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How Raising Sons Shapes a Different Kind of Love

A mother reflects on raising her three children alone

This article was originally published in Pacific Standard on March 28, 2016.

By Michele Weldon

"You wouldn't understand," my oldest son, Weldon, would say often in his adolescent years.

And he was right; I simply was not like my three sons, and they were not like me, in ways too many to measure.

I wish I would have known that all my feminist beliefs and equity theories did not prepare me for my boys being radically unlike me—in more than simple gender assignations. Of course I would never tolerate the "boys will be boys" excuse for outrageous behavior and crimes; it simply is that their otherness was pervasive and distinct.

I wish someone would have told me how hard it is as a single mother to raise a man. Three men.

From the time my sons were born, they were more impulsive, more strident in their conclusions, more impatient than I was or am (or that my mother would ever allow my two brothers to be growing up in a quiet suburban home).

Perhaps it is personality or any of a zillion other possible influences or factors genetic or environmental, but from the start, my sons' physicality was outsized—jumping from the top of the dryer onto the concrete basement floor as preschoolers, pushing one another down the stairs in cardboard box races in elementary school, and now, even in their twenties, wrestling each other in the backyard until one yells for mercy.

No one told me that, at times,  my sons would not even like me.

I never dreamed of disliking my own mother; I was always trying to align with her, earn her favor. The youngest of six siblings in seven years, I was careful not to openly disagree with her. It was not that I was afraid of her wrath; I was afraid of her disappointment.

Maybe that is what it meant to grow up in the 1960s and '70s. Maybe it is a good thing my sons felt the freedom to say what they wanted. They were not afraid to hurt me because they knew I would never leave.

As a parent, there is an ocean of gray matter between applause and anger. For a single parent—mother or father—the ocean feels deeper, more vast, the shore farther to reach. For what adds up to years on end, you are, at times, treading water in the middle of subtle, unspoken acrimony—filled with silent meal times and unanswered texts, eye-rolling whenever you speak.

And then it is over and you look back, squinting to decipher the mirage.

I recently wrote the last tuition check for my youngest son's final semester at the University of Iowa; it cleared. Colin, 22, still sports the pale blonde hair and earnest disposition he did as a toddler. He will graduate in May and has a job in finance starting in June. We speak and text a few times a week.

Weldon is 27, with a graduate degree he earned abroad. He works in sales in Chicago. I see him more often lately and we talk politics and books.

Brendan is 25, working in Columbus, the Buckeye city of his alma mater, The Ohio State University. He drives the six-and-a-half hours home for holidays and long weekends. He texts or calls when I travel for work, scouring my itinerary for specifics to ask questions: "How was the seminar? How many people showed up?"

Weldon and Brendan live on their own (with roommates), proclaiming independence. I am not doing their laundry, as some of my friends still do for their boomerangs. My youngest lives with roommates in an apartment near campus.

All my sons are, by all objective yardsticks, launched into adulthood and independence.

Perhaps they will benefit over the long term from what Harvard Business School Professor Kathleen McGinn and her colleagues identified as the "working mother effect" in their recent study. McGinn's research found that, while both sons and daughters benefit from having a career mom, those benefits manifest in different ways. Daughters of working mothers end up being more successful and earning more money than do the daughters of mothers who did not work outside the home. The sons contribute more to "domestic duties" in their own homes as adults. Maybe that's because they needed to pitch in more during childhood.

For now, I am alone. That doesn't mean I am lonely. My reflection is not a melancholic clichéd lament for time gone by too swiftly, some longing for when the boys were small. I cringe at those empty-nest requiems that are also about feeling unfulfilled by the vacuum of motherhood. As if you didn't know from the moment your infant was placed on your chest and smelled like dewy earth that parenthood would occupy a good chunk of time.

I am neither bitter nor sad.

Where did the time go? It is not a question I ask. I can point to the framed photographs all over the house from vacations, graduations, and birthdays. Snapshots of Weldon eating a watermelon at a picnic table. Brendan dancing at a family wedding. Colin beaming in a baseball uniform. The time went there. And there. And to parent-teacher conferences, wrestling tournaments, shouting matches in the car.

I felt as if their childhoods were so filled with movement and noise—and yes, laughter—that one year felt like five. One night spent waiting for a son in the white Nissan to pull safely into the driveway felt like six months. The parallel times of my life—career, friendships, my romantic life—those years snapped past mercilessly fast.

None of my mothering years were catastrophic. I listened with fear to the stories of friends who suffered through their sons' accidents, arrests, hospitalizations, overdoses, missteps, deaths. Comparatively, my own mother years were extraordinarily good.

But it was hard as a parent alone. Sometimes I cried in the shower so no one would hear.

Here is the happy ending: My sons are healthy, productive, kind adults. That's a comfort not unlike the moment when you finally arrive home after a long drive through a snowstorm. You can stop gripping the wheel, stop saying Hail Mary's. Everything is going to be fine; you are safe.

I am alone now in the newly quiet house where I raised these men by myself, more than two decades after a divorce when they were very young; Colin was just one, Weldon was six, Brendan was four. Here is my refuge filled with Anthropologie candles and simmering guitar solo CDs, where I walk barefoot in the kitchen to make kale salads for dinner.

What I really wish I'd known is how much I'll never know.

Michele Weldon is emerita faculty at Northwestern University, and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.

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