Many women raising sons alone tend to feel guilty and often anxious about how their sons will turn out, especially if there is no male role model with whom the young boys can identify or interact with on a regular basis. Often single moms are accused of raising a “Mama’s Boy,” but that is not such a bad label, I say, because a male that has been fortunate enough to have had a single mom dote on him has gained many an advantage over his counterparts — those with the two-parent-under-the-same-roof upbringing. (That is, if the son can be taught that as an adult he may not always be the center of every person’s world because that could be a problem.)
In gathering input provided by sons of divorced single moms, I gained some really fascinating insight into why being a “Mama’s Boy” may offer considerable benefits relative to making a man more mature and more ready to face the real world once he is grown and out of the nest.
Some sons indicate that though they had had regular visitation with their fathers, it was their mother’s influence that most shaped them. Others, whose fathers were absent, made it very clear that having been raised by a single mother was extremely positive — of great benefit.
In my last piece, I discussed how I believed Obama’s presidency was impacted in several ways as a result of having been raised by two strong women. I also talked about certain traits and characteristics in President Obama that I think are unmistakably attributable to the way in which he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
In this piece, however, rather than further assess Obama’s presidency in relation to the influence of his mother and grandmother — an outside view of how in many ways I think his upbringing plays a major role in how he does his job — I want to share some of the feedback I learned from sons on the specific perks from which they benefited — ones that helped mold them into the adult men they became and also the valuable life lessons they glommed onto early on.
As a result of my research, I also looked for any comments from American Presidents (and biographers who wrote about their relationships with their respective mothers) on what they thought the benefits were in having been raised by a single mother. And, more interestingly, whether they fell into the category of having been a “Mama’s Boy” — not in a sissy sense, but in the vein of having had only a mother to care for them.
For instance, when President Bill Clinton was asked by “Good Morning America” weekend co-anchor, Bill Weir, whether or not he was a “Mama’s Boy,” without hesitation, Clinton replied, “Absolutely.” Clinton admits that he learned early on about obligation — his mother trusting the care of his little brother to him — leaving Clinton to become the man of the house, a role that prepared him at a young age to “run” things. He says he learned how to keep peace, as a result. Perhaps this forged the beginnings of Clinton’s ability to demonstrate a keen sense of diplomacy.
Obama admits that his mother, in his words, was “the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me, I owe to her.” Those are pretty powerful words. He also wrote in the preface of his book, Dreams from My Father (a tome that largely focused on what he had missed from his father — more a meditation on the absent parent), that if he had known that his mother may not have survived her illness, he might have written a different book — instead one more aimed at what he says was “a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.”
Going back in history, there were obvious benefits derived from sons of single mothers, that special group having made their sons the center of their attention. Andrew Jackson’s mother is one prime example, who was said to have “toiled, scrimped, schemed and impoverished herself in order that Andrew might be helped.” Pouring herself into the betterment of her son to make sure he learned important skills — ones that would prepare him to think for himself and make sound decisions were only two pluses. Jackson’s mother also left him with superb negotiating skills, having made a deal with the British to release her POW sons during the Revolutionary War. (Jackson was 13 when he joined that cause.)
In an excerpt from Our Presidents and Their Mothers, by William Judson Hampton, D.D., he says that President Rutherford B. Hayes’s mother “became his teacher.” She taught her son not only academics but also how to character-build with admonishments like “good work, true work, square work, –all these will be tested in the ‘fierce storms of life,'” she told him.
Both Presidents Jackson and Hayes lost fathers before their births; Jackson a few weeks before he was born; Hayes, two months prior. Both had no qualms about being dubbed “Mama’s Boys.” Both spoke with high reverence for their mothers, even publicly.
Yet even those presidents who were raised by single mothers with whom they clashed, like Thomas Jefferson, they, too, were “Mama’s Boys.” Jefferson, though he said his mother was not qualified to “advise or guide,” lived with Jane Randolph Jefferson until he was 27 years old (except for those times when he was away at school), so he must have had a strong bond with her. Perhaps that is so because the impact of her death upon him left the workaholic devastated. From all historical accounts, Jefferson disappeared for three months immediately after her demise. She died at 57 years old. Though he seemed critical of her, according to Fawn McKay Brodie’s account of Jefferson’s life, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (when she offers commentary on the way Jefferson’s mother “kept impeccable records on expenditures, demonstrated a great deal of overt charm and affability in all communication with others, dressed well and spoke regally…”) he modeled her in every one of the ways he ridiculed her. The old adage that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” certainly held true for Thomas Jefferson. Though many statesman of his time remained silent about their mothers, as was often the macho custom then, I am convinced that if Jefferson were living in today’s times, he would not be loathe to admit that he was a true benefactor of his single mother’s fawning over him. All accounts point to her showering her elegant son with tremendous affection and attention. As such, he may have been one of those boys raised by a single mother who was tightly attached but who was trying hard to break impossible apron strings.
