Of men, mentors and motherhood

Any conversation between mothers of teenage boys naturally turns towards the vexed question of how to keep them safe.

I’ve written in a previous post of my risk-taking sons. A harm minimisation approach was the only workable solution and (so far) it’s been effective.

For single mothers of teenage boys, the challenge is even greater if their relationship with their ex-spouse isn’t collaborative. Setting ground rules can be fraught if the same rules don’t apply in both parents’ households. Late night curfews and rules about sleepovers need to be agreed on by both parents to be effective.

It’s also not uncommon for the oldest son of a single mother to try to claim head-of-the-household status in his teenage years. It’s yet another mountain to climb in a veritable Swiss Alps of confrontation and negotiation faced by women raising boys on their own.

In his 2018 book Raising Boys in the Twenty-First Century, psychologist Steve Biddulph divides the transition from boy to man into three key stages:

  • Zero to six years: the ‘learning to love years’ (mothers take the lead role here)
  • Six to 14 years: the time ‘when fathers count most’
  • 14 years to adult: ‘when boys need caring (male) mentors and adults in addition to their parents’.
Two young boys playing cardboards guitars

Finding a suitable male mentor isn’t always easy.

Many single mothers of teenagers and young men have to navigate their way through this tricky time as best they can. During my sons’ teenage years, I learned early on the importance of being clear about what I expected of them. Of course, my expectations and the cold hard reality didn’t always align. But my sons were in no doubt when they crossed the line. They did so in the full knowledge of the consequences. These weren’t necessarily punitive; often it was just knowing they had let me down.

Never underestimate the importance your children place on your good opinion of them. Whether by luck or design, both my sons developed a conscience. No amount of hysterics on my part was going to make them feel any worse than they already did after a major transgression.

My response at such times – after working through any feelings of shock and disappointment – was to try to work out a practical way of minimising the likelihood of a repetition. I know this approach is not for everyone, but my family have seen up close the tragic consequences of drug-taking with strangers. My instruction to my boys was simply to never leave anyone behind in a friendless or potentially hostile environment.

So far, it seems to have worked. They are now 32 and 27 respectively. And to my surprise, one of my friends thinks their survival qualifies me to be a mentor to her son. It’s a role I feel honoured – albeit unworthy – to assume. So far it’s been a series of coffee dates, phone calls and one afternoon of helping him clean out his work space. I don’t know how much help I’m being, but the rewards are many, not least of all having someone think I’m capable of the job.

For what it’s worth, here is the advice I give my mentee – and any young man or woman trying to find their place in the world:

  • Get organised.
  • Write things down.
  • Prioritise.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help to do these things.
  • Look after your health, including enough sleep and a reasonable diet.
  • Don’t take on too much all at once.
  • If you’re unsure about taking on a new project, say ‘Let me think about that/I’ll have to check my diary. I’ll get back to you tomorrow/next week’.
  • Honour your commitments.
  • Give some thought to what feeds your soul. Make time to do whatever it is, even if it’s not going to earn you money. Factor it in to your ‘productive’ time, and recognise it for what it is: essential to your wellbeing.
  • Recognise your stress releasers and make sure you include them in your day – bath, run, swim, yoga, coffee with friends.
  • Keep your friends safe. They will do the same for you.

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