Sigmund Freud and practitioners of classical psychology may love this post. “Tell me about your parents,” after all, is one of the cliche phrases of psychology. Yet this is not a post where I complain about how I was raised or about the flaws of my parents. No, today I am going to try to spell out a part of the double edged sword that is our sexist culture. The crux of it is by undervaluing women and their roles in our society at large, we also undervalue those who choose to honor or tend to them, or even those who fill roles which society has “traditionally” designated to them. Easy examples are those who scoff at men who work as nurses or secretaries; in fact, terms such as “male nurse” or “administrative assistant” seemed to have arisen to cover this up. Yet there is one phrase which has always followed me like a shadow, which seems to get larger the older I get.
That phrase is “Momma’s boy”.
Some might call this a “double standard”. According to most American social roles, daughters are expected to be close to their parents – their fathers especially. This pans out as statistically, daughters are more likely to be the primary caretakers of elderly relatives in their family, even in families in which there are brothers or other men who could pick up that slack. Yet a man who chooses to carry out a similar role – form a close bond to his mother – is often made the butt of jokes or derided. Many a sitcom has used this dynamic as fodder, and many a film has used this as either comedy or the basis for a psychopath – Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” being an easy example. However, I would not use this difference as the basis for some rant about how “men are the ones who are oppressed”. No, the fact of the matter is that this attitude persists because the roles of mothers and daughters in our society are undervalued. Therefore, those men who fill it seem even worse.
I grew up in a single parent household; my father was a deadbeat who fled at the quickest opportunity and to this day owes tens of thousands in back child support. Such a fact of life seems (unfortunately) common in some ethnic backgrounds, but apparently it is rare for white men in New York, at least of my generation. I was raised by a single mom who never remarried and did her damnedest to raise me as best she could. We were poor, but due to the times and her skills I was aware of this but didn’t seem to suffer for it until junior high when those socioeconomic gaps became obvious between my peers and I. As I have grown up, my mother’s health has declined. Simply by only having one parent and being close to her already pegs me under the “Momma’s boy” stereotype, but so does my role as caretaker. Without getting into specifics, my mom has multiple long term and chronic illnesses which are slowly but surely destroying her body. She is under sixty years old, but from how she feels she may as well be in her seventies or eighties. As independent as she is or was or wants to be, she relies on me for many things (errands, financial support) and I have done my best to fill that role for her. She took care of me as a child, and I am trying to follow suit as an adult. Unfortunately, that’s not easy as I unfortunately have been unable to escape poverty, either – despite a college degree.
American society, at least the bit of it I have experienced in New York, is a very masculine, profit oriented, domination obsessed place. In countries like Japan or India, or even much of Asia, tending to one’s parents in old age is a commonly accepted fact of life. Nobody bats an eye at adults who do such things (even still living under one roof with them), and in fact one who didn’t would be seen as shallow or selfish, or at least odd. In America, however, we are obsessed with being consumers and I think family ties are a part of this. By and large, Americans (especially men) are expected to sever ties as early as possible, live alone, leave their parents to age and fend for themselves or be tended to by others (sisters, perhaps) or be dumped in nursing homes. Perhaps this is a model which works in upper or middle class families, but it isn’t so feasible for those who are poor or working class. And as women seem to be quietly accepted as the ground forces of these roles, men who find themselves in these roles seem to be such a rarity that they’re often seen as being wimps, or immature, or pathetic – even by other women. I try not to judge women for absorbing negative aspects of the culture and social messages they’re bombarded with every day, even those which go against logic or their best interests, but I still notice them.
