Breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic: Resetting the Patterns of a Man’s Life and Loves

TCapturehomas Wolfe says, “You can never go home again.” However, to go forward, I have to go backward from time to time. I return to the places where the dreams began: my hometown and the small college where I did my undergraduate work. That’s where I’m sitting right now, writing these pages. Through the windows I see the amphitheater where I used to sit on hard green benches daydreaming of being a writer. I try looking outward for any part of me that might still be sitting on one of these benches or walking among the eternally young, hoping that an outward sight will trigger an inner version of myself.

Today I need to see a familiar face from my past, someone who knew me when I hid my face behind beer cans, marijuana smoke, and Southern stoicism. Although I spot people I think I recognize, they simply resemble someone I used to know. The “me” I imagine I see is not the “me” I am now. But who am I, now separate from the mother who birthed me and merged with me? I’ve always been looking for clues that could help shed some light on the blacked-out memory of my childhood. Now at this point it seems even more necessary. So I wander back to my childhood home and play the role of a Southern Sherlock Holmes, trying to discover my true identity. What I come up with is an identity made up of a patchwork of many former selves: the murderer of time, the thief of hearts, the depressed preacher, the drinker of cheap wine and beer, the perpetual worrier and wanderer, the would-be writer, the likable guy who almost never uttered the word no to his mother or anyone else except myself.

I know and feel at some level that the Mother is the matrix of our existence. Matrix, in fact, means “womb.” Our biological mothers are the entrance to the Great Mystery in all its different forms and guises. It is the Mother who makes Oedipus first a son, then a lover and husband, and finally a blind man. It is the Mother who makes Parsifal a hero, yet who keeps him from taking a wife. (I’ll have more to say about Parsifal and his search for the Holy Grail later.) It is the Mother who keeps some men from fully giving themselves over to women they love. Men must acknowledge these facts if they hope to separate from their mothers. They must recognize, too, how they turn women into mothers and how they often play mother to others as a way of increasing their sense of self-worth.

I choose my childhood home, my mother’s country home, because the Great Return is back to the mother from whom we came. Today I am visiting my hometown of Tuscumbia, Alabama. During lunch in a small café, I hear a good example of how the mother stays with a man no matter how old he is. A waiter, whom I judged to be in his early thirties, was talking to three women. It was after the lunch crowd had left, so he could relax and enjoy the everybody-knows-everybody-and-nobody’s-in-a-rush way of a small town. I listened a bit to their conversation, amused that even though I hadn’t lived here in thirty years, I still knew a lot about some of the people and places they were discussing.

At one point my ears perked up. The young man said that he had recently played a role in a local production of a Neil Simon play. “I had to curse several times in the play,” he said. “When my mother was in the audience, I was terrified. She’d never heard me talk like that.” I dropped out of their talk for a moment to place my order. When I tuned in again I heard him say: “I’m a big Monty Python fan. They did a great take-off on Christianity in The Life of Brian, and they were wonderfully sacrilegious in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

My mother wouldn’t allow me to see either one when they first came out. To this day I don’t dare tell her they’re some of my favorites—I can’t tell her I’ve even seen these movies.” As I sipped my coffee, I began to wonder. Was this young man showing respect for his mother? Did the women listening to him admire and respect him for being such a good son, a “good little boy”?

I hear adult sons say all the time that they’d like to tell their mothers all kinds of things. When asked why they don’t, they reply: “It wouldn’t do any good.” “It would upset her too much.” “It would just kill her.” The son who was raised solely or mostly by the mother comes to believe that the power she has over him is immense and also has an exaggerated sense of power to impact—for better or for worse—her life. He is always editing, censoring, and hiding parts of himself out of fear of what he thinks she’ll think.

The reluctance to show our real selves to our mothers is reflected in a popular TV commercial. A thirtysomething man has just poured himself a bowl of cereal when his mom calls him on the phone. He’s afraid of two things: one, his cereal is going to get soggy (it won’t—that’s the point of the commercial); and, two, he’ll have to tell his mother he can’t talk to her right then. He goes through all kinds of physical contortions trying to eat his cereal, never quite succeeding.

