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Are British men becoming mummys boys

January 26, 2010

Are British men becoming mummy’s boys too?

The Italian man who can't be prised from Mamma's apron strings is well-known. But don’t say it couldn't happen here

Andy Murray out buying the ironing board

It wasn’t the weekly Sunday lunches at his mother’s house, or that she came round to clean his flat and left food parcels in the kitchen that finally put the lid on Naomi Reece’s relationship with her boyfriend of ten months, a graphic designer. It was the persistent phone calls that he refused to ignore, even when they arrived at intimate moments.

“We’d be having dinner in a nice restaurant when his phone would buzz and he would answer because it was his mother calling,” Reece says. “They spoke to each other several times a day and she had such an influence on his life that it was impossible to compete. He was 33 and she was still making meals for his freezer and checking his post.”

Eventually 31-year-old Reece, from London, ended the relationship. “Now I find myself making mental checks on how many times a man mentions his mother before I think about going out with him,” she says. “It was my first experience of a mummy’s boy and I hope it’s my last.”

Yet “smother love” is far from unusual. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that a quarter of men aged 25-29 live at home, compared with one woman in eight of the same age. Unable to use a washing machine or cook for themselves, they belong to a new generation of mummy’s boys.

Could we be heading the way of the Italians, renowned for their mammoni (mummy’s boy) culture? In Italy, 37 per cent of men aged 30-34 still live with their parents — twice as many as women of the same age — and one of the country’s politicians has lost patience.

Last week Renato Brunetta, the Minister for Public Administration — who admits that his mother made his bed for him until he was 30 — demanded a law to ensure that young Italians leave home at 18 to save them from becoming hopelessly dependent on Mamma’s cooking, laundry and housework. His argument is that they are staying for the easy life and because they like being pampered, but evolve into slackers who can’t cope on their own.

Is maternal protectiveness really such a bad thing? Rob Kemp, author of The Expectant Dad’s Survival Guide, admits being mollycoddled by his mother well into adulthood. He lived at home until he was 24 and says that his mother fussed over him to the point of blind devotion. “I was given preferential treatment over my sister when I was young and never had to wash up or do chores,” he says. “When I did eventually leave home my mum was always there in the background, checking that I was wearing enough warm clothing and sending me little cards to make sure I was OK.”

Now married with a six-year-old son, he sees no disadvantage in his upbringing. “My wife was shocked at how domestically inept I was when we met,” he says. “But I can’t see that it has made me any better or worse as a person. I don’t think I’ve developed a selfish nature or pursued a different career as a result.”

Others think that maternal influence has more bearing. A few years ago Dr Sebastien Kraemer, a child psychiatrist at the Whittington Hospital in London, appealed to the nurturing instinct of mothers in a lecture in which he suggested that mollycoddled boys become more successful businessmen.

Kraemer’s theory was that boys are more vulnerable than girls from the outset: research has suggested that male foetuses are more likely to die in the womb and that boys are three weeks behind girls in their development at birth. From the beginning boys need to be treated more gently and sensitively, he said. If they are, they can thrive and become driven, self-confident individuals who excel. Try to toughen them up as young boys, Kraemer’s findings suggested, and they develop weaker personalities as adults.

This might help to account for the many successful, high-profile men who seem to be permanently attached to their mothers’ apron strings. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese footballer, had his mother, Dolores Aveiro, to answer to when he started dating a Spanish glamour model and then Paris Hilton. Aveiro is said to keep a close rein on the 25-year-old’s social life and relationships.

Simon Cowell’s ex-girlfriend, Sinitta, is said to refer to his mum by the nickname “Look Mum” because of Cowell’s constant efforts to impress her. Colin Farrell, Robbie Williams and Andy Murray, who headed straight to his mother Judy to help him to shop for toilet rolls and an ironing board when he broke up with his longstanding girlfriend Kim Sears last year, are others who seem to have emerged positively from a powerful mother-son bond. According to a survey reported in Psychology Today, 70 of the 100 most powerful men in all career sectors attributed their success to their mothers.

Gaynor Stubboni, a Surrey-based child psychologist who is married to an Italian, says that mummy’s boys usually head one of two ways. “Some males who are over-protected as children grow up to feel that they absolutely have to exert their personality, shout about something, make something of themselves to get away from the stranglehold,” she says. “That is clearly what happens with celebrities and sportsmen who are still strongly influenced by their mothers but have managed to create some kind of distance in the relationship.”

But suffocating motherly love can backfire. One successful man I know was an only child who lived with his controlling mother until he was in his early thirties. Her doting appeared to stem from her own need for attention and affection — and while he played her game for many years, there was resentment brewing. As he moved out, progressed in his career and married, the gulf with his mother became unbridgeable. They were not on speaking terms when she died.