Other presidents, like Gerald Ford, learned self-control when his single mother calmly put him in a corner for a virtual time-out whenever his temper flared. At those times, she ordered him to read, Kipling’s “If.” He was not to move from a particular spot until she allowed him to do so. Each time he became angry she made him recite that signature Kipling poem. Ford carried that calm restraint into his presidency.
Many of the “Mama’s Boy” candidates I learned about had no reservations about admitting they had been “Mama’s Boys.” They said the benefits were many, the insights eye-opening, and the life lessons invaluable. Each also said that they had learned early on how to get by in a tough world. Each offered their observations uncensored; they had no reservations about sharing their experiences no apologies, no embarrassment, and no shame as they laughingly agreed that as sons of single mothers they had been, in fact, “Mama’s Boys.”
It is a fact that many “Mama’s Boys” grow up to be fierce and formidable leaders; many head companies and corporations and there are impressive numbers of entrepreneurs who are products of single mothers. As I mentioned in my last article, nearly 25% of American presidents were raised by single moms (and grandmothers).
I would like to share with you my findings and points of view based on the data I was able to gather from those men from who were raised by single moms:
Treated as the center of attention: Many single moms dote on their sons, making sure they feel loved and cared for (like Andrew Jackson’s). I learned of one young man that felt the biggest benefit to him was the fact that he was his mother’s focal point on a daily basis — that nearly every event and activity in her life, outside of her nine-to- five job — centered around him whether it was helping him with his homework, attending every Little League game, cooking his favorite meals or watching him during his horseback riding lessons. He noted that if a father figure had been in the house he was sure he would have had to share her time with that of her significant other. One drawback was his expectation of always being the center of attention, and also a limited ability to share; however, now as a father himself, he was said to have stated that he places great value on making each of his three children feel like they are equally central to his world (despite his busy schedule, business demands and outside interests). He also has taught them the value of charity and how to be generous to one another, as well as to others.
Picked up the art of self-control: Some said their mothers punished them, not by corporal means, but by being made to sit quietly, change their tone of voice, keep their hands to themselves when angry (though many boys are prone to hit and punch), and develop a gentle side. One son said he was forced to learn “yoga breathing,” a programmed response he says he has to this day that kicks in whenever he finds himself in a tense situation, like a road rage incident. “Breathe deeply and count to ten,” his mother would tell him. That son reported that he has taught the same to his three teenage sons. Another weighed by saying that his mother would bark, “Think before you speak.” That has become this “Mama’s Boy” mantra when he knows he has to restrain himself. “My mother held her tongue when she was angry,” his data reflected. He went on to explain, “I learned how to do that, effectively, from her. I’m sure it has kept me out of trouble many times.” Andrew Jackson’s mother said to her small son, “If angry at first, wait till your wrath cools before you proceed.”
Mastered the “patience is a virtue” philosophy: A few other sons confided that they had learned patience with everything, from long waits in line in the grocery store to teaching their children complicated lessons (from golf to chess) from their respective single mothers. “My mother handled every urgent need with a lot of calm,” one son said. “She had a ‘hold your horses,’ mentality. It rubbed off on me and my brothers. As adults, we’re pretty mellow guys.”
Respect for authority: One 44-year-reported that once when he was caught throwing rocks at a police car with neighborhood pals, his mother made him work on an essay for six months. It was no ordinary essay, either. He was ordered to research other incidents of insubordination against authority figures — those that led rebellious young people down a dark trail. He claims she quizzed him on every single detail surrounding the Symbionese Liberation Army’s (SLA) attack against the police in Los Angeles in the ’70s. He also had to cite examples of reports from psychology publications on the affects of prisoners in jail who were insubordinate to prison guards, and what they suffered as a result of their behavior. There was no Internet then, so his study was laborious (he was forced to get his information from the library). “She was relentless in enforcing this punishment,” he said of his single mother. “I’ve often thought it may have been easier to spend a year at a military school!” In the end, though, this man gained tremendous respect for those that “protect and serve” (his mother among that group), and, he also developed a healthy reverence for women in authority.
