Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men
by Peggy Drexler Ph. D.
A review by Michele Pridmore-Brown
Until very recently, males guaranteed the legitimacy of a child. Without male
ownership, a child was a bastard -- and its mother either a hapless victim or
a harlot, depending on one's viewpoint. The mother was all too likely to slip
down the socio-economic ladder; the child was likely to grow up in poverty; both
mother and child were marginalized by society. In addition, modern conventional
wisdom has it that a fatherless male child is also compromised psychologically:
that a boy without a father figure is in a fundamental way psychically unmoored,
resulting in perpetual immaturity, irresponsibility, gratuitous aggression, criminality
and a host of other ills that affect society at large.
Currently, in the United Kingdom, nearly 25 per cent of families with children
are headed by a lone mother, and in the United States that figure is moving
towards one in three. That makes for a great many boys potentially marred for
life. For some leaders, these figures evoke the spectre of civilization careening
to ruin via youth violence and instability. Raising Boys Without Men
could thus hardly be more timely. In the US, it has already received a great
deal of media attention -- in part because it so cheerfully and expertly dismantles
several centuries' worth of conventional wisdom on the subject of fatherless
Peggy F. Drexler argues that, in the modern world, boys may do just as well
in fatherless families as in conventional ones -- with the caveat that other
things (such as income and mothers' level of education) be equal; this is of
course a huge caveat -- and one that is often overlooked. Most single-parent
families are still poor. Compare them to two-parent middle-class families and
there is a big difference. However, compare middle-class families headed by
one or even two women with conventional middle-class families headed by a father
and mother, and most of the differences evaporate - that is, in terms of children's
psychological well-being. Drexler goes even further. She argues that boys coming
out of some family configurations have an edge in the races of the twenty-first
century. According to Drexler, female-headed families created by design (rather
than default) are predisposed to produce the considerate problem-solving men
of the next generation.
Over the course of several years, she followed the lives of over thirty boys
and their families (and of a group of controls of the same socio-economic class
but raised in traditional homes with both a mother and a father). Her boys'
families were headed by single mothers "by choice" and lesbian mothers
-- both small but growing demographic groups, especially in San Francisco, where
Drexler conducted her research. These boys were on one level privileged: their
mothers were mostly older educated professionals who could afford to give their
sons music and chess lessons, and who could raise them in classier neighbourhoods.
The fathers, however, were absent, in most cases known to these boys only as
anonymous sperm donors, in other cases as actual people but far removed from
the current of their own lives.
Drexler mixes jaunty descriptions of the boys and their families with sociological,
psychological and demographic analysis. Her book is lively. She describes kneeling
on toy-strewn floors with the younger boys to play with Lego, and picking up
older boys from school while surreptitiously observing playground dynamics.
Her subjects are garrulous -- on the page they seem remarkably perceptive. Drexler's
overall verdict is that, compared to her controls, these boys were more emphatic
towards others, more likely to engage in negotiation over aggression, and more
aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.
At times, Drexler makes lesbian motherhood sound like the forerunner of the
most evolved kind of parenting. (Drexler describes herself as a heterosexual
happily married mother of two.) The "maverick" mothers in her sample,
she writes, were more "deliberate in how they responded to their sons and
more thoughtful about the constraints of society" than her controls. They
were not passive women, and this was reflected in their mothering styles. At
young ages, the boys were knowledgeable about the constructedness of familial
relationships, particularly their own. Raised to embrace difference, they were,
predictably enough, more flexible in their identities, more likely to think
it was fine to sport fingernail polish at the age of five, or to be a good cook
and gardener at ten or fifteen.
And yet, as Drexler repeatedly insists, her subjects were "all boy",
as if impelled by an inalienable biologic imperative. The sons of lesbians in
particular had a heightened interest in sports and sports heroes. Some of the
boys felt the lack of a father, others did not, and one or two noted that fathers
could be a liability. Clearly, identifying with or trying to please a father,
especially a violent or authoritarian one, has its downsides; it would seem
that the boys in Drexler's study had greater freedom to follow their interests
and to choose role models with desirable traits.
This does not mean that their family configurations did not produce problems
of their own. Some of these are minor (these boys are vulnerable to teasing),
and some are comic. Consider twelve-year-old "Kenny", who was sent
away to camp only to promptly acquire a girlfriend (sons of lesbians, it should
be noted, are heterosexual in the same proportion as the population at large).
This girl came from a devout Southern Baptist family, and Kenny had deduced
that, given the girl's background, his chances were better if he discreetly
elided one of his mothers. Family mayhem ensued when both mothers found out.
Duly contrite, he eventually told the Southern Baptist family the truth, but
only after the girl had visited with her family and the two mothers had strategically
turned themselves into gracious hosts and perfect tour guides. The relationship
weathered full disclosure -- to Kenny's family's evident satisfaction. Drexler's
book is full of vignettes like these, mostly with happy or at least satisfactory
endings; and they are satisfactory precisely because these "maverick"
mothers seem, almost by definition, to have an independence of spirit and an
What about more serious problems? I wondered, for instance, about the break-up
of lesbian households, but in Drexler's study the families remained intact.
I also wondered about the perhaps stifling over-involvement of single mothers
by choice; many of these mothers, however, seemed especially eager to establish
patterns of independence -- perhaps for their own sanity as well as their sons';
they also actively cultivated extended family members.
At the end of each chapter, Drexler makes simplified statements about how "maverick
mothers" parent their boys and what they can teach the rest of us. But
this heavy-handed attempt to translate some fascinating and accessible material
into "teachable" or "media-ready" nuggets is too didactic.
Nor are all these insights and understandings the exclusive province of non-conventional
Clearly the ranks of alternative families are destined to grow on both sides
of the Atlantic, especially as women gain ever greater professional footholds
and thus the wherewithal to make economically viable families on their own.
Drexler's book provides more evidence that poor single mothers may not be suffering
so much from lack of a father, as from lack of emotional and practical skills
needed to parent effectively. In short, in poor families, financial resources
and education may do more than a man in the house; moreover, a violent antisocial
father can be far worse than no father at all.
Drexler is anxious to make the point that fathers do matter enormously -- but,
no longer, it would seem, as holders of a name or of legitimacy or as fixed
models of manhood. Rather, they matter for their parenting, not for their gender.
If Peggy Drexler's book is any indication, boys raised in alternative families
-- in which relationships are not given but actively forged -- will be particularly
well equipped to fill these parenting roles in the future. Raised to be flexible,
emotionally intelligent and socialized to connect rather than to dominate, these
boys may well prosper better on average than their peers.
Michele Pridmore-Brown is a scholar at the Institute for Research on Women
and Gender at Stanford University. She is working on a study of the biopolitics
of late fertility.