Mothers and Sons Today: Challenges and Possibilities

Date : September 1998

Conference Statement

“Mothers and Sons Today: Challenges and Possibilities” builds on last year’s widely acclaimed conference, “Mothers and Daughters: Moving Into The Next Millennium.” The enthusiasm and interest generated by the Mothers and Daughters conference motivated us to do a follow-up conference on the unexplored theme of Mothers and Sons. “Few subjects so provoke anxiety among feminists as the four-letter word sons,” wrote pioneer feminist Robin Morgan. “Yet that subject goes to the crux of power and of patriarchy, even though it also grazes the living nerves of love.” This weekend’s conference explores the salient issues of this emerging field of feminist inquiry. In particular, it challenges the normative patriarchal definitions of masculinity and of the mother and son attachment.

The opening keynote address on Friday evening and the Saturday afternoon plenary examine the impact of feminism on the mother-son relationship and the definitions, goals, impasses and strategies of feminist mothering of sons. Mothering takes place within a male-defined and controlled culture; mothers do not determine the material or ideological conditions of their mothering. Such a situation fosters contradictions between the goals of feminism and the demands of patriarchal motherhood. Mothers, for example, may reject patriarchy, but realize that their sons must be schooled in its ways, or risk alienation from their own culture. “The fear of alienating a male child from ‘his’ culture,” writes Adrienne Rich, “seems to go deep, even among women who reject that culture for themselves every day of their lives.” Mothers who resist socialization patterns that foster male privilege require their sons to relinquish male power; explicitly anti-sexist teaching thus entails destabilizing normative practices of masculinization. Sons, however, may interpret this deconstruction as “loss.” Other presenters explore how the institution of motherhood oppresses women, impedes mother-son identification and fosters sexism. They position mothers as outlaws from the institution of patriarchal motherhood (Blakely). The challenges and possibilities of feminist mothering of sons are explored in these two keynotes and in many of the concurrent sessions.

The Saturday morning keynote address looks at the impact of race, sexuality and ability on the mother-son relationship. African Canadian and African American writers describe a distinct Afrocentric ideology and practice of mothering, one shaped not only by patriarchal norms of motherhood but also by the ideologies and practices of a racist culture (Mitchell and King). African Canadian and African American mothers may experience raising sons as contradictory: gaining maturity comes from interaction with the public world, yet black sons often find the public psychologically and socially hostile. A similar pattern is observed in the experiences of First Nations mothers and sons. Lesbian mothers identify challenges in raising sons in a heterosexist culture. Egalitarian and non-homophobic teachings clash with traditional practices found in schools and homes. Mothers and sons with special needs also present unique challenges. When the culture itself encourages sons to be recipients rather than givers of care, the task of mothering special needs sons, as Haessly observes, can seem quite daunting.

The final keynote address investigates psychoanalytic mandates and popular wisdom prescribing mother-son separation as the key for men’s healthy mental, emotional and psychic growth. As Olga Silverstein writes, “[O]ur 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” (1994). Mother-love – his for her and hers for him – is thought to ‘feminize’ a boy, to make him soft, weak, dependent, home-bound and ill-equipped to cope with the world. Only through renunciation of his mother and identifying with his father does the boy become a man. Presentations challenge the norm of distances by revealing its cultural orchestration. Distancing demands that boys deny or repress the feminine dimension of their personality; the consequences of this include: male feelings of betrayal and deep loss, revealed in loneliness, lousy marriages and mid-life crises (Silverstein). In the last few years, our culture has recognized and responded to this crisis in modern manhood; commentators on the subject matter of the wounded modern man argue, for the most part, that masculinity must be refashioned through a reconnection of father and son. Feminists challenge this received narrative and argue that the real pain in men’s lives stems from their estrangement from women. “As a culture,” Olga Silverstein writes, “we have to face up to the longing [of sons for their mothers] – its power, its persistence throughout a man’s life, its potential for destruction when unacknowledged.” “The mother-son relationship,” as Silverstein concludes, “offers us one of our greatest hopes for transforming ourselves and the world in which we live – if we will but have the courage to make the necessary changes.”

There has never been an international conference on the subject of mothers and sons. We have experienced an extraordinary display of interest and the programme reflects the strong regional, interdisciplinary and student interest in the topic. We welcome you to this event and look forward to a happy and productive weekend. Enjoy! And, as a final reminder, be sure to become a member of The Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), to stay informed of the latest news and events on mothering.

Andrea O’Reilly, Conference Chair/Co-ordinator