept him human and real. In fact, we consider it Thetis’ finest gift to her son” (Dooley and Fedele 357). Fedele and Dooley’s research with mothers and sons reveals that “boys with a secure maternal connection develop stronger interpersonal skills and enjoy healthier relationships as adults” (360). Mother–son connection, they conclude, is what makes possible the new masculinity we desire for our sons and men in general.

The Thetis and Achilles model of mother–son attachment advanced by Dooley and Fedele is examined fully in Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum’s 1994 book, The Courage to Raise Good Men. In her book Silverstein calls into question this received view of mother–son relation and argues that the mandate of disconnection and the taboo against mother–son intimacy is the root cause of sons’ difficulties as adults. The assumption is that boys, as scripted by the Freudian Oedipal scenario, gradually withdraw and distance themselves from their mothers as they grow into manhood. 

A close and caring relationship between a mother and a son is pathologized as aberrant, while a relationship structured upon separation is naturalized as the real and normal way to experience mother–son attachment. Silverstein explains: “[Our culture believes] that a male child must be removed from his mother’s influence in order to escape the contamination of a close relationship with her. The love of a mother—both the son’s love for her, and hers for him—is believed to ‘feminize’ a boy, to make him soft, weak, dependent, homebound …. [O]nly through renunciation of the loving mother, and identification with the aggressor father, does the … boy become a man” (11). In other words, the majority of us in Western culture see mother–son separation as both inevitable and desirable.
Silverstein challenges the central, organizing premise of patriarchally mandated mother–son separation, namely that this process is both natural, hence inevitable, and “good” for our sons. 

She emphasizes that what we interpret as a normal process is, in fact, a culturally scripted and orchestrated act. Moreover, she argues that it is mothers and not boys who both initiate and direct the separation. “By expecting our sons to cut off from us,” she writes, “we make sure that they do” (159). The mother, aware that mother–son connection and closeness is disparaged and pathologized in our culture, is ever-vigilant that she not be “overclose” with her son. While her son nurses in her arms, she may worry about the intimacy and stiffen, pull back, or look away; so too when her eight-year-old scrambles onto her lap she will laugh proudly and nudge him off, saying that he is now a big boy and cannot fit in her lap; and when she is kissed by her teenage son, she will turn her cheek, tense her body, and mumble to hurry and not be late. 

The gestures of distancing are often subtle yet cumulative. A boy, Silverstein argues, “absorb[s] at an unconscious level that his mother is somehow uncomfortable with him, that she is pulling back from him, that their closeness is problematic” (31). “Soon,” Silverstein continues, “he responds in kind, so that his mother, who wasn’t aware that she herself was the original actor in this scenario of withdrawal, eventually assumes that the withdrawal was his not hers” (31). 

Once the son reaches adolescence, the mother, increasingly concerned about mother–son closeness and the damage such may inflict on her son’s incipient manhood, may abruptly withdraw from her son; an act that the son may experience as abandonment. Confused and hurt by his mother’s rejection of him, the son decisively breaks from his mother and forges an identity separate from her modeled upon the masculine values of self-sufficiency and autonomy, particularly as they pertain to emotional identity. 

Whether or not the son is fully aware of the mother’s distancing, he nonetheless, Silverstein argues, experiences a deep and inexplicable loss that is seldom understood or articulated, a loss that profoundly scars the boy and causes him to grow into a psychologically wounded man. 

Demanding that young boys distance and differentiate themselves from their mothers, we require them to deny or repress the so-called feminine dimensions of their personalities. Silverstein argues that sons are deeply betrayed by their mothers’ rejection of them and deeply wounded by the loss of the feminine in themselves occasioned by this separation. The result of this, she says, is: “lost boys, lonely men, lousy marriages, and midlife crises,” or, as Pollack describes it, “a deep wellspring of grief and sadness that may last throughout [men’s] lives” (1998: 12). 

