It’s hard to imagine a book on mothers and sons that a lot of men would feel comfortable reading. Yet in Breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic: Resetting the Patterns of a Man’s Life and Loves, bestselling author John Lee is clear, readable, and endlessly disarming.
While navigating the often complicated relationships men can have with their mothers, Lee explores his own relationship with Grace, a woman who brings up mother-son relational dynamics that had been lying dormant in Lee for years. As we learn how the mysterious bond — Lee also calls this bondage — between mothers and sons impacts men and women, Lee offers numerous insights, stories, tools, and exercises that readers can use to extract themselves from the weight of a mother’s misdeeds and mistakes.
Lee decides to moves to a farm — a decision he makes largely to please Grace. He then receives a visit from his mother, who asks, after reading his bestselling book, “How come you didn’t write anything about me?”
Later, Lee’s mother discloses that his father physically abused him when he was just fourteen months old.
These two simple utterances from his mother, Lee tells us, change his life forever. What he comes to discover, and what he shares with us, is how men often experience “paradise lost” when they begin to see their mothers as imperfect.
It is here that Lee reminds us that the first step to healing the mother-son dynamic is for men to see their mothers as separate human beings, “with their own set of challenges and shortcomings as well as virtues.” When men don’t separate themselves from their mothers, they will find themselves carrying them with them into the world — just as Lee discovers that his critical and harsh tone with Grace is really his own deep-rooted rage at his mother.
Lee is enmeshed with his mother, he realizes, and finds himself “wrestling with the witch.” He uncovers feelings he had tried to repress for many years. Until a man can admit to himself that his mother isn’t all sweetness and light, Lee writes, he will carry the witch inside him, refusing to embrace her or wrestle with her.
Yet in confronting upsetting feelings about their mothers, Lee writes, many men uncover rage. And rage, he explains, “is just as effective in numbing our feelings of sadness, fear, and even anger, as any drug, narcotic, stimulant, alcohol, food bingeing-and-purging, sex addiction, or workaholism can.” Unlike anger, rage is never resolved in a short conversation. When Lee describes being at a conference and telling his mother how tired he is, she begins to massage his shoulders — and he realizes that she had never comforted him like that before. Not only does he uncover his own rage at his mother, but years of emotional incest.
Feeling unequipped to deal with your mother’s emotional needs, Lee tells us, is a hallmark of emotional incest. Ultimately, he writes, the son becomes the “beginning and end to his mother, a dynamic that can go on for decades, creating a level of depression no one seems to talk about.”
But men can also feel “sonned,” Lee writes, meaning that they become stuck in a pattern of being the perpetual son. To break this pattern, Lee tells us, men have to “stop being a son to anyone.”
And some men can also find themselves searching for mothering in other women. Here, Lee describes Doug. Still longing for the affection he never received as a child, Doug becomes discontented with his wife and decides to have an affair with a woman named Paula. Now Doug has a dilemma — he can either stay with his wife and try to change her into the mom he never had, or he can stay with Paula until he realizes that she, too, isn’t perfect. Or he can do the necessary work to heal his wounds.
Should Doug, or any other man, decide to do the work, Lee offers several helpful solutions: how to address codependency, how to find non-libidinous love, how to create healthy boundaries and limits, and even how to embrace one’s evil “inner twin.”
As for how to stop sonning, Lee writes of how he called his mother and said, gently, “Mom, you’re fired! I don’t need you to be mothering me anymore. I’m in midlife; I have been a college teacher for quite a few years and an itinerant lecturer and speaker for a dozen years. What I need now is to create a new adult-to-adult relationship with you if it is at all possible.”
With an example like that, I think Breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic would make many men feel empowered.
Breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic: Resetting the Patterns of a Man’s Life and Loves
Health Communications Inc., August 2015
Paperback, 240 pages