On “Mama’s Boys,” and How Calvin Loved Alice

A couple of months ago, S remarked on what she thinks is a pattern of mine. One besides the whole dates-flaky-boys-who-can’t-behave-like-normal-human-beings thing.

“You kinda have a thing for Mama’s boys,” she said.

We didn’t get into what exactly defines a “Mama’s boy,” but I immediately saw her point.

It’s true: many of the men I have dated/attempted to date/been attracted to in the past few years have had unusually close relationships with their mothers. I hadn’t thought of this as a negative thing: I always consider it kind of sweet when boys talk to their mom on a regular basis.

Then again, things have not worked out with most (okay, all) of the men I have dated/attempted to date/been attracted to in the past few years. Perhaps, I thought, this was not unrelated.

But I didn’t think too hard. Occasionally I actually heed the advice my former therapist gave me not to focus so much on what’s wrong with me when it comes to relationships.

I was interested, though, when, on the phone last night with M–the sometime DC love interest I still talk to–he raised the issue.

“My roommate went off the other day about how she can’t stand Mama’s boys,” he told me. “What do you think about that?”

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, telling him about S’s theory of my pattern–one in which, we both acknowledged, he rather neatly fits.

Not, he was quick to tell me, according to his roommate’s definition–by which a “mama’s boy” is a guy with no will of his own, a guy who not only talks to his mom frequently but obeys her every word.

“I’m not like that,” M explained. “I mean, I talk to my mom a lot, but I don’t always listen to what she says.”

I know this to be true. If this were true–and I’m speculating, but suspect M would agree–his behavior towards women would be considerably different.

I’d like to think that if all the guys I’ve attempted dating who were close with their mothers had listened to them more, they would have behaved differently, too.

But I digress. “So why do you think that is?” he asked. “That you’re attracted to guys like that.”

“I really don’t know,” I told him. “The only thing I can think is that a guy who worships his mom is going to hold all women to her standard, which is probably unattainable. He’s going to be disappointed by anything less. Maybe I like men who find me disappointing.”

The thing is, I told M, that I like to think that I want to be with a guy who totally adores me. But, as we know, what I like to think I want is very often not the same as what I’m attracted to.

I was reminded of this later last night, when I got in bed with a copy of Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice”–the breathtaking extended elegy to the wife he spent a career characterizing, as he puts it, as “the mom–the voice of reason, the sensible person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of her marginally goofy husband.”

Alice once mocked him, he writes, for portraying her–a blonde so glamorous she sometimes modeled–as “a dietician in sensible shoes.”

It’s true, but the thing is that, if you’ve read Trillin’s essays, you know how immensely he adored her. How he always seemed to be in awe that someone like her would choose someone like him.

Which is why, upon her death, he was flooded with letters of condolence from people who knew her only from his writings.

Trillin talks about these letters in the first chapter of “About Alice.” And he says he got numerous ones like that “from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought ‘But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?'”

That line has stuck with me ever since I first read it. If there’s going to be a bar, that one is pretty high. But shouldn’t it be? Don’t we all deserve to be loved the way Calvin loved Alice?

I know I want to want to be be loved that way. But my patterns would seem to suggest that I don’t.

The other thing about Mama’s boys, M and I discussed, is that they’ve spent a lot of time hearing how wonderful they are: the adulation, in other words, tends to be mutual. Often, in the eyes of their mothers, mama’s boys can do no wrong.

Which might help to explain how much they often do.


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