Abbie Chatfield asked me to explain why raising a son is different to raising a daughter. Here’s the truth.

"Can a parent please explain to me how having a son grow up is different to a daughter growing up?"

This is how broadcaster Abbie Chatfield began her recent TikTok about a viral post I wrote a few years ago, describing what it feels like when your son grows up. It’s back in the zeitgeist this month because a video of broadcaster Amanda Keller reading my post aloud on her radio show randomly went viral, also on TikTok.

If you’re still following this convoluted story then congratulations because there are a lot of steps and too many nouns.

All you need to know is this: I wrote about how watching my son grow up and away from me was like a slow breakup I wasn’t prepared for and how it sparked something that felt a lot like grief.

Watch: Your son growing up is like a breakup. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia.

Abbie Chatfield, who I know and love, read my piece, saw the huge response to it from other mothers of sons who felt the same way and had one big question: Why?

Why do women feel differently about their sons and their daughters? On TikTok, she said:

"Like, I love Amanda Keller, I love Mia Freedman, no hate to either of these women, but this article confuses the f*** out of me.


"Like, it's almost comical how Freudian this is and how bizarre it is.

"Um, this dynamic, I don't understand. I am genuinely asking for an explanation to how it's different with daughters and sons. But this is why so many men, I think, are babied and appeased and catered to and then have these overbearing mothers-in-law.

"Not saying that Amanda and Mia are either of those things, but this normalisation of the way that mothers treat sons is so gross."

My first reaction after someone sent me the video was to be defensive but that passed fairly quickly. It’s Abbie’s job to comment on things she notices in the culture - same -  and I always find her opinions thought-provoking. And that’s not even a passive aggressive way of saying I think she’s full of shit because I don’t. She’s smart as hell.

Image: Mia Freedman with Abbie Chatfield at Mamamia's Sydney office. 


It’s trite to point out that I don’t always agree with her because duh. I don’t always agree with anyone, not even myself from week to week. Abbie always makes me think in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable and I don’t hate that. 

So instead of clapping straight back, I unstacked my dishwasher, had a shower and shaved my legs which is my version of thinking music.

And here’s where I landed:

I’m going to give Abbie the benefit of the doubt and work on the basis that as a 27-year-old woman who doesn’t have kids, she genuinely is baffled by the mother-son dynamic because from the outside, it seems weird.

Why on earth are all these grown women getting weepy about their boys becoming men? And why do these same women seem to give not a single f*** about their daughters getting older?

Let me try to explain.

The experience of watching your son grow up and away from you is different to watching your daughter grow up and to reduce the complexity of that experience to some nefarious Freud thing about sick mothers being in love with their ‘babied’ sons is a little basic.


And while I can only speak to my own experiences parenting two sons and a daughter, who are aged from mid-teens to mid-twenties, I’ve learned that those differences are fairly universal. Generalisations in-coming. Stay with me.

There is a famous old Irish saying that goes: 'A son is a son 'til he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life.'

Put simply, it suggests that boys grow up and away from their mothers while girls stay close. And that as a mother, you are a main character in your son's life until you are ‘replaced’ by his wife because he has room for just one woman in his heart at a time. But no matter whether or not your daughter marries, you will always remain a main character in her life because she will never replace you with a romantic partner. 

Note: It’s unclear whether the saying would be different if your son were to take a husband and your daughter were to take a wife because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal back in ye olden days but I think the principle would remain the same regardless. It’s the finding a life-partner bit that’s the point here.

Like so many cliches and phrases that are embroidered on cushions, there is some truth here, for sure.

In my experience, the crazy, mad love I feel for all my kids remains the same no matter their age - they will always be the main characters in my life. But I’ve come to understand it isn’t the same for them and it would be weird if it was.

They don’t need me to make them breakfast or tie their shoes or fight their battles anymore. They have the internet and their friends and they can drive cars and make choices and decisions I know nothing about. This level of independence was impossible for me to imagine when they were little and I was in the trenches of parenting but now we are here and that intensity is behind us. It’s certainly behind them.


While all children put up fences to keep their parents out, I still have a greater level of emotional access to my daughter, far more than I have to my sons. And the reality of gradually losing that all-areas access really can feel like a breakup. Not because the love you have for your kids is sexual but because it is just so, so big. As big as romantic love, even bigger actually, because it’s unconditional and romantic love never is. 

This, I think, is why the breakup analogy is one so many women relate to because the shape of the love you have for a son goes from being something completely mutual when he’s small to being more lop-sided as he gets older. It changes in a way that’s far more stark than the shape of your relationship with your daughter. 

A few weeks ago, my son did ‘take him a wife’ and that means I may well have turned into one of those "overbearing mother-in-laws" Abbie refers to although I’m trying hard not to. Ask my new daughter-in-law how I’m going and she’ll probably roll her eyes and mention that I cried a lot in the lead up to their wedding which is true. Buckets.

Not because I wished I was marrying him or wished that he wasn’t getting married to anyone (one of the greatest and most unexpected joys of my life is watching my son love and be loved by such an incredible woman) but because a big part of raising a son is making sure that you instil values in him that will make him worthy of a wonderful future partner. 


Your son’s wedding is the symbolic completion of that task and endings of any kind can be an emotional mix of happy you got there and sad it’s over. I cried oceans because the feelings of pride and loss and excitement and nostalgia and joy and relief were overwhelming. They still are.

I’m unsure how I’ll feel about my daughter’s wedding if she has one but I can’t imagine I will cry as much. Not because I love her less but because our relationship is just as visceral in a different way and there won’t be a sense - real or imagined - that I’m ‘losing’ her. I know our relationship won’t change shape.

