We have all heard stories of a young boy’s extreme attachment to his mother. But the attachment between a son to his Greek mother, or rather a Greek mother’s attachment to her son, takes on mythic proportions. Take my Theia Maria, the Kefanolitisa for instance. Even if her son is close to 40 years old, still living at home, she does not leave him alone for more than five minutes. When he is out on a random coffee date with friends (male friends, of course, to say nothing about female friends) she calls him incessantly. If he is gone for too long, (too long meaning 2-3 hours) she starts the hysterics—“My God! Something has happened to him! Where is he?—and then she frantically calls his phones, “Yie mou, paidaki mou, agori mou, where are you? I can’t live without you. You are killing me. Come home.” She resorts to all forms of emotional blackmail. She has made it plain as the light of day that she will settle with no one but a “parthena,” a virgin, for “to yioka mou.” She has embarked on a new quest—to find the ideal woman for her son. Putting aside the fact that in this day and age a virgin is hard to come by, even in the event that she were able to locate one who would pass her high standards, how would she guarantee that she were a virgin? Is there still a test for virginity, I wonder? Her virgin requirement has in a sense precluded her finding an eligible bride for her son. Her case would make Freud shake, rattle, and roll in his grave.
She is not the first case of extreme mother-son attachment that I know of. Another acquaintance I knew, a Greek professional who was about to marry a Catalan woman in Barcelona had to deal with the “mother drama” the day before his wedding. Apparently, even though his mother had agreed to the union (she had gotten on a plane to attend the ceremony), when the actual moment came to see her son go into the arms of “another woman,” she locked herself up in the bathroom and threatened to kill herself if he went ahead and “left her.” Placed between a rock and a hard place, the groom made the logical (and emotionally healthy) choice (thank God). He excused himself but said, “I love this woman; she is the closest I could find to you. Therefore, I need your blessing to marry her.” Needless to say, the mother, with this highest form of flattery, extracted herself from the confines of bathroom after she fainted and had to be dragged out. Six years and two grandkids later, she is quite happy although she does hold the symptoms of the stereotypical mother-in-law who constantly makes overt and subtle critiques, both, about her daughter-in-law’ housekeeping, cooking, child rearing, etc.
The mother vs. wife love triangle that happens to most men is universal (I believe). But what happens in Greece and in Greek culture in the Diaspora regarding the mother-son attachment has become a stereotype. Greek mother’s consciously and unconsciously hold an inordinate emotional control over their sons, and vice versa, the sons to their mothers. I have embarked on a quest to find various opinions for why this is the case.
My cousin, Smaragda, seems to hold one view. She feels that because the relationship between women and men as married couples in Greece is far from equal, the mother-wife channels her emotional needs to the one male figure she can dominate in her life—her son. It is because women in general cannot find intimacy, understanding, or happiness in their relationships with their husbands, who as far as Greeks go tend to be very patriarchal, proud, and distant, they transfer the need to control and dominate onto their sons, both as accommodation and as revenge. As Greek women also tend to be proud, independent with an excess of will power as much so as their male counterparts, and due to the fact that they cannot conquer their husbands, they turn to the one playing field they can– their sons. This serves both as satisfaction for their pent-up energies as well as a subtle form of revenge in the battle of the sexes—“I might not be able to control my husband, but I can control an extension of his, my son.”
Dimitra Demetriadis, a Greek-American psychologist living and practicing in Athens for two years, disagrees. The attachment that Greek mothers have with their sons is strong but is typical of the “normal” development to be found in other cultures, particularly other Mediterranean cultures. She dispels many of the psychological stereotypes attached to Greek families. She maintains that the Oedipal complex is a normal part of the family drama and is fairly universal in most societies, just as the Electra complex, the attachment a young girl feels towards her father, is. The only difference is that we do not harp on the Electra complex as much as the Oedipal. They are equally as strong and pronounced, yet one gets more attention than the other, making it seem as if it is more prevalent.
She does distinguish, however, between the Oedipal complex and the controlling mother, “narcissistic parenting” type as she calls it. While the Oedipal complex tends to extend to most cultures and families, the controlling mother syndrome is a pronounced Greek phenomenon, Dimitra states. While narcissistic parenting exists in both American and Greek cultures, it is a disorder that fits much better in Greece because of the tight emotional bonds that Mediterranean families promote. The ties that bind are much tighter here so independence is not perceived in the same way as it is in America. “Parents push their children to have a life, but there is no hurry,” Demetriadis states. So the question I had whether to view the extreme controlling behavior of mothers towards their grown sons as dysfunctional or just a product of the cultural context from which it exists, was somehow put to rest. Mothers can be so controlling partly because they are expected to be. Demetriadis says this sort of controlling behavior can be found in other cultures where the family bonds are very strong, such as Latin American and of course, our next door neighbor, Italy. Italian mothers, she claims, can be worse than Greek and have been known to administer corporal punishment to their sons and husbands from their domestic position of dominance.
She did shed some light on the flip side of mother-son relationships, the struggle for independence between Greek fathers and their sons. While there comes a point in both cultures when sons reach the age of manhood and have to “fight it out” in terms of male dominance, there is a difference as to what that fight looks like. In the American version, the two males cannot rule the same nest, so they have it out more aggressively and the son usually moves out and moves on. In the Greek version, due to a combination of the bleak economic forecast for financial independence for youth and the tight familial bonds, the Greek father and son have it out but there is an implied victory to make peace. The father sort of lets the son know, “I’ll let you win, but just between the two of us, we know that I let you win because I’m really the winner in this fight.”
Demetriadis points out to other cultural differences in the two countries that impact relationships. For one, there is no physical space that demonstrates an external attainment of emotional independence. In Europe and in Greece, when finding and affording your own apartment is much harder, families are packed into apartments with five or six people trying to make space and save face. The economic realities of the Greek recession also make it impossible or at least extremely difficult for young people to prove their autonomy by moving out. “Out of five people, two might have jobs and of those they might be part-time jobs cleaning houses or working at a supermarket,” Demetriadis explains. “The jobs we as Americans get at 15 or 16 so that we can make our way are the jobs Greeks get once they finish with university at 22 or 23.” It’s understandable that your mother (or father) might feel compelled to control you, to do your underwear, and shop for you under these circumstances.
So, is it fair to think the controlling mother syndrome is dysfunctional, that the independence-seeking ideal we have in the States is superior? “You can’t judge and say one is better than the other,” Demetriadis explains, “you have to look at each from the context of its own culture.”
Alright, BUT I do still think my Theia Maria is over the top.