MenWeb logoMenWeb   

Mother Work

Copyright © 1995 by Bert H. Hoff


Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

Michael Gurian, a therapist and founder of INMEN, is author of The Prince and the King and Mothers, Sons, and Lovers. Seattle M.E.N. Magazine editor recently interviewed him by phone.

Bert: You have been inspiring to many men as a workshop presenter and author of The Prince and the King. Now youíre turning to men and their mothers, in Mothers, Sons and Lovers. How did you move from men, fathers and sons to men, mothers and lovers?

Michael: One of the problems in mother work is the subtlety of the mother-son wound, in comparison to the father-son wound. The father-son wound, at least to all appearances, is more obvious. Your father was absent, or was abusive. It was very clear. If you wanted to be a man, he was your model, but if he was gone you didnít have a model. If he was around he was alcoholic or abusive. So you grew up to become this dysfunctional model of a man. That, in a nutshell, was the way the public understood the father work.

So my experience has been that when I was doing the father work, it was pretty easy for the general public to get behind it. I donít mean that it was easy for men to do the work, but it was easy for the public to grasp. As I was starting to develop the mother-son book, the only book in print on the mother-son relationship written by a male, I was hitting up against the cultural stuff that said"you canít speak ill of Mom." Mothers and apple pie. Men are really at fault for all the problems, so attacking Dad is fine, but why are you talking about Mom? Sheís the one whoís been so loyal.

I need to say at the outset that none of my work is about bashing Mom. Itís about treating Mom as a responsible human being who was involved in actions and behaviors with her son that impacted the son.

I also believe that one of the reason we are having so many mother-son problems is because Moms arenít getting cultural and extended family support in raising kids. This isnít about Moms doing a bad job. This is about the whole social system having placed the whole child-care burden on Mom. It is not a burden that one individual was meant to do, to the extent that Moms are being asked to do it today.

Bert: Do you think that men doing Menís Work are more reluctant to examine the role of mother, women, and mother wounds than do Father work?

Michael: Across the board, in the public world and in our small groups, we have been more reluctant to look at this. Many men who had fathers who were difficult, or absent, or abusive, clung to Mom or the image of Mom. The discovery that thereís work to do around Mom is like a big earthquake. It shakes the whole family structure. Men have nothing to hang onto.

The subtlety of the wound is such that you have to go way, way down into other feelings besides grief. You have to get really deep into rage, into entanglement. You have to get deep into your present relationship with spouses and lovers, to explore the mother wound. Thatís a lot to ask men to do.

Thatís one of the reasons I think the public wasnít into mother work, and why men, privately, werenít into it. However, I will say that the bookís been out a while, and Iím getting constant fan mail from men who are saying, "I simply never understood. I always thought it was Dad. Now I understand how much of it was me and Mom." So the work is really getting done. I think itís a Pandoraís Box, that men are just getting the guts to open up.

A lot of men have been doing this Mother work for a long time, but I think more and more, the last year or year and a half, men are getting into it. I know my book has been inspiring to many people. Itís been selling very well. I also know that John Lee is still writing Stepping Into the Mystery, and as heís traveling around the country to talk about it, heís inspiring many men. The Minnesota Menís Conference that Robert Bly facilitated this summer was specifically on mother work. I think something is going on.

Bert: Sam Keen has a new book out, Hymns to an Unknown God. He says "worse yet, I notice that I repeat certain self-destructive games, scripts, emotional patterns. In many respects I first married a girl who was suspiciously like the girl who married dear old Dad. I looked at my new wife through Mother-colored glasses."

Michael: Thatís been coming up for a long time. Weíve got to be honest about this. Women have been saying that men have unresolved issues around their mothers, and theyíre bringing these issues to their wives. Women have been saying this for decades. Absolutely, thatís a truth.

In the same way, women have unresolved issues around their fathers, and bring them to their husbands. Thatís an absolute truth, too.

In our society boys are not brought up in the way they need to be brought up, with a lot of extended family and a lot of mentoring. Boys and their mothers form a singular bond which is unlike most societies on the face of this Earth. There is very little other emotional input thatís as powerful.

Our society amplifies normal Oedipal stuff. Most of us who are middle aged were brought up in nuclear families where Dad was gone. That loss of father is going to amplify our internal dependency with Mom. Weíve been brought up in a society that has very little initiation, very little adult-making experience for us in the second decade of life. We remain yet again entangled with Mom.

So what weíre looking at is that at least half the men out there are going through co-dependencies, boundary issues and push-pull issues with spouses. Those are directly related to issues with Mom. I feel very confident in saying that. Not just in my personal experience, but thereís a lot of research out there to support it. The pure logic of systems theory suggests that if Dad is absent, the system has a problem, and part of that problem is going to be the sonís relationship with Mom. Itís a systemic thing.