It starts young, and is obvious when you look at clear examples. How many superhero origins are all about avenging fathers, or giving fathers majority status in origin stories where a hero’s parents died? Sure, Bruce Wayne lost both his parents in that alley, but his father Thomas always has more to do beforehand, more to say, and derives more angst in Batman than Martha. While Peter Parker still lives, loves, and protects his aunt (and adoptive mom) May, it’s the death of Ben (his uncle and adoptive father) and his iconic motto which motivates him. Bruce Banner’s at times been defined by an early relationship of abuse from his father. Even though both of Superman’s parents died when Krypton exploded and both chose to send him to Earth, it’s his father Jor-El who gets more to do and more post-death interaction. And who’s the biggest hero who, at least historically, had a key role with a mother? Wonder Woman, a heroine who’s struggled to appear in film or TV and has been mangled no end of times by DC Comics. The Ninja Turtles live and are trained by master Splinter, female Transformers are few and far between, and so on. While not to diminish the role fathers play in life, it seems that as far back as the early heroes of boys, the role of motherhood seems to be diminished. All Martha Wayne is is a set of pearls. May Parker is usually just there to nag about sweaters. Lara only talks to Superman when no footage of Marlon Brando is available. Tang Shen never gets to survive or even have much to do in any retelling of TMNT. And despite how common single mother households are in America, there seem to be very few of them that exist in media, and those that do usually are not played positively.
I am not saying I have no will of my own or that mother and I agree about everything, or are exactly alike. I’d argue she is far tougher and has survived far more abuse than I ever have. It is though her that I learned right and wrong, that I saw the horrors that life can inflict upon women and girls for no other reason than their gender, and where I learned, or so I thought, a respect for women. And as frustrating as it can be sometimes to have her rely on me so much, it is a role I would not shirk and did not during a brief period when I was financially better off. When given half the chance, I would not abandon her like the rest of our family has. I would not trust a roommate or anyone else with her well being. And even during some of the worst years of helping her tend to grandma until the end, I would not have run away if given the chance. It simply isn’t the right or honorable thing to do. My mother was the only parent I got and while she isn’t perfect, I’ve chosen to stand with her for as long as I have to. I have tried my best to honor and love her, to protect her like she once protected me.
Unfortunately, this is not considered macho or attractive for men in New York society for the reasons I stated above. I’ve had employers roll their eyes at hints of this in interviews, even for jobs WITHIN THE HELPING PROFESSION. I have been looked down upon by both friends and associates for being a “momma’s boy”. What is even worse is how I seem to embody all of the stereotypes of a “momma’s boy” or not having “a father to show me how to be a man” by me not being confident or assertive or dominating. I am seen as less than a man because I do not live alone and have to take care of my only parent. And this means less money to spend on myself, which is most of what a man’s entire value as a human being is derived (the other segments being looks and aggressiveness). I am very aware that much of my life’s frustrations and my own personal lack of self worth are due in part to the sexist core of our society; unfortunately simply knowing that isn’t enough to overcome it or make it go away.
In my journey to explain why I am the Dateless Man, let’s recap what I have revealed. I am a virgin, I am poor, I am not athletic, tall, attractive, charismatic, affluent, experienced, socially adept, and above all I live with and try to honor my mother. Maybe I don’t need to proceed any further. All of these details spell nothing more than the exact opposite of what women are expected to find attractive and desirable in a long or short term lover. I wish I lived in a world where all of the values and things I learned about morality as a child were actually appreciated, rewarded, respected, or honored in the real world, but they are not. Media pays lip service to it but in the end it’s all about the rat race, about getting as much as you can for as little effort as possible and damning anyone in y0ur way. I live in a world where a man is expected to be assertive, aggressive, macho and a money maker, and instead I’m a wimpy caretaker. No woman I have ever desired has ever been interested in me, and none ever will. Despite my mother’s best efforts in rearing me, my life has been a frustrating, underachieving experience which I regret with every passing day, and which due to her conditions comes closer to the day when she will be gone, long before I am ever ready for her to be.
Being a “Momma’s boy” or taking care of your family should be marks of pride, not shame, not something to have to keep to one’s vest. In fact, that term shouldn’t even exist in our culture. Simply being good human beings should be the norm. Imagine how much sweeter life would be for everyone if it was.