“Some men who have been living under their mother’s thumb buckle under and are worn down by the smothering but others become angry and rebellious,” says Stubboni. “In some cases the closeness of the relationship can be suffocating and destructive and the adult man has to shut the door on it to an extent.”

Stubboni says that, in her experience, Italian mothers are often aware of their indulgent behaviour but, having devoted their lives to bringing up sons, they panic at the thought of an empty nest. “They have this deeply unsettling feeling of ‘what on earth am I going to do when they leave home?’, so they cling to their sons for as long as possible,” she says.

Psychologists have also suggested that young boys naturally crave attention and often struggle more than girls to articulate their emotions, which can elicit an overprotective response from their mothers. “There is a cycle of boys needing attention and mothers being eager to provide it and to be accepted by them as they grow up,” says Dr Lynne Jordan, of the British Psychological Society. “There may indeed be a fear that her son will reject her as he gets older, but a mother also feels good when a child presses the right buttons and a behaviour pattern is set in motion.”

The normal parenting instinct is to step back and re-evaluate a child’s development over time, adjusting approaches to him or her accordingly. However, many protective mothers claim to be shielding their children from discomfort and emotional pain during school years and adolescence. Gayle Hubble, 45, from Berkshire, admits that she wraps her two sons, aged 13 and 11, in cotton wool.

“I am over-cautious and do a lot for them that other mothers don’t,” she says. “They have never made their beds or washed up and I drive them to their different schools every morning, even though there is a bus and a train that they could catch. I don’t let them meet friends on their bikes as I worry about the traffic. I want to protect them if I can and their social development doesn’t seem to be suffering. But I am conscious that they shouldn’t become wimpy mummy’s boys. It’s such a difficult balance.”

The psychological consequences for some mollycoddled children can be considerable. Last year, one Italian mother appeared in court accused of being so overprotective of her 12-year-old son that she impeded his social development: experts claimed that her behaviour was tantamount to child abuse.

Social workers claimed that the mother, from the northeastern Italian town of Ferrara, insulated him from normal life. He went to school but took part in no after-school activities, played no sport and was not allowed to see friends. The mother, who separated from the boy’s father when he was born, and his grandparents were charged with “aggravated ill treatment”.

If a child has been raised to believe that life is an easy ride, reality can be a rude awakening. “As we grow up, to learn and develop we need to be exposed to difficulty and some pain,” says Stubboni. “We can’t deal with everything that life throws at us if we are not prepared in any way for emotional discomfort.”

Relationships provide the acid test. Kemp says that although one girlfriend expressed disdain at his mother’s behaviour, none of his other relationships has been affected by it. Yet Lynda Hockin, from Berkshire, says that being married to a man with an overprotective mother was insufferable. “I don’t know who was worse, my ex-husband who lapped up the attention or his mother who used her maternal skills to boost her flagging self-esteem,” the 49-year-old says. “We divorced largely because of his mother after 15 years of marriage. He moved straight back in with her and she now does all his washing and ironing, makes his bed and pays his bills, even though she’s in her late seventies.”

Mummy’s boys can be considerate, good communicators and empathetic listeners. They remember birthdays and will be generous with flowers and gifts. Even so, they often struggle to find “the one”. The problem, says Stubboni, is that they may embark on a futile search for a woman to replace their mother. “It can’t happen,” she says. “You can’t marry your mum.”

I was no match for mum

It was a beautiful summer’s day, Ben and I had been going out for six months and his mother had cooked us both lunch, which we ate outside.

As usual, he teased her about being slow to catch on to his joke. “Oh Ben,” she giggled. “You’re always so mean to me.” She blushed.

“No I’m not,” he protested, equally thrilled.

I realised in that moment that his mother didn’t just love her son, she was in love with him — and that, to paraphrase the late Princess of Wales, I would always be the third person in the relationship.

“When they come to manhood,” said D. H. Lawrence of his protagonists, William and Paul, in Sons and Lovers, “they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives.”

This was certainly the case with Ben.

In many ways, the writing was on the wall from the start. He talked about her incessantly, even during our first date, in a childlike and awestruck way, while at the same time keeping us apart. And when one day I asked him why he never took me to his mother’s home (his parents divorced when he was a teenager and he rarely saw his father), he squirmed and changed the topic, as if hiding a secret. Yet he spoke to her every day, without fail — even when we were on holiday.

Ultimately, after a year and a half, he ended it, saying that he “just couldn’t commit”.

I often ask myself whether I could have done anything differently. Should I have been less confrontational (I once told him that he was a mummy’s boy — a fatal error, according to many a therapist), more subtle, more understanding? Ironically, I think it was because I reminded him of his mother (strong, bright, professional) that he fell in love with me. But in the end he found that he had to choose between us — and he chose her.