Years before my son got married - a few years before I wrote that post which made millions of mothers weepy - the process of him growing up and away from me had already begun to wash through my heart. Having gone through it again more recently with my youngest son and talked to countless other women, we all agree that it starts around age 12.

Even though you know this is all a natural, normal, healthy part of adolescence and in fact an indication that you’ve done a good job because if they didn’t pull away it would be a red flag, but, it still hurts like a toothache. You miss them.

While boys pull away around 12 and retreat into their bedrooms and themselves, girls will often hurl themselves forward into conflict with their mothers who are invariably on the front line with no means of escape.

It’s like a contest to see who can push the most buttons the most often. There are no winners and there was no opportunity for my mother to miss me because she never got the chance. I was too busy being a pain in the arse and getting grounded.


So while all mother-child relationships change as they leave childhood behind, the space left by your son’s retreat triggers a sense of loss while the changing shape of your relationship with your daughter is more likely to leave you exasperated.

I’ve thought about this a lot - for a time I thought that it was just me and I was somehow parenting my daughter wrong because we used to butt heads so much more than I ever did with my sons.

It’s not that the boys didn’t shit me but somehow they didn’t push my buttons in the same way and similarly, I didn’t seem to push theirs.

It was a relief to hear so many other mothers say the same thing. I remember my own mother rolling her eyes about the simplicity of my relationship with my father while she and I would clash constantly. I was so much more forgiving of Dad and him of me. He clashed with my brother.

But why? Why is it different?

I think it’s because the relationship you have with a child who is the same sex as you is infused with so many unspoken complications around projection and comparison.

It starts before a baby is even born. Many women hope for a girl during their first pregnancy. We know girls. We were girls. We can do girls. Without consciously thinking it, we imagine popping out mini versions of ourselves and that seems somehow more do-able and less daunting than growing a penis inside you and then raising a boy when you’ve never been one.


Many men would probably express a preference for having a son for the same reasons. Becoming a parent is terrifying enough. At least you know how to do your own sex. This feels like a small but welcome advantage.

After they’re born, if they’re a different sex to you, the fear of the unknown transforms into a kind of purity of emotion driven by a lack of knowledge and expectation. It’s kind of lovely. Since I’ve never been a 5 or 13 or 21-year-old boy, I bring far less baggage and more open-mindedness, more wonder, more curiosity and as a result, probably more forgiveness to the way I interact with my sons.

But every age and stage my daughter passes through is a path I’ve already walked. I made decisions and choices on that path that were often terrible, sometimes good and occasionally excellent.

I had feelings and reactions and I behaved in ways both good and bad and as much as I try, it’s impossible not to bring all of those experiences to my relationship with my daughter as I watch her navigate her own path.

Because that’s the thing - it is her own path.

It doesn’t matter that I was also once a girl or young woman of the same age. Her experience of the world is uniquely her own but no matter how much I consciously tell myself that, part of me will always subconsciously compare her choices with mine and imagine her to be ‘the same’ as me.


And this is where the clash comes in. It’s more of a startle really, every time you’re reminded that your daughter is not you and never will be.

I remember walking through Westfield with my daughter when she was a tween to go shopping together; something I always imagined would be a shared pleasure. "I’m not like you, Mum," she said impatiently as she begged to go home. “I’m different to you. I hate buying clothes.”

My sons never had to announce their differences to me because I never would have expected us to be the same.

Fathers often experience the same thing in reverse; their relationship with their sons as they hit adolescence is usually more fraught than the way they feel about their daughters which tends towards simple adoration for all the same reasons.

Abbie, mentioned Freud and yes, it is certainly a factor, I’m sure. In simple terms, Freud identified a particular dynamic between parents and children: a boy feels that he is competing with his father for possession of his mother, while a girl feels that she is competing with her mother for her father's affection. According to Freud, children view their same-sex parents as a rival for the opposite-sex parent's attention and affection.

Mothering a son is for sure, in some way, an attempt to raise the perfect man. To instil positive values and respect for women and make sure they understand everything from periods to consent. 

Abbie mentioned the word ‘babying’ which I thought was a bit harsh but I think she meant we didn’t hold our sons accountable or that we thought they were perfect and forgave them anything.

Maybe there’s some truth there. Perhaps in a way for us our sons are frozen in amber at the time when we had main character energy in their lives. Perhaps we’re nostalgic for that, for them, those little boys who adored us so ferociously and wanted to marry us.

Yes, Freud. But every mother I know is determined to pay it forward and raise good men. Loving your child madly does not have to mean accepting dickhead behaviour. Just ask my son and his mates about all the times I held them hostage in my car on the way to sport and parties, teaching them about the importance of abortion rights and consent and explaining how to buy tampons for the women in their lives if she needed them to.


They were very keen to get out of the car, even if it was still moving but I like to think my words hit.

So. For Abbie and anyone without sons, I hope I’ve coloured in some of the lines around the mystery of mother-son relationships and why we get so weirdly weepy about our sons in a way that we don’t about our daughters.

Again: it’s certainly not to do with the amount of love or the value we place on boys over girls. And for anyone on the fence about having kids - would recommend, 5 stars - it’s honestly one of the most fascinating, fulfilling, frustrating and fantastic things you’ll ever do. A truly wild ride. Hold onto your heart.

Feature Image: Supplied/TikTok@abbiechatfield

Are you a mum to be or have a little one aged 6 months or under? Take our survey for your chance to win one of four $50 gift vouchers!