“Your son should NEVER ask me to do anything for him EVER again! I’m not taking him to karate, I’m not helping him with school work, I’m not even going to buy deodorant for his funky ass! From now on, YOU raise him!”
My eyes blazed. My heart thudded wildly against my rib cage. My nostrils flared wide like a war horse panting for its next essential breath. Meanwhile the target of this outburst, my husband, looked up from his laptop with the disinterest of a man who had just been told that sparkling water was out of stock. Would he prefer still? Either would do, he might say in reply.
“I’ll talk to him,” Marshall sighed; and off he went.
I don’t know what the two of them spoke about, and I didn’t care. For the next 15 days, I passed my son in the hallways of our home in stony silence. If he came into a room, I left it. Some days he wouldn’t come out of his room at all. I refused to knock and check on his welfare. Somewhere in the previous two years, my beloved boy had turned into boar, goring his way through my fragile emotions and dismissing my efforts to ensure his happiness. I had had enough. He wasn’t just mean to me. While all four of my children are bloodthirsty jokesters, their constant ribbing at one another is good natured, in general. However the boy made it a point to be particularly cruel to his sisters at every opportunity; seizing on their deepest insecurities and refusing to stop his jabbing until it was clear that damage had been done. When he began hitting his sisters (who, being my daughters, hit him back) I gave him a simple warning.
“I will beat the shit out of you if you ever hit my girls again.” I kept my gaze cold and fixed, daring him to test me.
Could I take him? Probably not. While we were matched pound for pound, he’d been taking martial arts classes for 3 years by that time. The only way to take my own son out would be to fight dirty: A good chop to the throat or two fingers to the eyes, potentially blinding him like he was some thug in the street. The hitting stopped, but the verbal abuse continued. I wish I could say that my house had been turned into a “war zone”, but even wars have rules of engagement. This was all out guerilla conflict and it was every boy/girl/woman for themselves. It was taking its toll on all us. For me, the effects were physical. I began to turn grey rapidly and I just looked…sad.
Finally, there would be a break in our dynamic. My two eldest girls left to finish their studies in America, creating some physical distance from the steady unpleasantness. The night before she left, Aya said the sweetest thing I have ever heard anyone say in my defense.
“Stone and Liya…if you kill Mom while I’m gone, I will come back to South Africa and kill you.” The pair of them giggled in response. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not playing.”
A lot happened in the months that followed. Of course I went back to driving Stone to karate and of course I picked up soap and deodorant for him when he needed it. These became acts of duty instead of love and it was obvious. As with all combat, things came to a head with an explosive, devastating event: In this case, the night Stone eavesdropped on the three of us talking about the brewing toxicity of our family in general and him in particular. (I will spare you the details that you are not owed anyways.) In the aftermath, a family meeting was called, punctuated with many tears, screams of fury and frustration, moments of pregnant silence and mumbled apologies.
“I love you to death, Mom,” said Stone. His voice was strained.
“I love you too, son.” It should have felt sweet to say these words, but they tasted of bile. I knew this feeling. This was the blossoming of the same relationship I have with my own mother, a mighty tree with roots that go to bedrock soil. The fruit it bears is copious and bitter. I made plans that night to lay my axe to it.
What should come next for my son and I?
I knew well from experience what could come next if I – being the adult – did not take positive action. For the two years of our troubles, I made excuses for hormones, bad friends, Andr3w T@te and the manosphere…I thought if I mothered him enough, my devotion could compensate and overshadow all of those influences. However, the solution lay in the outburst I described to you at the beginning of the post. I had to let my son go. I had to sacrifice our relationship, such as it was. I had to become someone else to my boy so that he could continue to be the son I wanted him to be. I decided to become his friend; or at least, be a lot more friendly. To my pleasant surprise, he has taken to the idea very positively. We discuss hip hop and video games. He takes great pride in his afro, so I show him the best products to keep it healthy. After I tweeted about his appreciation for a conversation featuring Prof Patrick Lumumba, Aldrin Sampear DM’d me and asked if he could have Stone on the show. He mentioned how his conversations with me have begun to influence his world views. Last week, we took our new relationship out for a spin and started scuba lessons together.
The scuba lessons have been great for many reasons. We get to joke and laugh about the impossible task of getting into a wet suit. We get to spend uninterrupted one-on-one time together either in comfortable silence on raucous conversation. But more than that, we are neither mother nor son when we are in the water. We are two novices in the water, looking out for our individual welfare and that of the other. On every scuba tank, there is a regulator that supplies oxygen for yourself and another if a friend is in trouble. I saw Stone check and re-check for the location of the latter. I am confident that if I was ever in trouble, he’d make sure I was safe. (Or he could’ve been checking to make sure he didn’t put the wrong regulator in his mouth. We won’t know until I’m drowning.) Above all else, Stone has been exposed to a different kind of masculinity. Our scuba instructor, Aiden, is a gentle, patient man. He is quiet, and competent and kind. He left a lasting impression on us both.
“Bro. Aiden is so nice,” Stone whispered when we put our gear away.
“I know, right?”
“Man. He’s so different from our family,” he laughed.
I snickered. You could say that again.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him again,” he said absently. His admiration was obvious.
I watched my son’s hair, now sodden with pool water glint in the light of the sunset. It was the first time in many months that I’ve seen him look at peace. Whatever internal battles he’d been struggling with felt like they were melting away. Maybe he needed to see a different version of the man he could become. Maybe he needed to break out of his routine and test his potential. I don’t know. I haven’t had the courage to ask him, lest I ruin the magic.
All I do know that our once simple, happy middle has moved and I am committed to taking steps to walk towards it.
* I wrote this article for all the moms who are struggling with their early teen and teenaged sons. You may feel like a failure, like you’ve done something wrong because the boy/mom relationship has been so widely romanticized and most of us have bought into the fairy tale. It’s not going to be perfect all the time. You may be in a rough patch now, but it’s just a patch. Keep watering and fertilizing the lawn. The grass is greener where you stand…it’s just unseen, underfoot.