Finally it hits him: he pulls the table over to the phone and hooks the phone to the table, mouthpiece up. Delighting in his ingenuity—and his crisp cereal—he continues eating, occasionally muttering, “Yeah, Ma, uh-huh . . .” into the phone, without hearing a word she says. ]An ancient example of Mother’s perpetual influence comes to us from the myth of the Holy Grail. In his important book He, Robert Johnson does a masterful job of illuminating and interpreting this myth. The Grail, as Johnson says, is the “great cornucopia of life.” It pours out its abundance and blessings on humankind. The one who finds it is Parsifal, whose name means “innocent fool.”

Parsifal is born to a woman named Heart’s Sorrow. Parsifal’s father is absent, and he is raised by his mother. As Johnson points out, “the redeeming hero in mythology often has no father and is raised in humble and lonely circumstances.” Heart’s Sorrow keeps the boy with her, always fearful that someday he’ll want to be a knight like his father and brothers before him, and she’ll be left alone. One day Parsifal sees five knights in full armor and is so impressed that he decides to join them. His mother bursts into tears, realizing she has failed to keep her son from discovering the ways of men.

How many of us men today have seen these knights and felt a similar longing? These “knights,” Johnson says, might have appeared in the form of a football hero, a poet, a doctor, a movie star, or a telephone lineman. When we saw them we thought, “I would dearly love to go and become a rider [or a writer, a star, or a lineman]. But I would have to leave my mother behind, and she depends on me. So I’ll take a job at the local factory instead. I’ll move into a house just down the road. I’ll come up every evening to check on her, and we’ll have dinner together every Sunday until we die.”

Unable to hold Parsifal any longer, Heart’s Sorrow lets him go. But before he leaves she gives him a garment she has woven for him. The garment is very fine and lightweight, in contrast to the heavy, male, masculine armor he will soon wear over it. I believe the homespun garment symbolizes the Mother’s over protection, while the armor symbolizes the Father’s abandonment. Together they insulate a man from the world around him. As long as we wear these things, we men remain disconnected, distant from those we wish to be close to, and less creative than we’re meant to be. The homespun garment plays an important part in the boy’s adventure because it symbolizes not only his need to please his mother but, later, his guilt at leaving.

Parsifal hasn’t had a father, older brother, or uncles to instruct him in the secrets vital to manhood. All he has is his mother’s teachings and wisdom—useful, but not complete. He meets maidens and challenges other knights, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing until he meets his mentor: Gournamond. This older male figure teaches him two very important things: 1) he must never seduce or be seduced by a fair maiden, and 2) he must search for the Grail Castle with all his might. Johnson makes it clear these injunctions should not be taken literally; in psychological terms they refer to Parsifal’s inner world. The “maiden” is the interior feminine or anima as Jung calls it, and the castle is Parsifal’s “kingdom within.”

When Parsifal left, his mother instructed him “not to ask too many questions.” Compare this with the teaching of Gournamond, who tells Parsifal that when he finds this wonderful castle, he is to ask the most important question a man or woman will ever ask: “Whom does the Grail serve?”

Yet as soon as Gournamond gives him these instructions, Parsifal suddenly remembers his mother and goes in search of her again, only to find that shortly after he left she died of a broken heart. We always remember our moms just before we do something they wouldn’t approve of. Similarly, many men think about and miss their wives or lovers as soon as they get into a “men only” situation. I remember one young man who left a men’s weekend retreat the first day, saying, “The way for me to do good as a man is to be with my girlfriend.” (See “At My Father’s Wedding: Reclaiming Our True Masculinity”.) Another man I know was always afraid to tell his mother he wasn’t coming home for Christmas because he thought “it would break her heart.” So he and his wife would defer their dream of enjoying Christmas in the Bahamas because of his mother, who might just as well be named Heart’s Sorrow.

Every man must separate from his mother—or else he will carry his mother with him out into the world. Men who don’t separate never quite attain their masculinity. I had a dream a few nights ago in which my mother told me I was disappointing someone by not going to his city to give a lecture. I said in the dream, “To hell with them! I have to take care of myself first!” In shock, she replied, “You have never said that to me.”

John Lee

View posts by John Lee
John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on More information about John Lee can be found on his web site and on his daily blog at
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