What men are finally doing, I believe, is waking up as men and getting the support from men like Robert Bly, John Lee and myself, to explore what women have been asking men for years to explore. But weíre exploring it in our own way, and not being told what to do by women.

Bert: How, does a man know, when heís done his father work, that thereís work to do around mother?

Michael: In my book I provide a list of 20 statements. One way is to read these and say, "Oops! Thatís me!" If any of those apply to a man, than heís ready to get into the subtlety of this wound. For example, one of them is, "Do you get a knot in your stomach when your mother comes to visit?" That indicates that your body knows that thereís still a lot of entanglement with Mom. If there is, you can bet thereís entanglement with lovers and spouses.

What Iíll add is that if he has established that he has work around his father, then 100% of the time, he will have work around his mother, because he was brought up in a family system.

Itís a myth we have, and I see it in clients all the time, to say, "OK, Iíve done my father work, Iím done." Iíll ask about mother, and theyíll say "Thereís nothing around Mom. She was the rock. She was fine." Psychologically, that does not make sense. That is impossible. It is an illusion.

If a man was brought up in a family system in which the father was absent or distant, then the mother compensated for that. One of the ways she compensated was by creating entanglements and enmeshments with her son, to try to get from him what her husband wasnít giving.

Thatís just one way in which this is a systemic problem. If the father was abusive, and the son was not well-enough protected by his mother, he has profound issues around that. If the father was alcoholic, the same thing. No matter what you do around the father, youíre going to find the reverberations in the sonís relationship with his mother.

Bert: How does this unresolved mother work manifest in a manís life?

Michael: The most obvious way is going to be interrelationships with close, intimate partners. One of the things that happens is push-pull intimacy, which is when a man is close to a woman partner, things are going well, then she does something to trigger him. He doesnít realize itís triggering him, nor that itís just like what his Mom used to do. She doesnít realize it, either. But he pulls away, for a week or a month, or he becomes really hard on her.

A second manifestation is the man who punishes his spouse for being like his mother. He actually abuses her, either verbally or physically, for being like Mom. Itís all unconscious and he doesnít realize it, but heís punishing her for Momís sins. This is behind a large portion of domestic violence. Itís like the man who said that the last thing he saw, before he pushed the knife into his spouse, was his motherís face. Experts like Lenore Walker and Peter Neidig describe men who are beating wives instead of beating their mothers.

You will also find men who are living out their mothersí dreams. The men are enmeshed, living their motherís mythology. Their mother had certain expectations of them, and theyíre still living those out. The son works in the "outer world" to prove himself to Mom, and to gain her approval.

A fourth way in which it manifests is in men being unable to navigate boundaries with women, thus ending up complying with womenís visions of who they should be and how they should act.

Bert: How does this get started? What are some of the things that happen in the first decade of a boyís life that set the pattern for what follows?

Michael: Both male and female readers of Fathers, Sons & Lovers have told me that one thing thatís been essential to them in understanding the mother-son relationship is the concept of "impingement." We get this term from attachment theorists, who study the first two years of life. What theyíve discovered is that a lot of moms, rather than letting the son develop his core self by constantly mirroring back to the son the core self, force the son to develop a false self based on her own insecurities. Sheís trying to get the son to be what she wants him to be, rather than letting the son become himself.

The term for that is "impingement." That, of course, can go on throughout the sonís development, all the way into his adulthood.

We donít educate moms very well in how to raise kids, especially how to raise boys. Moms werenít brought up in male cultures, and donít have male bodies, so thatís even harder for them. We donít educate them about how active these little boys are, how testosterone affects them. Moms then get confused about boys, then bring their own issues to boys. The boys will act up in ways that donít make sense to them. The moms will come down hard on them.

A clear example is a boyís penchant for rough-and-tumble play. Males, of course, are testosterone- dominated, so even at early ages youíll see them much more involved than females in rough-and-tumble play. Many moms will think that that is anti-social, and will come down on that.

Another example is hyper-activity and Attention Deficit Disorder. A lot of boys are hyperactive, or have attention deficit. What they need, in both those cases, is good structure and more open space. Little males need a lot more open space to play in than little females. This is brain-related. The spatial feature is the dominant feature in the male brain.

What moms who donít know this will do is think that the boys are taking up too much space. Theyíll try to get them to play in really small spaces. If theyíre hyperactive, rather than providing them with the discipline and structure that they need, moms too often beat the kids. Moms are much more likely to physically abuse the kids than fathers. The Handbook on Family Violence is a good place to get that statistic. The Bureau of Justice Statistics data also show that. Moms are more likely to kill their infant sons than father are.

