In this third post in my series on boys’ relationships with their mothers, I want to explain how my interest in the topic came about, and why I made it the focus of a research study.
I first became interested in young men’s relationships with their mothers, and the influence of those relationships on young masculinities, in the course of my research into men working in early years childcare (1). A number of the male childcare workers that I interviewed talked about having had particularly close relationships with their mothers, as well as with other maternal figures such as grandmothers and aunts. My sample was quite small, so my conclusions were by no means scientific, but it seemed that a significant number of these (mostly young) men had also been brought up by lone mothers.
Given the negative way in which single mothers’ influence on their sons is often viewed, this seemed to represent a fresh and more positive insight. Could the decision to work in a traditionally ‘feminine’ occupation, and the development of a more affective and expressive masculinity, have something to do with a strong maternal influence in a boy’s life? (I tried this idea out on parenting guru Stephen Biddulph, when I had the chance to chat with him after a seminar, but he was quite dismissive, suggesting that closer examination might reveal a deeper emotional deprivation in these young men’s lives, resulting from the absence of strong father figures. But then Biddulph, whose work I quite like in many ways, often appears to endorse the ‘new masculinism’ and gender essentialism of Robert Bly et al.)
In a later research study exploring fatherhood and masculine identity, I interviewed men who saw themselves as ‘involved’ fathers (2, 3). Although all of these men spoke at length about their (often deeply ambivalent) relationships with their own fathers, very few of them regarded their fathers as a strong influence on their parenting, and a significant number cited their mothers as having had the greater impact on the way they were bringing up their own children.
More recently, I supervised Jane Reeves’ PhD research on young fathers who were also service users. Among other findings to emerge from Jane’s study, it was striking that many of the young men she interviewed talked about having particularly close relationships with their mothers and grandmothers, and about how these relationships had contributed to their decision to stay with their partners and be a ‘good father’. (4)
Around the same time, I was writing about gender for the Open University’s ‘Youth’ course (KE308) (5), when a colleague introduced me to Diane Reay’s case study of Shaun, a working-class boy caught between the influence of his male peer group and that of his single mother (6). Reay quotes Shaun’s teacher as saying about him:
…of all the boys he’s the one most in touch with his feminine side, believe it or not. I do think he’s more in touch with his feminine side but then he lives with three women, his mum, who he idolises, his elder sister, who he idolises, and his baby sister, who he idolises, so his feminine side is very much to the fore.
Reay’s work, like Jane Reeves’ research, also touched on the issue of class and mother-son relationships, something I was keen to explore further.
All of these studies suggested some kind of link between the nature of a young man’s relationship with his mother and the development of masculine identity, with a hint that close maternal relationships might play a part in the emergence of alternative and more ‘caring’ masculinities. I decide that I wanted to explore these questions further, and began to cast around for existing research in this area.
I found that very little had been written on relationships between mothers and sons, and most of what had been written was from the perspective of mothers, such as Andrea Reilly’s edited collection (7). There didn’t seem to have been much written on how boys viewed their relationships with their mothers, and how those relationships impacted on their developing identities as young men.
So I decided I wanted to explore the issue further, and I came up with two possible research questions:
- How do young men talk about their relationships with their mothers?
- Is there any connection between the nature and quality of these relationships and young men’s developing gender identities?
With regard to the second question, I was particularly interested in the impact of maternal relationships on boys’ emerging attitudes to parenting, and their sense of themselves as future fathers.
Fortunately, around the time that I was beginning to explore these issues, ‘Inventing Adulthoods’, the longitudinal study of young people’s transitons to adulthood based at South Bank University, was reporting its findings and making some of its data available via a public online archive. I was aware of the project via my colleague Rachel Thomson, who was a member of the project team, and because we had collaborated with the team in producing a film about young people’s lives for the OU course. (8)
I negotiated an agreement with the South Bank research team to carry out a small-scale study, drawing on the interviews with the seven young men in the public archives, possibly as a first step towards a larger study.
Having negotiated access, I then set up about familiarising myself with the data on these seven young men. In another post, I’ll summarise what I concluded about their relationships with their mothers, and the impact on their emerging masculine identities.
(1) Robb, M. (2005) ‘Men working in childcare’ in Foley, P., Roche, J. and Tucker, S. (eds) Children in Society: contemporary theory, policy and practice, Basingstoke, Palgrave/The Open University
(2) Robb, M. (2004) ‘Men talking about fatherhood: discourse and identities’ in Robb, M., Barrett, S., Komaromy, C. and Rogers, A. (eds), Communication, Relationships and Care: A Reader, pp. 121-130, Routledge/The Open University
(3) Robb, M. (2004) ‘Exploring fatherhood: masculinity and intersubjectivity in the research process’, Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol. 18, No. 3, November (Special Issue: Psychosocial Approaches to Health and Welfare Research)
(4) Reeves, J. (ed) (2008) Inter-professional approaches to young fathers, M&K Update Ltd
(5) Robb, M. (2007) ‘Gender’ in Kehily, M. (ed.) Understanding Youth: perspectives,identities and practices, Sage/The Open University
(6) Reay, D. (2002) ‘Shaun’s story: troubling discourses of white working-class masculinity’, Gender and Education, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 221 – 34
(7) Reilly, A. (ed.) (2001) Mothers and Sons: feminist perspectives, Routledge
(8) Henderson, S., Holland, J., McGreelis, S., Sharpe, S. and Thomson, R. (2007), Inventing Adulthoods: a biographical approach to youth transitions, Sage/The Open University