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Dear Single Mom: Listen, I Was Your Son, I Get It

07/28/2014 11:01 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2014

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I know it's hard to be a single mom. Though I've never been one, I have been the son of a single mom. We went through an awful divorce (their divorce) together, and we survived. We're partners in survival. And still, there are a few lessons that we went through, that *perhaps* I can help with. So your son doesn't have to experience the same issues later on in life. (I've written about this before, see: Listening to the Little Man Inside)

1. Her champion. Her knight in shining armor. Her protector. Her counselor. Her comfort.

While this is the noble message inside every son's heart, it is the wrong focus for him. While it might feel good to have him attempting to be chivalrous and overly protective of you, this is not his role. This is an empty bonding that will have consequences later on as he individuates from you. He will often feel like he still needs to be your champion. He will make choices based on protecting you, rather than taking care of his own needs. Take a step back from your champion and release him.

2. Her greatest achievement. Her reason for surviving the divorce. The reason it was "all worth it."

Your son is probably awesome. He is struggling a bit, but achieving great things. Fine. Give it back to him, and don't make it about you and your success as a single mom. Let him have his success without the echoes of your efforts and how you too have struggled to provide this supportive and loving environment for him. Of course you are providing support and love as best you can. And either his Dad is in or out of the picture. But don't make his success about you. Don't claim a joint victory. He's not your champion, nor is he carrying your colors into battle. He will have battles aplenty for himself. Let him carry his own banner into battle.

You can cheer him on, without needing to join in the glow of his wins. And the same holds true for his losses. Let him have them. Loss is part of life. And learning to deal with loss (yes, even the loss of his fantasy family life) is part of growing up. Let him lose, let him cry, let him be defeated. And from those ashes be there when he rises back up to face the next challenge. I know it's hard, but the more you can stand by as a supporter rather than a cheerleader or apologist, the better off he's going to be at facing the next challenge without fear of losing. And really, without the fear of losing and disappointing you again.

3. Her sacrifice.

You son is not your sacrifice. He is not the reason you have carried on, nor the reason you choose not to reenter the idea of having a relationship for yourself. You son is merely a part of your joint story. Don't make your survival or heroic efforts about him. Even if they appear to be about him, keep that observation for yourself and your therapist. You son NEVER needs to hear of your sacrifice. Nope. Don't put that hollow trophy in his already-heavy backpack of life.

4. Her focus.

Get your life in order. Let your son have his life. If you focus too much on him and his happiness two unfortunate things happen: 1. he comes to depend on your energy and praise for his own happiness;  2. he begins to feel that his happiness is somehow connected (re: responsible) for your happiness. Please don't link these two things together. You are your focus. Your son will benefit most from your healing and recovery. He will learn the most about surviving tough circumstances by seeing you survive and ultimately thrive. You cannot bring him happiness, but you can show him what happiness looks like. And remember, your happiness is NOT about his happiness. It feels that way. It hurts that way. But that projection is for you to work out with someone else, not with your son.

5. Her hopes and dreams of a better life.

Of course you want a better life for both of you. Of course you might have preferred a better dad, a better marriage, a better family unit. But you've got to move on now and prepare for your life. Your son is along for the ride, but he is not the driver. Nor is his happiness and success your goal. You might think it is. You might hyper-focus on your son's joy and success. But you must really learn to focus on your own recovery and return to joy. Your hopes and dreams for a better life must come to life in actions and not just words. You must show your son your commitment to YOUR happiness by doing what needs to be done for you. Trust that he will come along for the ride you are providing. You are the driver. Don't try to ride shotgun. Lead, drive, take charge of your life and show what healthy recovery after divorce looks like.

6. Sons and Lovers.

All through my life I have struggled with my relationships with woman. Go figure. Guess what, it's a universal truth. And it's NOT MY MOM'S FAULT.

That being said, it does have a lot to do with my relationship to my mom. AND my relationship to my dad. It's all about family of origin. That's okay. But don't wrap your son too tightly in the swaddling clothes. Your job is to set him upright, give him healthy encouragement, and let him go. Your job is to do everything you can to get healthy yourself and not color your relationship with your son by overly depending or guiding him.

With my mom, I am still looking for her approval. I am still a tiny bit attached to her happiness as part of my mission. It's not a huge thing. I've taken as much of it as I can to therapy and learning to let go of those little boy expectations and dreams. But we're still in this story together. Of course we are. Sons and Mothers are always connected. Your son will always be yours. But you have to let him go as early as possible to let him develop independant of you and your struggles, hopes, and dreams.

My Truth

Get clear for yourself, and your family will follow your healthy example.

I tell you these little bits of my story not to say "I'm right," but to give you a possible glimpse into what your son is going through, and will continue to work through, for most of his adult life. It's okay, we all have family of origin stuff to deal with and process as adults.

And I can guess these few truths about you, even having never met you.

  1. Your son is so lucky to have you, and he knows it.
  2. Your energy and love are not wasted. He IS growing up to be a fine young man.
  3. The pride and confidence you show in your son is the pride and confidence he will have in himself.
  4. Your son comes first. Before yourself, before a next relationship, before your dreams are your dreams for your son's health and wellbeing.
You ARE doing it right. AND there are a few insights that might help you hear his struggles and back off just a little bit from overwhelming his own natural determination to grow and survive in spite of the hand he's been dealt.

Take One Step Back

Take one step back the next time you want to overly defend your son. Take one breath before rushing in as he's dealing with issues. Give his little spirit time to develop. (Even with less of your "inspiration and help," he will get there.)

Breathe. You *are* in this divorce and journey of mothers and sons together. If you can take a tiny step back and allow your son to face the world alone, with you at his side (maybe slightly behind him), he will be stronger and more ready to face the world without you.

My heart goes out to you, and to my mom. And to the boys after me who are struggling to find their identities with absent or withdrawn fathers.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent [And check out the rest of the story on The Whole Parent.]

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references: image: house for an art lover - series, jean-pierre dalbéra, creative commons usage