Jay (not his real name) is a 25-year-old musician who was raised by a powerful, strong single mother. His father was a poor role model, and remained absent from the time Jay was a little boy. We met at a workshop his mom hosted for empowering women. When Jay learned I was a dating coach, he came over to talk.
“I need help with dating,” he said. “I know how to be in touch with my feminine side, but I have no idea how to be a man.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. I began to consider all of the single moms I know, including myself, who are raising boys without a strong male presence. What is the long-term impact?
Jay agreed to be interviewed so I could learn more about his experience. He’s an incredibly articulate, self-aware young man, struggling with his masculine identity. He was open and honest, and at the end of our interview, he confessed that he learned a lot about himself.
My Interview With Jay…
What were the benefits of being raised by a strong mother?
“My mom gave me a strong sense of my feminine side. For my masculine side, I’ve had to learn by watching other men with their sons and daughters. About two years ago, I started floating in this ‘what is being a man’ question. I turned 25 in December, and I thought, “I have so many questions I would love to ask my dad but I can’t.” Being raised only by my mom, I watched her make every single decision because she made every decision for me and her.”
Did your mother reach out to ask for help?
“We don’t have any close family around who would help. We handle everything ourselves. I am lucky to have a few close friends who support me if I’m going through any kind of crunch in my life. I didn’t know how to ask for help, because my mother did not ask for help enough. She reached out to cousins when I was young, but they didn’t help. My mom has opened our house to relatives, but it was not reciprocated. So it taught me to give and let go and not expect anything. Even your family can be disappointing. My mom also tried to get help from friends, but that didn’t work out well either.
I learned you have to take the good and bad from people. She exhausted her asking. I had to have babysitters–all female–in my life. All my influences were women, including my cousins, because I have very few male cousins.”
What does your ‘feminine side’ mean to you?
“The feminine side is nurturing and compassion and caring, which I got from my mom. She taught me mental and physical strength. I was a tough kid growing up. I had difficulties in school with bullying, and my mom was there to defend me and keep me from being removed from the public school system. I was considered the weird kid.
My mom taught me critical thinking under pressure because she has had to make tough decisions under pressure.”
What does ‘masculine’ mean to you?
“Men are taught to be more like a bull than a horse. Horses work well with people. Bulls attack, are aggressive. Horses are nicer than bulls.
I lived with a bunch of guys a few years ago, and it took me a long time to get used to it, because it was unfamiliar to me. Men are disgusting! I like to keep everything clean, and these guys had no sense of cleanliness. I had to learn how to be aggressive. It was like being in a dog pound. We were fighting for couches and shower time! At parties, I had to turn the macho on, but I didn’t like being like that just to prove my masculinity.
I didn’t know how to identify with that. I’ve always been searching for the ‘man thing’. What does that feel like? I would watch an Oprah segment asking men the moment they felt like a man. They would say, when they had kids, or the first time they were on their own, etc. I need to categorize it for myself.
For me, being a man is just being a good person.”
Was there a pivotal moment in your life that showed you had strength you didn’t know you had?
“I struggled a lot with identity growing up. I was jumped and picked on and felt that the public school system did nothing for me. I spiraled out from my teens to my early twenties. It got so bad, my mom finally told me I had to leave. My friends in the South were nice enough to take me in. There were days when I didn’t eat for 4 days. I was there for 5 months. There were times I couldn’t shower because it was too filthy in that house. I asked for food because I didn’t have food or money to eat. I learned humility.
I was stripped down to nothing, and I learned that I had strength and courage to deal with this part of my life, which means that my life wasn’t as bad as I thought. I refused to make this lifestyle permanent. My mom and I reconnected, and she had a greater understanding of who I am as a person. I gained wisdom, courage, and humility from this dark part of my life.”
Do you think your mom’s ‘super hero’ competency robbed you in any way of your ability to be self-reliant?
“She gave me room to do me, but she did so much for me, I was spoiled up until I was about 20. She then pushed me for more independence financially. When I was 12, she taught me how to make breakfast. 100 messed up pancakes later, I made a good one!
When I was a little older, I started making dinners, easy stuff. I find the kitchen to be so peaceful. If I wasn’t doing music, I’d be in the culinary arts. Cooking calms me down.
My mom wants me to have survival skills, like how insurance works, how a mortgage works, how bills work.”
What do you picture as the ideal masculine that you want to step into?
“I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with muscles and six-packs. It’s still very much a blur to me. If I could answer that question, I could work towards that. I don’t know how to identify it at all. I’ve had very little male interaction in my life. There should be an elective in high school on life skills. There are so many like me who are way worse off.”
Who are your male role models?
“Jay-Z. I always thought he was so cool. The way he walked, spoke to women, conducted himself in interviews. As a kid, I would imitate him. He was my biggest influence. I also like Kanye West’s ability to speak out on what he believes in. I also like his fashion sense. He’s a great public speaker. I’d love to be a public speaker some day. To be clear in my thoughts and not give long-winded answers–that’s a goal of mine.”
What issues have you had when dating?
“My therapist told me I have a ‘knight in shining armor syndrome’. I like to save everyone because of the pain I’ve been through. I’ve also been more emotional than most men my age and have been accused of being too soft, too emotional. I’ve been told; ‘You’re acting like a girl.’
My mom taught me to treat women with respect, like holding the door. I used to take things way too personally, and I’ve learned not to. The women I’ve dated were unstable. It’s a clear mirror for me. I attracted unstable women, which made me erratic. It made me feel very blank at the end of the relationship. Most ended in a ‘hurt locker’ type of way, instead of me identifying the problem and leaving the relationship. I tried to find the one great thing about a woman and held onto it. I learned that sex is not the answer. It’s temporary, just like getting high, when it comes down, you’re back to reality.
I was jealous of my roommate who was a scumbag and literally would shit on women. He drove fast cars, had jewelry, was friends with rappers, and he attracted gorgeous women. This dude doesn’t look better than me! The girls would get turned off by me and turned on by him.
One Valentine’s Day, he had different girls every hour until evening, and his main girlfriend for the rest of the night. The girls were lined up like people waiting to buy an iPhone. How was he able to do that, and I was a gentleman and not having success with women?”
Without a strong male role model and a very strong female presence in his life, Jay knows how to be kind, sensitive, warm, and caring. He is doing work that he loves, and he has good life skills. I think he’s going to be just fine when he starts dating more self-aware grownup young women, instead of women who want to date men who treat them poorly, like the ones who lined up for Mr. Valentine’s Day.
What do you think are the long-term effects of strong mothers who are raising young men without a strong male presence? Have you experienced this, or do you know anyone who has? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
This post previously appeared on goodmenproject.com