Over the last decade our culture has identified a crisis in masculinity. Though varied and diverse, the majority of commentators on this “crisis in masculinity” agree that masculinity must be redefined, and that such is to be achieved through a reconnection of father and son. In contrast, Silverstein counters this received narrative to argue that: “the real pain in men’s lives stems from their estrangement from women” (1994: 225) “As a culture we have to,” as Silverstein concludes, “face up to the longing [of sons for mothers]—its power, its persistence throughout a man’s life, its potential for destruction when unacknowledged” (1994: 225).

Early Anglo-American feminist theorists on mothers and sons believed that motherhood oppressed women, impeded mother–son equality, and fostered both sexism and patriarchal masculinity. This literature consequently downplayed, denied, and at times, disparaged women’s maternal identity, viewing as problematic women’s responsibility and authority as mothers. A mother must rear her son outside/beyond motherhood, they argued, in order to raise a non-sexist, non-masculine (as it is traditionally defined) boy, and to improve relations between mothers and sons, and men and women generally.

In contrast, the “new” Anglo-American feminist theory argues that too little mothering, and, in particular, the absence of mother-son connection, are what engenders both sexism and traditional masculinity in men. Thus a mother must foreground her presence in the life of her son; she must establish and maintain a close and caring connection with her son throughout his life. The mother is, accordingly, afforded agency as a mother, and her maternal responsibility and authority are emphasized and affirmed. This perspective positions mothering as central to feminist politics in its insistence that true and lasting gender equality will occur only when boys are raised as the sons of mothers. As the early feminist script of mother–son connection required the denial of the mother’s power and the displacement of her identity as mother, the new perspective affirms the maternal and celebrates mother–son connection. In this, it rewrites the patriarchal and early feminist narrative to give Jocasta and Clytemnestra presence, voice, and a central and definitive role in the lives of their sons.

Early Anglo-American feminist thought tended to downplay, devalue, and at times disparage motherhood. Sexism and patriarchal masculinity, these writers contend, are perpetuated and reinforced through maternal practice, by placing women in service to boys (Arcana), by making women responsible for sons (Forcey), and by preventing sons from respecting women (Smith).; Smith, as well, criticizes maternal authority. In each, the woman, as mother in both definition and act, becomes absent and silent. 

In contrast, recent Anglo-American feminist thought focuses on maternal presence, arguing that mother–son connection is what makes possible the new non-patriarchal masculinity we desire for our sons, and for all men. The stress on maternal presence and involvement is underscored by an insistence on the significance of maternal responsibility, agency, and authority. 

The above developments in Anglo-American feminist thought on mothers and sons have rewritten the patriarchal script of mother–son separation/maternal absence as they are enacted in the narratives of Jocasta and Oedipus, Clytemnestra and Orestes. In so doing, they give both voice and presence to the mother and make mother-son connection central to the redesign of both traditional masculinity and the larger patriarchal culture. 

This new perspective, I want to suggest, allows for real and lasting social change. Feminist positions that depend upon the marginalization of motherhood and a mitigation of maternal authority and agency, I argue, cannot effect change, because they reinscribe, albeit inadvertently, the valorization of the masculine and the degradation of all that is deemed feminine in our culture. The denial and disparagement of the maternal bespeaks a larger unease with, and aversion to, the feminine. 

The new Anglo-American feminist perspectives in highlighting maternal voice and presence, affirming maternal agency, authority, and responsibility, and foregrounding mother–son connection, have imagined and made possible a truly feminist narrative of mothers and sons.
Work cited: 
Dooley, Kate and Nikki Fedele. “Raising Relational Boys.” Mother Outlaws: Theory and Practice of Empowered Mothering. Ed. Andrea O’Reilly. Toronto. Women’s Press. 2004. Print.

For the  full and complete paper please see Andrea O’Reilly’s chapter “In Black and White; African American and Anglo-American Feminist Perspectives in Mothers and Sons: Centering Mother Knowledge

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