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Dear Single Mom: Listen, I Was Your Son, I Get It

I know it’s hard to be a single mom. Though I’ve never been one, I have been the son of a single mom.

We went through an awful divorce (their divorce) together, and we survived. We’re partners in survival. And still, there are a few lessons that we went through, that *perhaps* I can help with. So your son doesn’t have to experience the same issues later on in life. (I’ve written about this before, see: Little Man)

1. Her champion. Her knight in shining armor. Her protector. Her counselor. Her comfort.

While this is the noble message inside every son’s heart, it is the wrong focus for him. While it might feel good to have him attempting to be chivalrous and overly protective of you, this is not his role. This is a fragile bonding that will have consequences later on as he individuates from you. He will often feel like he still needs to be your champion. He will make choices based on protecting you, rather than taking care of his own needs. Take a step back from your champion and release him.

2. Her greatest achievement. Her reason for surviving the divorce. The reason it was “all worth it.”

Your son is probably awesome. He is struggling a bit but achieving great things. Fine. Give it back to him, and don’t make it about you and your success as a single mom. Let him have his success without the echoes of your efforts and how you too have struggled to provide this supportive and loving environment for him. Of course, you are providing support and love as best you can. And either his Dad is in or out of the picture. But don’t make his success about you. Don’t claim a joint victory. He’s not your champion, nor is he carrying your colors into battle. He will have battles aplenty for himself. Let him carry his own banner into battle.

You can cheer him on, without needing to join in the glow of his wins. And the same holds true for his losses. Let him have them. Loss is part of life. Learning to deal with loss (yes, even the loss of his fantasy family life) is part of growing up. Let him lose, let him cry, let him be defeated. And from those ashes be there when he rises back up to face the next challenge. I know it’s hard, but the more you can stand by as a supporter rather than a cheerleader or apologist, the better off he’s going to be at facing the next challenge without fear of losing. And really, without the fear of losing and disappointing you again.

3. Her sacrifice.

Your son is not your sacrifice. He is not the reason you have carried on, nor the reason you choose not to reenter the idea of having a relationship for yourself. Your son is merely a part of your joint story. Don’t make your survival or heroic efforts about him. Even if they appear to be about him, keep that observation for yourself and your therapist. Your son NEVER needs to hear of your sacrifice. Nope. Don’t put that hollow trophy in his already-heavy backpack of life.

You are the driver. Don’t try to ride shotgun. Lead, drive, take charge of your life and show what healthy recovery after divorce looks like.

Get your life in order. Let your son have his life. If you focus too much on him and his happiness two unfortunate things happen: 1. he comes to depend on your energy and praise for his own happiness;  2. he begins to feel that his happiness is somehow connected (re: responsible) for your happiness. Please don’t link these two things together. You are your focus. Your son will benefit most from your healing and recovery. He will learn the most about surviving tough circumstances by seeing you survive and ultimately thrive. You cannot bring him happiness, but you can show him what happiness looks like. And remember, your happiness is NOT about his happiness. It feels that way. It hurts that way. But that projection is for you to work out with someone else, not with your son.

4. Her focus.

Single moms may be too hyper-focused on the success and safety of their young sons. Boys do need to be boys. When a group of boys is playing football in the yard and one of the boys bangs his head and cries out, it is hard for any parent not to rush in and make sure everyone is okay. But, as a certain age, these boys need to get up, brush themselves off, determine that no major damage has occurred, and continue jumping with their friends. If the yelping boy’s mom had rushed in to determine if he was okay, it would’ve reinforced some of the boy’s dependence on his mom. At a young age, this attachment is critical. As your boy gets older, you need to let him fall down and exclaim in pain, and then you need to let him get back up, brush himself off, and get back into the game.

Focus on your boy’s health, yes, but also give them some autonomy and self-discipline. Boys need to learn to self-regulate their emotions. They don’t need mom to come running every time they cry. They will not have that hovering support in the harsh realities of the real world, and moms can help them learn to manage their own bodies if they just give them a little space to do so. When a boy cries “mom” in the house, in some ways they are yanking the parent’s chain. It might be something like, “I can’t find my socks.” In this case, the boy would be better served if the mom didn’t come running and they were allowed to find their socks themselves.