The point Iím making here isnít to bash moms, but to simply say that moms are very confused. Very often theyíre not getting a lot of support. Dadís gone. Sheís got very little extended family. So Mom is trying to raise this hyper kid, and she doesnít know what to do. And if sheís a single mom, sheís getting almost no support. What she does often is beat the kid, or hit the kid on the face, or try to get him to stop.

Whatís happening to him is impingement. He is not being allowed to develop as a male creature. His core self, which is male, is not able to develop. What heís going to do, over a period of years, is create a false self. Any child does this with a mother, to a certain extent, and any child does this with a father. But it gets amplified in our culture. Then, when the boy grows up and he hits the age of 40, he suddenly realizes, "Iíve lived a false self ever since infancy. I have never known what my core self was. I havenít even known what my core personality was. Iím an introvert, but Iíve been trying to be an extrovert."

A lot of this is being set in the mother-son relationship, because that is the most profoundly influential relationship in a kidís life. The son starts to develop a false self to please her. Then he discovers that Dad wasnít feeding Mom emotionally the way Mom wanted to be fed, so he tries to become a surrogate Dad. Then he discovers that Mom in the culture is being treated shabbily. He tries to redeem her. In other words he starts living the dream she wants to live, so she wonít be a second-class citizen. As you add all these things up, you can see the accumulation of the false self. Thatís one of the reasons we have so many men who wake up at 30, 40 or 50 and realize they have a false self. Thatís a big doorway into the mother work. Thatís scary for men, because they have to say, "Oh my lord! I do have a false self. Who am I, really?"

Bert: Then what happens in the second decade of life?

Michael: One of the big areas where mothers and sons both have questions is in the area of separation. Mothers often feel guilty when they separate from sons, and sons often feel guilty and angry.

There is a cultural argument out there right now, as in Olga Silversteinís The Courage to Raise Good Men, that says patriarchy and abuse of women stems from mothers psychologically separating from sons. The solution to our problems in our culture, they would say, is to get rid of the kind of mother- son separation masculine culture seems to work for.

My belief is that, in fact, itís the lack of separation between mother and son that is causing many sons to take revenge on women. So much domestic violence, so much anger towards women, happens because men are not taught how to separate, how to find themselves, how to individuate, how to enter into masculine culture, and how to say to Mom, "You are my mother, but I am not put on Earth to take care of you." If they donít separate, what they do is grow up unconsciously trying to separate through their relationships with women.

Take, for example, what some men do with female authority figures. If a man hasnít fully separated from Mom, and he has a female boss, heís going to have a higher likelihood of working out his issues on her.

My point is that itís essential that males get involved in breaking away from Mom. Honor Mom, respect Mom, love Mom, but at the same time, say to Mom that itís time for you to be a man, and she canít teach you to do that.

Thatís the philosophical foundation of a lot of what must happen in the first decade of a boyís life, but thatís easier said than done. Because what the mother is usually experiencing when sheís letting go of the son is terrible guilt. In my book I try to help mothers come in contact with that, so they can move through it themselves and not burden their sons with it.

Theyíre feeling a lot of guilt because sons are starting to separate, to individuate, and the Mom is saying, "What did I do wrong? Why is he verbally abusive to me? Why doesnít he want to see me?" Heís following his instincts, and trying to separate, and sheís feeling very guilty.

Sheís also feeling very fearful. For herself, because her substitute husband may be leaving her emotionally. For her son, because her son is about to enter masculine culture, which seems very dangerous to her. To women, male culture seems like football, murder, and all of that. Sheís also going to feel a lot of abandonment as he does move away.

Bert: Separation is one of the things we talk about in the mythopoetic menís movement. We talk about initiation, and as Joseph Campbell told us, this involves separation, initiation and return. Weíve certainly been doing the first two. When I interviewed Sam Osherson, author of Finding our Fathers and Wrestling with Love, he said that perhaps the "return" is problematic. The question has been raised from several directions, that we have the separation and initiation down pat, but what about the return? As Clarissa Pinkola Estťs said in my interview with her, "No mythopoetic men have been knocking on my door. When will they return?"

You seem to be suggesting that the way to return is to do the mother work as well as the father work. When we resolve our mother work, we can get rid of the mother image in our mind, and relate to our spouse as a person, rather than a Super-mother or an archetype.

Michael: Yes, thatís where I think we are going. Men still need to separate to do this mother work. The problem is that women are trying to tell men how to do the work, and men are just pulling further away from women.

Women need to let go, to let men do this. Men need to take the responsibility to do it. They need to separate, and to be given space by women. In my book I ask men to take a year. And Iím asking women not to expect, during this one-year period, for your relationship to be perfect. Because the man is going to be going through a lot. You, as women, need to get out of whatever neediness you may be operating from, and to detach and let go for a while. Thatís very hard for any of us to do as couples.

