Sat, Dec 30, 2006 - Page 9 News List

When sons become men, a pivotal rite of passage takes place

By Rose Rouse  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The king of the roost eventually has to face competition from the next generation at home.

It happens in a dozen different ways. He's inching above you, then one day he's taller than you. He's better than you at soccer, he's discovering sex and you're not. It's that difficult moment when a father is displaced by his teenage son.

Howard Blumenthal, 55, recalls that moment in his relationship with his 18-year-old son, Jackson.

"One Saturday evening, I opened the door to Jackson's girlfriend and she said, `Is he upstairs?' At that moment, I realized with envy that this young woman hadn't come to see me, she had come to see my son. That was a bit of a shock," he said.

In those few seconds, a pivotal father-and-son rite of passage had taken place. The baton of manhood was passed from father to son. As something drew to a close for one, it was only just beginning for the other.

"I saw Jackson slightly differently after that," Howard said. "He became my son who was possibly sexually active. Somewhere inside, I had to acknowledge that he was taking a step into manhood."

Not that there was any kind of conversation about it afterwards. The household -- Howard, who runs his own textile business, Jackson, his 16-year-old son, Jaspar, and his wife, Laura, a theater education officer -- just carried on as normal. But, secretly, Howard was having an internal talk with his younger self.

"A feeling of loss and nostalgia descended on me. I acknowledged to myself that my own days of sexual exploration were over," he said.

Over at a wedding reception in a groovy bar on London's South Bank, another father-and-son rite of passage was taking place. Malcolm Bennett, 52, was there, accompanied by his son, Tom, 15. Malcolm has the slightly faded good looks of a once good-looking man, whilst Tom is the young pretender.

Between them, they managed to attract a couple of twentysomething Argentinian women.

Somehow -- father and son stories differ -- Malcolm got distracted, and Tom ended up with both women on his lap. Father and son treat it all as a bit of a joke, but it's clear that Tom is on the brink of a takeover, and Malcolm is ceding power, particularly in the sexuality stakes.

Tom lives in Bristol, England, with his mother, and visits his father -- who is single -- whenever he can. They hang out together, a bit like mates, but the balance of power is subtly changing.

"I take him to Borough market, introduce him to my mates in nearby pubs," Malcolm said. "We might do an art gallery too."

Malcolm said he sometimes feels twinges of envy.

"I envy him the opportunities with women that I didn't have. I was good-looking but I didn't realize it," he says. "But I'm not sad. I love it that Tom knows he's good-looking already. At 21, I had a beard like Dostoevsky to hide my face. He's confident at 15."

Familiar

In these emotionally literate times, we are, it seems, increasingly familiar with the tensions in the relationship between menopausal mother and teenage daughter, as explored by Kate Figes and other writers.

But the equivalent tussle between middle-aged father and teenage son is rarely considered. According to the psychotherapist and author Malcolm Stern, it's because men find it difficult to confront their father/son envy.

"Envy is around for fathers," he said, "and it is focused on their sons' increasing opportunities for sex with women, which usually comes at a time when these fathers are getting older and are perhaps in long-term relationships, therefore their own opportunities are decreasing. But these feelings are much less admitted by men than women. For men, it is still taboo to discuss this type of envy."

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