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Home arrow Sociology arrow Feeling Gender: A Generational and Psychosocial Approach
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Mothers and Sons

The patterns of mother-son relationships display a similar but inverted picture, changing from seeing the mother as a kind and self-sacrificing but also quite invisible person in the oldest generation, to an upgrading of her subjectivity and a much stronger attachment to her in the middle generation, and to a positive but also somewhat taken-for-granted figure in the youngest generation.

The connection to the interpersonal world of family arrangements is less straightforward than in the case of the father-son relationships, which may indicate that more intrapsychic interpretative work is going into the sons’ relationships with their mothers. In the oldest generation, the relationship with the mother is strikingly understated and mainly comes up in connection with her working too hard and the good food she served. When asked directly, they admit that she was the one they sought out for comfort, but this is not an unsolicited memory. The victimisation of the mother may be a way to repudiate her power and project their own feelings of weakness and dependency. As Corbett

(2009: 47) argues, masculinity is here constructed outside of shared recognition and bears the stain of the unmarked position. However, the men also want to defend their mothers as ‘other’ and take care of her as strong men should. According to Benjamin (1995: 102), such attitudes of paternal protectiveness may also indicate latent maternal identifications. The weak mother in need of male protection is in particular seen in the accounts of the men who grew up in working-class and rural families. The mother is acknowledged more as a separate person in the interview with the one middle-class male informant we have in this generation.

In the middle generation the mother is more visible. She is described as someone who had deserved to get more out of life, but she is seen as a kind, capable and caring person. She is not described with the joy and pride that is seen in the older and younger generation when sons talk about their fathers, but rather as ‘the mother blanket’ (Holter and Aarseth 1993: 93). However, there is much less disidentification with feminine weakness in this generation of sons: the mother is not only a kind and warm person, she also does important things in the eyes of her sons in terms of her emotional competence and availability. The mother is primarily a love object, but in a limited sense is also a ‘like subject’ (Benjamin 1995). We may in this respect see traces of what Ken Corbett identifies as an internalised mother-son dialogue, which ‘offers solace in the face of normative cruelty, and holds out the hope these boys need to imagine themselves otherwise’ (2009: 114). Yet, the sons’ sense of being different from her may have protected them from feeling overwhelmed by her services, as is more often the situation for the daughters. The sons of this generation identify as men, but since it is not clear what this implies or whether it is seen as something to strive for, this aspect of their gendered selves becomes less positive. The absent fathers also seem to give the masculine identities of their sons a defensive character: how do you defend yourself as a man if you do not know what it means to be one? For this reason it may be more vital for the men in the middle generation than for the men in the youngest generation to keep a watchful eye on the holding up of gender difference, something that complicates their efforts to incorporate and integrate the feminine qualities they value. The impression we get from some of the ‘new’ men in this generation is that they use their openness towards the emotional field to develop and secure their own individual autonomy rather than to recognise women as like subjects. Those who combined a positive relationship with both parents direct their increased affinity for the emotional sphere into becoming hands- on fathers to their own children. Compared with the oldest generation, the appreciation and capacities for the relational field have increased for almost all men in the middle generation and, in combination with new societal possibilities to become more caring fathers, this was an important resource for changing the feelings of gender in the following generation.

The mothers of both the oldest and the youngest generations worked hard, the mothers of the oldest generation most often doing physical work and the mothers of youngest generation in full-time and mostly middle-class jobs. It is not that their sons did not see their mothers’ hard work, but the older men tend to explain it as an irregularity, something that should have been otherwise.[1] As for the youngest generation, their mothers’ work and careers appear as equally disengaging to them as their fathers’ do. In both generations it is the services that the mother provides that become her main function in her son’s eyes. Still, the partnership between children and parents in the youngest generation gives the mother a somewhat more equal standing and visibility when compared with the oldest generation: she is seen as a strict and responsible person rather than a kind victim, and the sons do not describe her skills only in terms of feminine qualities from which they separate themselves. The mothers embody both masculine and feminine traits and their sons may identify with both. In this way, the mother, even if she is also a somewhat muted figure in the youngest generation, is still recognised more as a ‘like subject’.

  • [1] Chodorow (2012: 48) describes the psychological position of ‘weeping for the mother’, which shefinds in female patients from classical patriarchal families where the daughter has an active professional and personal life that contrasts with the lives of the mother, who is trapped in a classicalpatriarchal marriage. It seems that such weeping for the mother may also be found among menfrom working-class families; however, it is then more connected to the mother’s hard work than toher entrapment.
 
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