'Courage' a pep talk for mothers of boys

June 29, 1994|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to The Sun

Family therapist Olga Silverstein and journalist Beth Rashbaum declare that it takes courage to raise good men because raising sons to be independent and good providers, as well as emotionally open, is so very hard.

It has largely been, and still is, the job of mother; indeed, since an estimated 25 percent of the children in the United States -- an unprecedented amount -- have little or no contact with their fathers, it appears that rearing sons (and daughters) is solely the mother's job even more than before.

Ms. Silverstein says that because it is expected in our culture for the mother, by her son's adolescence, to distance herself from him, he often feels abandoned (doubly so if there's no father around) and as the years go by, he shuts himself down in hurt confusion.

She illustrates this trend, along with the traditional expectation that our men must be heroes, with numerous case histories from her practice, as well as such literary figures as J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Philip Roth's Alex Portnoy and John Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. The distancing-by-adolescence schedule is thousands of years old and largely based on the fear of mother feminizing her son if she stays too close to him.

Ms. Silverstein questions the usefulness of this tradition today, and says early in the book that men may need feminine qualities in order to survive in today's new world -- a world that no longer has geographical frontiers to cross, and that requires more heart and mind than muscle for success. She adds that in recent decades, the custom of young men automatically becoming the breadwinner has broken down for two general reasons: Many men simply don't believe in the custom any more, and others are so overwhelmed by responsibilities that they simply leave, figuratively or literally.

The high rate of emotional breakdowns and suicides among young men -- more than five times the number of suicides in their female counterparts -- should give some indication of the seriousness of this problem.

Ms. Silverstein states unequivocally: "Young men . . . who go out into the world without ever having mastered the losses from their early years are the ones who have to be watched carefully when they reach midlife, lest they put a bullet to their heads."

In the meantime, mothers are still seen as the culprits; in 1985, the authors of 125 professional articles attributed to mothers a total of 72 kinds of psychopathology. Ms. Silverstein points out -- that even the mental health establishment (as well as Benjamin Spock and Robert Bly) stresses the need for separation between the mother and son, while separation between mother and daughter is rarely an issue.

The premise of "The Courage to Raise Good Men" is that the high expectations of men in our culture to produce, on schedule, is no favor to men. The authors conclude that men are in trouble and in considerable pain, and believe that the mother-son relationship is the "single most profound agent for the maintenance of the gender-divided and increasingly gender-antagonistic system we live in."

Ms. Silverstein cites Tailhook and other high-profile sexual assault cases as strong signs of gender antagonism, well beyond the old "boys will be boys" canard. Do not, she urges, for these and other reasons, push your son away; risk the remoteness and the rebuffs, for he needs you.

Ms. Silverstein makes a strong argument for a change in the traditional custom, but she focuses a little too much on middle-class histories and on families who are accustomed to achievement.

All her subjects seem to be white. One wonders if her premise applies to less well-educated and less professionally ambitious (and able) families.

Unfortunately, she also softens her thesis by interjecting experiences with her son as well as including a few soul-searching paragraphs by him. It would have been a crisper, more effective book without personal storytelling.

Still, the notion of mother being a steady guide, an available sounding board and nurturing companion throughout her life and well into her son's adulthood is a healthy and timely one. The short quotations from writers and literary figures at chapter headings are significant and charming.

?3 Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Courage to Raise Good Men: A Manifesto for Change"

Authors: Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum

Publisher: Viking

+!Length, price: 244 pages, $21.95

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