Excerpt: Raising Boys Without Men

ByABC News via logo
August 17, 2005, 1:55 PM

Aug. 18, 2005 — -- In "Raising Boys Without Men," research psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler says that boys raised in households headed by just mothers can grow up emotionally stronger, more empathetic and independent than boys raised in traditional two-parent households.

Drexler's book is based on a research study she started in 1996, in which she tracked families headed by a mother and father, families headed by two mothers and single-mother families. She says that her research shows parenting is not anchored to gender; instead, it is either good or deficient.

You can read an excerpt from "Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men," by Peggy Drexler and Linden Gross below.

"I hope you have a father for that baby!" -- Male bus driver to a well-dressed, single-by-choice, professional mother in San Francisco struggling with moderate success to get her wailing 4-year-old son, his rather large truck, and her briefcase onto the bus after picking him up from a playdate

"Hi, my name is Peggy, and I'm a mother." I'm also a worrier. I always thought that was a Jewish thing, but then Catholic friends, Episcopalian friends, and Muslim friends, black, white, Asian, gay, straight -- you name it -- friends all swore it was their thing. Now I believe that with mothering, worry is an equal-opportunity opportunity. It comes with the job and is fanned by expert advice on child rearing that implies that a boy's healthy development is thoroughly dependent on his mother's parenting.

Like most new mothers, when my son was born, I relied on numerous child-rearing books, including one by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., that identified three different types of babies and their time lines. My son did not fit neatly into any of Dr. Brazelton's categories, and that drove me nuts. I obviously wasn't measuring up as a mother. So I kept reading more books by child experts, trying to follow their unending advice. And still my son never seemed to fit the mold. When he did meet the mark, I didn't bother to underline those more positive passages. Like most of us, I didn't dwell on the things that were going well. Whatever wasn't quite right stood out like a headline. And the biggest headline of them all read: YOUR SON STILL DOESN'T SPEAK.

That 13-month-old Alex wasn't walking yet also concerned me, even though 14 months (which is when he did start to walk) is average. But the fact that he still hadn't said his first word nearly drove me to distraction. I would listen and try to figure out if he was saying something, because he did make a lot of incoherent noises. Every time he opened his mouth, I'd think, "Is it this word? Is it that word?"

We lived in the pressure-cooker environment of Manhattan, where all the mothers I knew were highly educated, high-powered women like me, and just as concerned, eager, competitive, frightened, and anxious. That held true for the two other women in my mommy-baby group, both of whom had girls. Since girls tend to be developmentally quicker than boys, I had to contend with that as well.

"I have some concerns about Alex because he's not talking. And, like your daughter, he is not walking yet," I confided to one of them on our way to a Tumbling Tots class shortly before Alex started motoring around our apartment as if he'd been walking his whole life.

"Well, at least my daughter is talking," she shot back. "If my daughter wasn't talking, I'd be really upset."

I was crushed. I had already reviewed every week of my pregnancy to try to figure out what it was that I had done or not done to myself that could have caused this problem. Remembering how my baby had banged his head on the sink as I bathed him one day, I felt sure that my clumsiness and inexperience were responsible for his seeming inability to speak. It didn't matter what the pediatrician told me. I was to blame.

Just before he turned 2, I enrolled Alex, who was still not saying an intelligible word, in a music class for kids. Its location was inconvenient, but everyone said it was "the best," and God forbid my son did not learn how to bang on a tambourine with other toddlers. After class one snowy afternoon, we headed out to catch the Third Avenue bus uptown. We reached the bus stop in minutes. Then we waited, and waited some more. Eventually we started getting cold. Since there was still not a bus in sight, I decided to hail a cab. Suddenly I couldn't find one of those, either. As the snowstorm intensified, I began to panic. We were a fair distance away from home. What if I couldn't find a cab and the bus never came? I could probably walk home on my own, but what about my 2-year-old, who was bundled in a big snowsuit? I had chronic back problems, and there was no way I could carry him.

"How the hell am I going to get us back to the apartment?" I asked myself, feeling increasingly frantic. All of a sudden, Alex put up his hand and yelled: "Taxi! Taxi!"

After all the angst, his first word!

What a relief. I was convinced that whatever went wrong with Alex, it was my fault. I was an educated New York woman who had been raised on books and movies featuring pushy, troublesome Jewish mothers, thanks to Philip Roth, among many others. I had learned the lesson of blaming mothers long before Alex's birth, and I remembered that in the early days when the pioneers in Israel were formulating the design for living in the kibbutz, they consciously tried to break the mold of the overly close family, diffusing mother-child closeness by having children sleep away from the parents and having everyone eat communally to avoid the intense family meals they remembered from the old country.

It was in the air. Mothers who were too close to their sons made them homosexual; mothers who were too distant made them autistic. Mothers were even blamed for schizophrenia. The term of blame was the "schizophrenigenic mother." (Try saying that five times fast.)

This is not meant to blame the experts for all the angst of being a mother. I think we naturally carry a sense of deep responsibility for the health and happiness of our offspring. Why shouldn't we? But something happened in psychology during the 1930s that made a tremendous difference to my sense of guilt -- and yours.