I think we still need separation, and for the mother work we still need men to be initiating men, which is how initiation and separation from mother would work in a tribal culture. This should have been done in the second decade of life.

The issues that men have are issues around boundaries. If I had to get my thesis down to one word, it would be boundaries. Itís the mother work that helps men find their boundaries.

Bert: So we need to separate from each other to establish the boundaries. You canít establish the boundaries when youíre in the thick of it.

Michael: Yes, this is the thing that we have to get women to understand. We have to convince women to let men go for a while, so that they can find their own boundaries, and find themselves, and then form relationships with them. But the pattern weíre living in is the pattern in which men are told how to act emotionally by women. Men attempt to act emotionally the way women want them to. Sexual biology teaches men to do that, because men are competing to mate with women. Thatís hard-wired into us. But itís been amplified by our society so that at this point, in 1995, if a man wants to know how to be a man, unless he has the advantage of being involved in a menís group or something thatís feeding masculinity, what heís going to do is turn to women and say, "teach me how to be a man." This will work for women for a year or two, but then theyíre going to get sick of it. He is not really connecting with her in the way that will feed her.

Bert: There are some responses of women to Robert Bly and the mythopoetic movement that, it seems, might be coming from this guilt that youíre talking about. A lot of women react tro the scene in the Bill Moyers video On Being a Man where Robert tells of going over to see his parents, and instead of going into the kitchen and talking to Mom, like he usually did, he sat in silence with his father in the living room. Many women saw this as avoiding Mom in the kitchen, and a rejection of Mom.

Michael: Hereís what happens to women, and itís something that culture forces on them. Women have to be the perfect Mom. They have to be the most wonderful. Mom. If anything goes wrong with the son, itís Momís fault. So to be a Mom is to be guilt-ridden from the very beginning, while the kidís in your womb.

I think that thatís an unfair burden. Many women are operating out of that, and what these women want because they carry that guilt, is a lot of taking care of. When Bly enters the room with Mom, women want him to attend to her. A lot of what women are saying unconsciously is, "Look, Iíve carried this burden so that I could raise you. What I want back from you is for you to be taking care of me in the way I want to be taking care of."

Obviously Iím creating a generalization. This is not true of all women, but many women do this, without even realizing it.

What the men are saying is, "Wait a minute. Mom, you and I had a great relationship. When we need each other weíre there for each other. But the guy I need to be with right now is Dad. And the way I communicate with Dad is in silence, through sports, and through hunting. Thatís what I need. When you try to make me feel guilty for needing that, youíre trying to force me into false self again. Youíre trying to make me take care of you, and thatís not my job.Right now, at age 40 or 50, I need more of Dad than I need of you. It doesnít mean I will abandon you, or not be there for you, if you need me for things, but my boundaries are that Iím an adult male and I need to do what I need to do."

Bert: One of the themes that I hear is that men will sometimes neglect their own emotional needs, or get into their emotional work in a way they think will be most pleasing to their spouse or significant other.

Michael: Yes, both men and women do this to each other. Women are constantly saying that they gave up their emotional life. What I think we need to look at is, yes, thatís going on, but also look at the fact that men do that, too. Men in their own way are "hard-wired" to sacrifice their own emotional needs to take care of women and kids. One of the things theyíll do is put off doing their own emotional work until they think that things are going fine for their spouse.

The problem with all that is that that doesnít work anymore. We have become, as couples, so romantically dependent on each other that it doesnít work for a man to say, "OK, let me see if she has her emotional needs taken care of before I take care of mine." Her emotional needs often times depend on him taking care of his emotional needs. Itís not like it was 200 years ago, with arranged marriages between people who had low emotional expectations of each other.

So now we have to realize that the health of our families, the health of our spouses, and our own health all depend on our doing this work. But, yes, men are inclined not to do that. They have their own fears of their own work. They certainly have their own fears about dealing with Mom. I can say, pretty much across the board, that if you ask a man in a menís group who he is more afraid of dealing with, father or mother, heíll say his mother. Thatís another thing that men are going to have to go beyond, and thatís one of the reasons I wrote Mothers, Sons and Lovers. One of the great life challenges for men is the mother work, and if a man goes through the mother work he will be more confident, more productive, more creative, and more archetypally a King than he can ever be if he avoids the mother work. Sheís the Medusa, sheís the Great Goddess. He has to go there.

More interviews

Men, Spirit, Soul and Shadow

Audio Cassette Tapes with Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, John Lee, Malidoma Somé,Marion Hillman, Clarissa Ponkola Estés and many others

Books by these people available on-line

Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

Press the "Back" button on your browser to return