The importance of self-discipline: Many single mothers are forced to rise at a certain time each day; get the children off to school (well fed and groomed), arrive at the office at 8 a.m. sharp, and show up for parent-teacher conferences, without fail, among other regular duties. Single mothers are also good at keeping their spending in check, doing their chores regularly and staying on a sensible nutrition plan to maintain a healthy weight. Sons that watch those type of mothers — the ones who regulate their schedules like Marines and who can say no to things that may be harmful to them (including toxic romantic relationships) are good examples of self discipline. “Though I was my mother’s main focus, she was also mine,” said one “Mama’s Boy.” “She ran our house like a drill sergeant because she was always on a tight schedule. The principle of self-discipline seemed to be the overriding theme for the way in which she operated. I am so grateful to her.” In a “back-to-school” address a number of years ago, President Obama recalls his mother’s proclivity for self-discipline when he describes how she roused him each morning at 4 a.m. for an English lesson. (She did not have money to send her son to an elite American school when they lived in Indonesia.) “A lot of times, I would fall asleep right there at the kitchen table,” Obama recalls. “But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, ‘this is no picnic for me either, buster.'”
Inspiration to become a high achiever: Both Clinton and Obama speak proudly of the inspiration they got from their respective mothers. Each of their mothers was determined to further her education in order to get a better job. Virginia Clinton obtained a nursing degree, while Obama’s mother earned a master’s in Anthropology. One of my interview subjects told me his mother worked three jobs at one time. She was a copywriter for an ad agency, a voice over actor and a photographer’s model. Another said his mother had started as a receptionist at a huge credit reporting agency, and over a five-year period, ascended to the post of V.P. of Marketing. “She taught me that if you want to achieve something, you can achieve most any goal if you work hard enough.” he said. “She demonstrated that to me and my siblings by example.” Today, this gentleman runs a successful award-winning advertising agency.
Forced to grow up faster and stronger: Nearly every one of the “Mama’s Boys” said they felt they were far better prepared to handle the real world as they approached adulthood. They stated that from an early age they had been inadvertently thrust into the role of “man of the house.” “While my mother never said ‘Okay you’re the man of the house,’ she made me feel like I was because I often found myself trying to protect her and take care of things guys would take care of, like cleaning out the garage, hanging pictures on the wall, moving heavy furniture so she could clean behind it,” he said. “I recall once when a neighbor had been robbed and my mother was left terrified. I was the one making sure all the windows and doors were locked each night before we went to bed. I also kept a baseball bat beside my bed, just in case.” This son, like many of the other ones I learned of seemed to suggest that by the time they left the nest to go to college they felt they were years ahead of their peers in maturity, compared to some of their college counterparts from two-parent households. Boys of single mothers who are the eldest, and who take care of younger siblings, also feel the burden only a “man of the house” feels. Such was the case with President Clinton who cites the care of his younger half-brother, Roger, as one of his chief priorities early on.
The benefits of self-sacrifice: Through my research, I discovered that very few of my candidates were from wealthy single mothers. As young boys, most watched their mothers go without, or with very little, just to get by. “My brothers and I joked about the clunker Ford our single mother drove while we were growing up,” one son shared. Though she seemed to have some perverse attachment to that old car, we pitched in, the four of us, and bought her a new one for her 50th birthday.” Andrew Jackson’s single mother was not the least bit reticent about foregoing even the barest of necessities to keep her household together. She even left her own abode to attend to needs of nieces and nephews. Though she had lost her husband and two of her sons, she traveled far from home to nurse smallpox victims during the Revolutionary War.
A spirit of unrelenting toughness: Most single mothers have no choice but to remain tough during any and all circumstances, no matter how difficult, because for the single mother there is no bailing out, backing off, and rarely a day off of running the household show. Single moms typically illustrate to their “Mama’s Boys” they are tougher than nails by reporting in for work even when they have the flu, sticking up for the children when they have been treated unfairly, or quickly wiping away their own tears (if they dare shed them) to move forward to complete or tackle what task is at hand, regardless of whether they are having a bad day. Most boys of single mothers will tell you that they were amazed and in awe of the strength and resolve of their single mothers. Consequently, “Mama’s Boys” are apt to adopt that same modus operandi.
