When I was pregnant, I secretly wanted a girl. I’d give people the standard line, “Oh, as long as it’s healthy, I don’t mind,” but inside I figured raising a girl on my own would be easier than with a boy.
I don’t think that’s necessarily true any more; in fact, most of the young boys I know seem a lot less demanding than my own little madam. But it is true that for many single mothers, the idea of raising a son carries its own set of worries.
Steve Biddulph, in Raising Boys (Finch Publishing, Australia), says after the birth of a boy it’s not uncommon for a mother to exclaim in horror, ‘I don’t know what to do with a boy!’
However well-prepared mothers are logically, the emotional response is often still, ‘Wow! This is unknown territory.’
The advice he gives is particularly pertinent for single mothers: “Adopt a curious attitude – of wanting to learn and understand about a boy’s world.” You need information about this creature with a penis! Read some of the excellent books around on raising boys; and ask questions of male friends or relatives.
But no matter how well informed you are, a mother cannot be a father; and the statistics about fatherless boys make frightening reading.
The link between criminality and fatherlessness, for example is beyond dispute. Boys without fathers are four times more likely to drop out of school and many more times likely to end up as drug and alcohol abusers.
In the absence of Dad, you need father-substitutes. Role models. But how and where do you find them? In Fatherless Sons (HarperCollins, NZ) author Rex McCann tells the story of 33-year-old Laura who went about it in a rather radical way. She put on a barbeque for her neighbours – and talked to them about wanting good men in her son’s life. Pretty soon the boy was going fishing, doing woodwork and fixing bikes with men she trusted and liked.
Less radical ways include approaching relatives and male friends. Teachers, colleagues, coaches and men from church or hobby clubs can also be excellent role models.
Of course, there is no true substitute for a boy’s own father. And tough though it may be, single mothers need to encourage a relationship between their sons and their ex-partners.
John Cowan, senior writer and presenter from Parents Inc., says separated parents need to rise above their own conflict for the good of their son:
“If Mums realised how incredibly important any contact with Dad was, they’d see that even if it’s not ideal in many ways, it’s better than nothing.”
Obviously this is not the case where there is violence or any other sort of danger.
It is particularly important for a boy to have contact with his father between the ages of four and six. Up till then, a preschooler is usually most closely bonded with his mother. But at the age of four, he begins to feel the need to separate from her and gravitate toward a male model.
Also around four, a boy’s testosterone level doubles and he becomes more vigorous and into action play.
Mothers need to realise just how physical their sons need to be. .. and when there’s no Dad around, guess who needs to wrestle, play horsies and throw them into the air. Be physical with them – but also teach them to know the limits.
Combining nurture and discipline is one of the hardest tasks for the single parent. Rex McCann says: ‘For a boy being raised by his mother, she is the sole source of parental love and acceptance. When she applies discipline, the child can feel this love is being withdrawn and can feel abandoned.’
But boys desperately need clear boundaries. In their book Raising a Son (Southern Pubishers, USA), Don and Jeanne Elium say there are three things a boy needs to know: who’s in charge, what the rules are, and that those rules be fairly enforced. So even when you’re tired, remember that reinforcing clear boundaries for your son is food for his soul.
At the same time, let him be a little boy, and not the man of the house. Referring to your son as “the man of the family” or asking his advice on adult issues can put extra pressure on him
In the tough times – with children of either sex – take heart that a solo-parent upbringing can produce wonderful children. One of my oldest friends, now in his thirties, was brought up by his mother, a woman he adores and respects. He is one of the most kind-hearted, loving and generous people I know.