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Mommie Dearest: Why Do Women Mother Their Men?

Welcome to the world of women who mother their partners. It might sound sick, but it’s much more widespread than you think.  

Why Can’t Women Resist Playing Mommy?
The short answer is plain and simple: women are biologically programmed to bear and raise children—and those predispositions exist long before they actually give birth, which means that when they’re feeling an unconscious need to channel all those nurturing instincts, they turn to the most logical recipient: their partner. Furthermore, the same hormones flowing freely in new mothers, such as oxytocin, are the ones a woman feels when she’s connecting deeply with a male partner.

The particular form a woman’s maternal tendencies toward her husband or boyfriend takes is much less predictable, however. A woman of the warm-and-fuzzy variety might thrive on taking care of her man in times of need: she’ll make him chicken soup when he’s sick, give him a back rub when he’s stressed out, and lend a supportive ear when he needs to vent about his personal, familial, or professional troubles. A domestically minded nurturer will make sure everything’s running smoothly on the home front, just as a mother would for a child who isn’t yet old enough to help her with such matters, including shopping for groceries, cooking meals, cleaning the bathroom, doing laundry, making the bed, booking her husband’s medical appointments, and so on. Finally, a nagging, control-freak maternal type won’t let her guy out of her sights before she’s approved what he’s wearing, how his hair looks, where he’s going, and when he’ll be home—and then she’ll still check in with him by phone a dozen times while he’s out. She’s not comfortable letting him dress himself, because she’s afraid he’ll wear stripes with plaid, or do errands by himself, because she doesn’t think he’s capable of picking up the correct brand of detergent or batch of dry cleaning—in short, she doesn’t trust him to do anything as well as she believes she can do it herself.

The specific manifestations of a woman’s maternal behavior may depend primarily on the kind of caretaker her own mother was. As much as young women often swear, “I’ll never be like my mom,” it’s almost inevitable that they’ll inherit at least a few of their mothers’ traits. Of course, when a girl is raised by a loving, cookie-baking mother, it bodes better for her own future relationships than growing up under the thumb of an overbearing ice queen does, but that still doesn’t mean she’s automatically in the clear when it comes to cultivating healthy romances with men. On the contrary, even if a woman has the best intentions when she’s coddling her male partner, that type of dynamic can ultimately lead to the death of the relationship. Despite the fact that women might be more predisposed to caring for others than men are, if they find themselves coupled with males who come to expect their caretaking efforts and never reciprocate, the negative repercussions of those arrangements include increasing resentment, a decline in sexual attraction, and a lack of respect for the men’s waning interest in, well, manning up. As sociology professor Pepper Schwartz told CNN Living, “First you’re tucking in his shirt, then you’re wiping his mouth, and at some point, it’s going to become a problem.” Lifestyle coach Linda Franklin seconded Schwartz’s sentiments, describing her own experience: “As a woman who mothered her husband for too many years, I can report it’s about the worst thing a woman can do. It makes your man lazy, unwilling to be proactive in his own health care, and for the most part a boy who refuses to grow up.”

Breaking the Cycle
Casting off the mother-son mantle in favor of a healthy, equal romantic partnership might be difficult if you’re part of a heterosexual couple for whom that behavior has become ingrained, and accomplishing this goal requires persistence on both parties’ parts, but it’s never too late to start rethinking your roles.

Tips for Women

  • If you have children, it’s easy to fall into an unconscious pattern of lumping your partner in with them in terms of enabling behaviors. After all, the reasoning goes, if you’re putting your kids’ Flintstones vitamins by their cereal bowls in the morning, why not place your husband’s multivitamin by his coffee cup at the same time? Still, this kind of undifferentiated, controlling treatment is dangerous—not only does it deprive your man of the opportunity to develop his own daily regimen, but it also puts your relationship on less equal footing. To restore balance, suggests psychotherapist Tina Tessina to CNN Living, “tell him what you’d like to do to help him, and ask him if he wants that kind of help. This evens the field.”
  • If you find yourself slipping into baby talk too often, Tessina recommends “exaggerat[ing] to make a joke out of it. ‘Would snuggy-uggums wike a widdle kissy?’ followed by ‘God—I am so tired of talking baby talk, but I can’t seem to change gears!’”
  • Too much time babying your loved ones can mean it’s time for an adults-only getaway to press the “reset” button on your relationships. Spend a weekend away with your husband or a group of girlfriends in a place where all the chores are taken care of, so that you can focus on deepening your interpersonal connections, rather than on whether the dishwasher’s been unloaded.

Tips for Men

  • If your girlfriend or wife is treating you like a child, make a concerted effort to counteract her perception by stressing your self-sufficiency. Taking the initiative to perform simple tasks on your own—such as buying toilet paper, picking up a load of groceries, or doing a few loads of laundry—can go a long way toward making her realize it’s silly to think of you more as a son than as her partner.
  • If she’s beginning to exhibit negative traits you’ve observed in her own mother, or that she’s told you she wants to avoid, don’t be afraid to point them out to her. AskMen.com proposes that the two of you agree upon a code word that you can utter when she’s being especially domineering, so that you can bring her undesirable behavior to her attention without embarrassing her.
  • If she nags you all the time, your knee-jerk response is likely to be irritation. But instead of getting annoyed the next time she asks you why you left your soaking-wet bath towel on the bedroom carpet or left a bunch of condiment jars open on the kitchen counter overnight, take a step back and ask yourself whether perhaps the reason she’s treating you like your mother is that you’re truly acting like a child. If the answer’s yes, act your age—and watch how quickly she stops hassling you.

Mother Doesn’t Always Know Best
Fighting deep-seated biological impulses is always an uphill battle, but in the case of heterosexual romantic relationships, it’s important to try. Otherwise, you’ll end up questioning whether there’s any difference between your grown-up husband—who’s ideally supposed to be a person you can respect, depend on, and be physically attracted to—and your fifteen-year-old son, who still can’t remember to put his dirty clothes in the hamper or brush his teeth before bed. Cultivating a healthy, mutually beneficial bond with your partner requires leveling the playing field by having open and ongoing conversations about each person’s needs and strengths, and by resisting the urge to coddle or indulge immature behaviors. Perhaps Sarah Stefanson, relationship correspondent for AskMen.com, put it best: “The person you have sex with should not remind you of the person who gave birth to you.”

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