Why Less is More, or a Boy Mom Learns to Play Hard to Get

I had breakfast with one of my sons this week. Somewhere between our first cups of coffee and our last, he looked at me across the table and said, “We should do this more often.”

If you are a mom of a boy, especially a boy who is old enough to drink coffee, and even more especially a boy who is a man with a wife and children of his own, you understand how this comment made me feel. I don’t have to describe the little flip-flop that happened in my heart.

But it wasn’t all that long ago when the flip-flop could have ruined the moment.

This the danger zone between moms and their boys. I will not say we love them too much, but I do believe we express that love—say it, hug it, text it, call it, emote it, ooze it—too much. Come on, you know this is true.

Bill and I recently talked with some young married guys about the phenomenon of the man cave. We acknowledged that, for most men, the man cave is necessary to their survival. But they’d better not live there, not if they want healthy marriages. We talked about how moms and sisters and wives don’t understand the man cave at all. We don’t know how important it is to respect it. One guy said, “My mom didn’t invade my man cave, but she would stand at the mouth of it and chirp at me.”

I speak chirp, so I knew right away what he meant. For a boy, I’m just a little too enthusiastic in the wrongest moments.

Bottom line; boys need space. Most of us moms find this out the hard way. When our sons don’t tell us anything, when they answer our probing (normal) questions in monosyllables, when they shrug off kisses, and when they sometimes even act like we don’t exist, it’s their way of carving out the space they need in order to breath. They’re on their way to becoming men, and oxygen is vital.

Women take up space. Lots of it. Yes, we speak more words than our men, especially the adolescent ones, but there’s more to it than that. We feel more feelings. We require more feedback. We take things a lot more personally. We look them in the eye for longer than they like. (According to our boys, I made inappropriate scenes on TV more awkward by staring at them during those scenes.) I know I’m generalizing, but I’ve had years to observe this need-for-space vs. take–up-space dance between boys and girls and, later, men and women. I remember overhearing the yeah… uh huh… okay phone conversations our boys had with random girls, and wishing I could have seen what those calls looked like from the boy’s side when I was a teenaged girl. I had no idea. I thought they liked talking on the phone.

Boys love us, but they don’t show or experience that love the way we do.

And then there’s the fact that we love them so hard. There’s nothing wrong with that. But love is not a right. Sometimes, as our soft, cuddly little boys are morphing into hard, angular men, we fool ourselves into thinking we have the right to express our love any way we want to. 

If you think about it, it’s obvious when our love, aching and all, moves from a privilege (ours) to an obligation (theirs). We troll for intel on our son’s dating lives. We lament the lack of response to our calls and texts. We use tradition, food, money, and, worst of all, guilt to bribe our grown sons to visit more often. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. Our bleeding, pathetic hearts.

Beth Corbett was the only teacher all four of our boys had. I got to hear her parent speech on the first day of seventh grade three times (Matt didn’t enter her class until February, so we missed it that time around). Moms, she’d say, it’s time to let Dad step up. It’s time for you to be in the supporting role. Bake cookies. Cheer them on. Let Dad do the heavy lifting when it comes to discipline, especially with the boys. If there is no dad at home, enlist a man to help with this. In certain terms, Mrs. Corbett told us moms it was time to play hard to get just a little.

I have this theory that a man can handle only one woman at a time. And when your son marries, that one woman is not you. Thanks to those 7th grade speeches, I began stepping back long before our boys met the women they married. When it came time for them to leave and cleave, I’d had some practice letting go. So, Beth Corbett, if you’re reading this: Thank you.

For moms, not doing something is often the bigger sacrifice than doing something. But I am convinced that if you take a few steps back, maybe even as early as your son’s 7th grade year, you’ll experience a great return on that investment in the years to come. Pulling back is not easy for moms who love hard and strong. But when you give your son the thing he wants and when that thing is antithetical to what you want, it’s like giving grace. When you give it with your whole, pure heart, it’s a miracle.

I’m not saying be less loving, I’m just saying step back and examine that love before you say it, write it, text it, bake it, share it. Create some space, a place for him that is void of you. It’s what a boy must have. And if you do this, going against the grain of every mother instinct you possess, you’ll make a wide open road for him to travel back to you, not completely, but in rare, magical moments when over breakfast he might say something like, “We should do this more often.”

Yes, that would be nice.

6 Replies to “Why Less is More, or a Boy Mom Learns to Play Hard to Get”

  1. This is so perfectly said. Thank you! I have an unspoken rule for myself that I let my son initiate the phone call or text about 75 percent of the time. I’m always quick to respond and will reach out to him if it’s been a long time since we’ve talked, but this seems to work. I know if we’re talking, it’s because he wants to, not because he’s placating me.

    1. Yes!! I love that you have it down to a rough percentage… the key is to do it with grace (not a ‘you owe me’) and it sounds like you have that figured out! Nothing worse than talking with a son who doesn’t want to talk!

  2. Thank you for these thoughts. My home is full of grown up boys as we prepare for my youngest son’s wedding this weekend. I have known intuitively some of what you shared, but it was so helpful to see it expressed in words. I have grieved over these truths that I have sensed, but somehow reading this piece has brought peace and acceptance. I am grateful for the timing of this piece and at your ability to express these truths about boys.

    1. Congrats on the wedding!! I’m so glad my thoughts were timely for you. And glad you have wise, healthy mom’s intuition. 🙂 I hope you have a sweet time of celebrating.

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