Are there any more heinous words to apply to a young man than “apron strings” and “mummy’s boy”? Boris Becker didn’t quite use either in his recent sneer at Andy Murray, but he did announce that Britain’s number one was “maturing slowly” and that the proof is “how close he is still attached to his mother, Judy”.
Miaow! Following that, a torrent of media joyfully used the apron-string words and excoriated Mrs Murray for watching him, punching the air, doing his management chores and — temporarily — standing in as coach.
The criticism seemed a bit misplaced. She was a Scottish champ herself once, taught her small boys and supported them as juniors — parents have to. But many onlookers seem to prefer mothers of starry young men to stay home, occasionally looking up from the knitting to say vaguely, “Well done, dear.”
Otherwise they’re “pushy” and “dominant” and stand accused of making their children live out their own dreams.
Some, of course, do — whether in sport, showbiz or academe. They are like Mama Rose in Gypsy, or the mad touchline soccer-moms and amateur Tiger Mothers whose children we rightly pity. But others are just reasonably helpful: even in tennis, Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis and Monica Seles were coached by parents. And even if the Williams sisters’ dad Richard seems over the top, you can’t deny his influence has worked. Interesting, though, that we seem to be more comfortable with parents supporting daughters than when a mother does the same for her son.
The old mummy’s boy jibe cuts deep: any of the sneerers who look up for long enough from the sports pages could find the father of psychiatry Carl Jung going on about the male hero’s need to escape the “whale-dragon-mother” who saps his strength. Becker is clearly a bit of a Jungian.
But where’s the line between helpful patron and whale-dragon-mother? All women have to find it once their children start winning prizes. How proud should you be, how much should you urge and sacrifice, how overwhelming should your interest and support be?
In theory it’s an easy call: never be more ambitious than the child, never assume success is for ever, don’t take credit, listen to what they really want, never let their victories be essential to your own self-esteem. And above all, accept it if they decide to give up. If Andy Murray suddenly decided to retrain as a librarian, Judy Murray would just have to handle it. And probably could.
But in practice, it’s not that easy. Sons in particular are a mind-altering drug for many women, from the moment they shoot up tall and you gaze up and say, “Whoa! I grew that great big bloke!” When they start bringing home trophies and being swooned over it must be heady indeed.
You have to be careful. So I applaud sensible Mrs Murray for saying that if Andy wins a Grand Slam she’ll celebrate, but “if he doesn’t, well, we’ll still be there”.
Meanwhile, there’s no harm in punching the air.