Understanding the mystique of a woman: No savvy is more important to most grown men than knowing what makes his woman tick. Many “Mama’s Boys” might be mocked by other guys while growing up, but in the end they have greater insight into what women like and dislike, what sets them off in the anger department and what turns them on to men. “Mama’s Boys,” on average, have no problem attracting women. Too, many “Mama’s Boys” have their single moms wrapped around their finger so many become clever manipulators, thus they tend to charm the women they date right out the gate. Football star Warwick Dunn says that his mother was his best friend and that the two would talk long into the night about dating and the girls with whom he went out. “I learned more what women like to talk about and gossip about,” said Dunn. “She had her opinion,” he said of his mother and the women Dunn dated, “and the majority of the time, she was right.” Sons of single moms can usually run circles around the “other guys” when it comes to handling women because they have had a head start. They have witnessed their mother’s behavior toward suitors and they usually turn to their mothers for advice about their girlfriends. Eventually a “Mama’s Boy” will become a “Caring Man.”
The importance of community service: Most single mothers become actively involved in one community service/cause or another, and not by writing an occasional check to a non-profit. Single moms are often known to donate time to stage or assist with special events or offer their expertise hands-on to worthwhile causes. Most sons of single moms said the charities in which they chose to become involved were ones where they could “do” not “give.” Many “Mama’s Boys” will be like their moms: offer community service that request hands-on commitment. When gathering data about what charities my group of “Mama’s Boys” were involved in, some of them included: becoming a Big Brother, mentoring illiterate children and packaging care baskets for troops overseas. Anyone can give money, but those who give of themselves tend to feel more fulfilled. At least that is what my “Mama’s Boy” survey results revealed.
A knack for being self sufficient: Another gift the “Mama’s Boy” is often given is an early ability to problem-solve. These young men learn to lean on themselves for taking care of their needs because very often their mothers are far too busy to spoil them. “The only time my mother cooked was for special occasions,” one Mama’s Boy confided. “In our house, I had to get myself up, figure out how to get to private school which was four miles away, make my own breakfast and bag up my lunch. My mother even taught me how to do laundry and fire up the barbecue by the time I was 10.” Some sons of single mothers find themselves either doing for themselves or doing without. “‘You’re on your own,’ was what my mother would tell me as she headed off to work while the rest of us were getting out of bed in the morning,” a sales manager for a car dealership told me. “I remember resenting her for that many times until I got older and then in my mid-20’s I actually thanked her for raising me that way.”
What I found most fascinating about my study of the “Mama’s Boy” phenomenon is that a good majority of “Mama’s Boys” turn out to be enormously successful individuals, both professionally (they watched their mothers struggle to achieve prominence in the workplace) and in their personal lives (they were taught early on to have great respect for women).
I suppose there is some correlation between being the “Mama’s Boy” of a single mom and that boy’s ultimate success because my study included looking at the lives of the most elite male leaders of our country — mostly United States presidents who were raised by single moms. I was most intrigued about what some had to say about their mothers. The theme was constant; the words of praise for their mothers, similar.
Abraham Lincoln, raised for short time by his single (birth) mother, said, “All I am, or can be, I owe to my angel mother. I remember my mother’s prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all of my life.” Obama once stated, “My mother was the one constant in my life.” President George Washington said of his mother, “All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” Andrew Jackson said, “There never was a women like her. She was gentle as a dove and brave as a lioness. Her last words have been the law of my life.” Up until the day she died, Elizabeth Jackson had urged her son to serve others.
There are other famous and prominent men who were considered “Mama’s Boys,” too, who rose to prominence — hundreds of them. Some of those were leaders in their own right — their respective fields. Far too many to mention, I am afraid, but a few include: classic comedian, Bill Cosby; movie star, Tom Cruise; Atlanta Falcons running back, Warrick Dunn; former Speaker of the House under Reagan, Alexander Haig; Olympic Gold Medalist, Michael Phelps; actor Matt LeBlanc; and CBS’ commentator, Ed Bradley.
If you are raising a “Mama’s Boy,” I wish to congratulate you! Appreciate the value of your hard word and the example you set. It will pay off. Your son(s) will thank you and you will always remain one of the most important influences in his life.
Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Blank Rome LLP, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.