Wrestling with a New Masculinity: How Feminist Mothers Are Making a Difference

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Wrestling with a New Masculinity: How Feminist Mothers Are Making a Difference

When I first conceived of this article, I thought I would be writing about non-sexist parenting. I've since found that the issues facing feminist mothers who are raising sons go further than I first imagined. Just as feminist scholars in the past were primarily concerned with challenges to the institution of motherhood-a trend that appears to be changing-I, too, have expanded my views on the relationship between mothers and sons as my own sons have grown.

Last fall, I attended a conference at York University called Mothers and Sons Today: Challenges and Possibilities. Speakers and participants from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and Israel discussed women's roles as mothers of sons within the context of patriarchal societies.

Conference co-chair Andrea O'Reilly, a professor in black studies at York University, recalls that it was about more than scholarly research. "We wanted the conference to challenge the normal patriarchal definitions of masculinity and of the mother-son attachment."

The challenges of raising sons in a society with differences in race, religion, sexual orientation and culture were presented in ways that encouraged dialogue and openness. Threads of themes about preservation, nurturing and training of sons wove their way through the seminars on popular culture, mothers and sons in literature, and feminism.

Presenter Amia Lieblich from Jerusalem noted that, in the shadow of war, mothers feel responsible for their sons' survival.

"To put it into a historical context, if God had asked Sarah for her first born son, rather than asking Abraham, the answer would have been `No,'" Leiblich said, referring to Israeli mothers' reluctance to follow the tradition of sending their 18-year-old sons to the army. Girls are sent to the army at the same age, but do not face combat duty.

Joyce King, a sociologist from the U.S., shared the difficulties surrounding her decision to send her son and daughter to a private school attended by mainly white students. King wanted to ensure that her son would escape the gang culture prevalent in her neighbourhood, which had claimed the lives of some of her son's friends and seen others sent to prison. She believed that ensuring his survival was more important than being schooled with his neighbourhood friends. To round out their studies, she enrolled her children in an after-school program specializing in African American history and culture.

"When our young men are protected by their mothers who are faced with institutional racism, an anger surfaces in them, and we can teach them to use that anger to turn it to a creative force and something positive comes from that," she explains. King noted that her decision did not come easily: she faced criticism from within her community, and from African American scholars at the university where she teaches.

Throughout the conference, it was noted how mother-son relationships change as boys grow into adults. Adrienne Rich observed in her book Of Woman Born, that in order to be considered strong, young men are expected to grow emotionally away from their mothers. Janet Sayers, a sociologist from Britain, believes that this separation isn't necessarily for the best.

"By allowing boys and men to express their emotions more openly and to not separate (from their mothers) that early in life, we will be raising a much stronger generation of males than we have in the past," she said.

Canadian author Marni Jackson, (The Mother Zone) a conference keynote speaker, noted that many mothers still believe they must let go of their sons in order for them to become men. She believes that, "The closer and more physical the bond between a mother and son is from the beginning, the greater the independence both will enjoy later on.

"In many ways, the message of our culture to the mothers of boys is not to hold, but to withhold. …