'Mama's Boy Myth': Sons Who Are Close to Mom are Stronger

PHOTO: Kate Stone Lombardi and her son Paul remain close, a bond that the author says makes boys stronger.
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Freud warned about the unresolved Oedipal complex in boys: Sons who couldn't break free from a smothering mother's clutches were doomed to be sexually confused -- or even homosexual.

Even Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatric guru of the 1950s and 1960s, advised that mama's boys might grow up "precocious, with feminine interests."

But now, author Kate Stone Lombardi contends in her new book, "The Mama's Boy Myth," that having a close mother-son relationship makes boys stronger and ultimately helps them be better partners and husbands.

Society fears the "blindly adoring mother, the emasculating mother, and the martyred mother," according to Lombardi, 55, who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y.

"The myth is that any boy close to his mom will be a sissy, a wimp, forever dependent and never a man who can have a healthy relationship," Lombardi told ABCNews.com. "And it's everywhere we look, in the movies, on TV."

In literature, so-called "mama's boys" have been portrayed either as neurotic killers like the cross-dressing Norman Bates from the film, "Psycho," or "lust-ridden, mother-addicted" Jewish bachelors like the protagonist in Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint."

Homophobia is one of the "big bogeymen" behind why society is so critical of the mother-son relationship, she writes. "The unspoken fear is that if the mother is too great an influence on the son, she will somehow make him gay."

But Lombardi said that for this generation of mothers and sons, the stereotypes are simply not true.

A former writer for the New York Times, Lombardi got the idea for the book after wondering why she was uneasy about the close relationship she shared with her own son, Paul, who is now 23.

"From the very beginning I felt a really strong connection -- literally when I was in the hospital and put him into my arms," she said. "I looked at him and recognized him and felt this bond."

As he got older, "he got my moods and I got his moods. But I thought it was something peculiar to us -- that luckily, I had this sweet boy."

Later, when talking to other mothers, she realized they were not unique, but also that, "no one talks about it."

She set up a web site to reach other mothers and to learn about their relationships with their sons. More than 1,100 replied to say they, too, were emotionally connected.

Many said that like her, they felt compelled to keep the closeness "secret."

Historically, mothers have been blamed for anything that goes wrong with a child, according to Lombardi. Schizophrenia and later autism were attributed to maternal mistakes.

She wonders why fathers are spared the same criticism.

"Tellingly, there seems to be much less general angst over the idea that if a father is too influential on his daughter, she might grow up to be a lesbian," writes Lombardi.

She cites study after study that destroys the notion that motherly love is destructive.

In one 2010 research project, Carlos Santos, a professor at Arizona State University, followed 426 middle-school boys to determine to what extent they bought into traditional masculine roles.

Those who had warm and supportive relationships with their mothers had better tools for communication and lower rates of depression and delinquency than their "tougher" peers.

"These boys had a broader definition of masculinity and didn't buy into the idea that men had to be stoic and not fight back at every moment," said Lombardi. "Being close to mom was good for their mental health."

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