We get conditioned to respond to our kid’s cries for help, both in crisis and in the course of family life. We need to continue to teach them that they are autonomous and can solve many of the problems they used to “need mom” for. Let them grow their wings. Give them the opportunity to fly solo. It’s hard, I know. It’s hard for your son too, to learn that you are not always going to be there to help when things don’t work out perfectly.

It is hard for both fathers and mothers to learn to stay in their lane as their kids age. As we separate from our children we have to learn to let them suffer disappointments and bumps on the head without our direct intervention. In the football example, if the child had been hurt badly the escalation would’ve taken place and your first aid support would’ve been solicited. As it happens in most cases, boys (and girls) will fall down, scrape their knees, brush themselves off, and get back in the game. If you constantly interrupt that maturation process you may be slowing the development of their self-confidence and resilience.

5. Her hopes and dreams of a better life.

Of course, you want a better life for both of you. Of course, you might have preferred a better dad, a better marriage, a better family unit. But you’ve got to move on now and prepare for your life. Your son is along for the ride, but he is not the driver. Nor should his happiness and success be your personal goal. You might think it is. You might want to hyper-focus on your son’s joy and success. But you must really learn to focus on your own recovery and return to joy. Your hopes and dreams for a better life must come to life in actions and not just words. You must show your son your commitment to YOUR happiness by doing what needs to be done for you. Trust that he will come along for the ride you are providing. You are the driver. Don’t try to ride shotgun. Lead, drive, take charge of your life and show what a healthy recovery after divorce looks like.

6. Sons and Lovers.

All through my life, I have struggled with my relationships with women. Go figure. Guess what, it’s a universal truth. And it’s NOT MY MOM’S FAULT.

That being said, it does have a lot to do with my relationship with my mom. AND my relationship with my dad. It’s all about the family of origin. That’s okay. But don’t wrap your son too tightly in the swaddling clothes. Your job is to set him upright, give him healthy encouragement, and let him go. Your job is to do everything you can to get healthy yourself and not color your relationship with your son by overly depending or guiding him.

You ARE doing it right. AND there are a few insights that might help you hear your son’s struggles.

My Truth.

With my mom, I am still looking for her approval. I am still a tiny bit attached to her happiness as part of my mission. It’s not a huge thing. I’ve taken as much of it as I can to therapy and learning to let go of those little boy expectations and dreams. But we’re still in this story together. Of course, we are. Sons and Mothers are always connected. Your son will always be yours. But you have to let him go as early as possible to let him develop independently of you and your struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Get clear for yourself, and your family will follow your healthy example.

I tell you these little bits of my story not to say “I’m right,” but to give you a possible glimpse into what your son is going through, and will continue to work through, for most of his adult life. It’s okay, we all have family of origin stuff to deal with and process as adults.

And I can guess these few truths about you, even though I have never met you.

  1. Your son is so lucky to have you, and he knows it.
  2. Your energy and love are not wasted. He IS growing up to be a fine young man.
  3. The pride and confidence you show in your son is the pride and confidence he will have in himself.
  4. Your son comes first. Before yourself, before a next relationship, before your dreams are your dreams for your son’s health and well-being.

You ARE doing it right. AND there are a few insights that might help you hear his struggles and back off just a little bit from overwhelming his own natural determination to grow and survive in spite of the hand he’s been dealt.

Take One Step Back

Take one step back the next time you want to overly defend your son. Take one breath before rushing in as he’s dealing with issues. Give his little spirit time to develop. (Even with less of your “inspiration and help,” he will get there.)

Breathe. You *are* in this divorce and journey of mothers and sons together. If you can take a tiny step back and allow your son to face the world alone, with you at his side (maybe slightly behind him), he will be stronger and more ready to face the world without you.

My heart goes out to you and to my mom. And to the boys after me who are struggling to find their identities with absent or withdrawn fathers.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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a good dad's guide to divorce

image: house for an art lover – series, jean-pierre dalbéra, creative commons usage

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anton Savoye

    Very very beautiful. Just one thing. Allthough I realize it’s a personal story, people should know that all this also counts for daughters. Entirely.

    1. jmacofearth

      Of course, but I can only write from my own experience. Thanks for your comment.

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