“A Man Shall Leave His Mother….”

A few years back, while speaking at a conference of Family Studies teachers in Ontario about an adolescent boy’s need to separate from his mother, I saw a woman in the front row with tears streaming down her face.   At the end of my talk, she thanked me for helping her understand why her relationship with her “precious little boy” had become so rancourous and awful when he turned 14.   Now she understood.

It is normal for a boy to separate from his mother.  He does this to further his identity as a young man.  When navigated with wisdom and patience, it is a time of excitement and joy for the boy.   However, in a culture that does not support the masculine journey, a boy’s fundamental need to become a man can get very messy – for everyone.

The separation I’m talking about is the adolescent cutting of childhood ties to the mother.    This a time of great confusion for boys; his whole life he has identified himself with his mother, grew in her womb, sought her for food, affection, comfort, consolation, etc.   Her very gaze into his eyes as a baby, her tender motherly love, gave him his sense of being and a growing sense himself as a person.  It is a mysterious, profound, and holy phenomenon.

However, for a boy to become a man, he must cut his childhood ties to mother.  In his heart, he must navigate turmoil, the emotional storms of an identity crisis that is filled with anxiety, anger, and the fear of separating from the very person who gave him life!   We’re not talking about a cold indifference to ‘mom;’ we’re talking about the separation of identities of two deeply emotionally and spiritually entwined human beings.   The difficulty of navigating this crucial movement away from mother cannot be understated.  For the boy it can be as painful as death.

In days of old, when the bond between men and boys was stronger, this separation from mother was helped by the presence of supportive fathers, uncles, and grandfathers to whom boys could go for understanding, consolation, and affirmation.

Today with no rituals to help them become men, and living in a culture that values personality over substance, boys are left to navigate this crucial process alone.  They attempt to separate from their mothers through rebellion, angry blow ups, or by cutting themselves off emotionally from their mothers.   Being boys, it is all so clumsy, leaving everyone feeling hurt, angry, confused, and, often, ashamed.

Our culture needs to support the developmental steps in navigating the masculine journey.  Specifically, to acknowledge that it is painful and frightening for boys to separate from their mothers.  For mothers, that it is painful and frightening to let go of their sons.

Secondly, fathers and elders need to help boys make the painful cut to the ties that bind them to mother.  In doing so, young men need to accept their mothers as adults and as individuals deserving respect and honour.   And mothers need to know and be supported in the painful process of letting their children move into adulthood.

Boys, if they are to become healthy men, need to separate from their mothers; it is a fact of life.  It would make life so much easier, if we helped everyone along the way.


  1. by Ari

    On January 26, 2013

    Thanks Patrick. I was hearing last night, about how we should, as Christians, leave the breast, and desire the pure spiritual food, in order to grow up into the full stature of who we are called to be. Leaving the breast(milk, comfort, enrapturement with childish obsession) and consuming meat. All choices were easy with mother, because mother made all the decisions. I think what I desire is not to have limited choices, but the ability to make my own informed decisions, try, fail, ask for and receive feedback and advice, try, fail/succeed and so on. In the Jewish culture, after 13, when a man wanted to do something, he gathered the elders, made his proposal, then listened to all the advice given, before proceeding. At 28, I am just starting to learn how to gather the elders, and it is very tough to break the old habits of acting, before seeking counsel. Prior to this, I didn’t know that other older men even cared to share their advice…so in the inbetween stage of rejecting/emotionally distancing myself from mother, and not having yet learned to ask and receive guidance, there were some messy, lost years: about 10-15 to be precise. This explains the extended adolescent period in my generation. THanks again for your continued insight

  2. by Patrick O'Connor

    On January 26, 2013

    Thank Ariel. Failure to leave the mother is a developmental failure and there will be problems until the step is made, problems in relationships with women, especially, and emotional issues relating to self acceptance as a man. It is the norm now, unfortunately, hence we have a lot of broken marriages and angry fatherless boys.

  3. by Nancy Bovey

    On January 27, 2013

    Pat your posting is excellent and I am sure it will help a lot of people. I wish I, as a mother of 3 sons, had known that when they started to rebel. Despite it all they turned out to be very special men, but I know now they struggled through their need to detach and so did I. Bless you my friend. Nancy

  4. by Patrick O'Connor

    On January 27, 2013

    Thank you Nancy. It’s so important mothers, fathers, and sons know this. Your wisdom is so welcome and needed. Great to see you here!

  5. by Marg

    On January 28, 2013

    Some sons rebel by just becoming cold to their mother ( perhaps I should say whithdraw because they quietly discover other places more attractive than home.)
    A lesson mothers have to learn is let go; it can be very difficul!

  6. by Patrick O'Connor

    On January 28, 2013

    Thanks Marg. You’re the second mother to comment here and your thoughts are welcome. It seems a universal struggle for mothers to let go. I wonder if it’s done in isolation. Did you discuss it with your friends?

  7. by Marg

    On January 28, 2013

    Perhaps I didn’t have such a hard time as some of my freinds having had six brothers.
    Maybe I had observed that in my youth; I don’t really remember.

  8. by Patrick O'Connor

    On January 28, 2013

    I see what you mean; with six brothers you saw it up close and knew what to expect with your own sons. Thanks again for your reply!

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