It all started out innocently enough. A large number of infants and small children who were orphaned were not thriving in the orphanages, and too many of these babies were not surviving. These were good orphanages. The babies were fed and changed and kept clean, but many became quiet and weak, and then died. According to the wisdom of the day, infants and small children were not to be picked up and held. That was considered to be bad for their young characters.

Researchers were sent out to see if they could understand what was happening to these babies in their cribs. First they looked for physical causes for this unusually high mortality rate, but they could find no specific diseases. Then they sent in a pioneering child psychologist named Lauretta Bender, M.D. She observed the babies and came back with a clear answer: They were starving for love and human attention. Infants must have contact with people. Hug them, play with them, hold them, and they will thrive and grow. Leave them alone, without attention, and they will suffer.

The very distinguished psychologist John Bowlby, M.D., was one of the researchers who worked with children in hospitals in London, and he began to understand the importance of attachment in the lives of children (and, of course, in the lives of us all). But instead of calling his study "Human Contact Deprivation" or "Parental Deprivation," he called it "Maternal Care and Mental Health." By focusing on maternal deprivation, he spawned many of the concerns that weighed so heavily on me and my generation of mothers.

Dr. Bowlby also published studies about mothers who worked in factories all day, and he found their children were perfectly normal. This research has not been widely disseminated because it is neither sexy nor sensational. And it has not influenced cultural notions about the impact of working mothers in the raising of their children. What a shame!

The news of Dr. Bowlby's preliminary research and other studies like it hit the American culture after World War II, when women were no longer needed in the workplace (the fathers were returning from the war and ready to provide for their families). These women went to their new homes in the suburbs, there to become the Cleaver moms, trying to make everything perfect for their husbandsand children.

The tendency to blame mothers for how their children developed persisted. Then, to make matters worse, mothers who stayed home in the 1950s were accused of momism -- being so overprotective that they created selfish and spoiled children. Over time, scientists have begun to discover the biological causes of schizophrenia, autism, and homosexuality. But we continued to look around for the guilty party when children weren't doing well, and we found The Mom. That attitude has lasted down through the decades. The mother is supposed to be responsible for everything her son is and will become. It's as if she holds all the cards. If she's a good mother, her son will turn out okay. If she's a bad mother, she winds up with a bad son.

And, curiously enough, the father plays a minor role in taking the blame for the problems the children may have. It's a double bind for moms because fathers seem to carry much less responsibility for the problems their sons may have, but in the political and popular culture of today, they are considered absolutely essential to raising good sons. There's really no research to back up this notion of maternal omnipotence, but it sticks to us like glue, creating unending anxiety in mothers, who often judge themselves by how their sons do and blame themselves for their sons' deficits. As a specialist in the study of gender, I am extremely sensitive to the bad rap against mothers.

These days, deprivation is the name of the blame game. That's what is making boys more aggressive, critics say, and the mothers have to be home or else. Mothers are blamed, even though studies of children raised in the same Israeli kibbutzim that separated the kids from their parents most of the time -- and where they spent many hours away from their mothers, often sleeping elsewhere -- revealed sons who were quite the opposite of aggressive: They were cooperative, friendly, and well-adjusted. And then we have custody fights. More and more when the father wants custody, he uses the successful mother's career as a strategy to get the children. Pamela McGee, who plays for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter while the court investigated whether McGee's work prevented her from being a good mother. In his motion for temporary sole custody, McGee's ex-husband, the Rev. Kevin E. Stafford, asserted that a career and motherhood are mutually exclusive. McGee's "level of achievement," he argued, impaired her ability to parent their child. McGee was on the road four weeks a year. And the father said it took away too much from the daughter. But the court did not investigate whether the father's travel schedule, which took him on the road seven to eight weeks a year, made him an unfit father.

"We live in a culture where we want mothers to do everything, and whenever something goes wrong, it's the mother's fault," Mary Becker, who teaches family and domestic violence law at DePaul University in Chicago, told the New York Times. This perception is reinforced daily by everything from the people around us to the news. In 2002, the New York Times published a story about a mother named Tabitha Pollock, who was convicted of first-degree murder "by accountability" (meaning that if you have certain knowledge that a crime will be committed and you do nothing to stop it, you are as guilty as if you had committed the crime yourself) and sentenced to 36 years for having failed to anticipate the murder of her sleeping 3-year-old daughter by her then boyfriend.

The Illinois Supreme Court finally overturned the conviction, finding that while Tabitha Pollock may have been guilty of poor judgment in her choice of men, there was no basis in law to judge her for someone else's crime. That decision came after she had served seven years in prison. Noting that there are hundreds of cases across the nation like this one, the article went on to question whether mothers are held to an unreasonably high standard of behavior and whether the resulting punishment of the mother and her surviving family was unduly harsh. According to legal experts, mothers in situations similar to Tabitha Pollock's have been repeatedly found guilty by accountability, but fathers have gotten off without penalty.

Blame intensifies when mothers defy convention. More often than not, the treatment of moms without husbands in the professional literature focuses on a mother's aloneness (translate: not with a man) or sexual preference (again, not with a man), rather than her parenting skills. Despite the relative prominence of many varieties of mothering families raising sons, both social scientists and popular opinion continue to make erroneous assumptions about the single-mothering experience and its impact on children.