Debts Boys Who Grew Up Like Me Are Afraid To Talk About
Sometimes, I wonder how I will father my children someday when I’ve never had a template to work with, a stencil to trace my being and my idea of manhood. Will I have it in me to sit my son atop the bonnet of my car and ask if school’s good when I never had that growing up? When my God is pleased to make these prayers a reality, will I be a good and open enough dad for my daughter, such that she feels she can run to me first with any problem weighing her down? History always returns to the place it’s sent away from, and I fear the same will befall me. It’s one of my hardest prayers. I pray because I’m a boy born into debt, and what I know about debt is that it takes what you love most dearly. I am aware of how my on-off relationship with my dad has left me with this debt tagged on my soul, reminding me how inadequate I am, how unequipped I am, and how difficult it will be for me to wear and fill out the shape of what a healthy man is supposed to look like – a man of sound health in heart, mind, and spirit.
The first debt that daunts me the most about taking on the future is if I can be enough. I care nothing about doing. To be a man, I feel, is more about being. But what’s ‘enough’? What does being ‘man enough’ even mean? It’s all over songs, movies, podcasts, books, and poetry, but for me, no writer has put forward an answer as straight as their sentences. Even those who try to break it down, the Andrew Tates of the world, end up being reductionist and unhelpful, and olden-day philosophers are too abstract for clear understanding. In those odd days when a conversation with my dad flowed, he’d always follow up some life lesson about being a man with, “Ukuba yindoda ke loko.” (isiZulu for “That’s what being a man is.”) To which I’d just sit there dumbstruck while his words clouded my mind with confusion. How could I learn what it is to be a man when my teacher was hardly around to hold any classes for me to attend? How, as a boy, do I find a healthy way to be a man when the men around me are a library of disorganised and outdated books out of touch with the modern world?
It bothers me not knowing. Or at least not having a complete understanding.
Not knowing how much I should pour into my wife and kids someday says a lot about how empty I am as a cup. Or maybe it’s not that I’m an empty cup; perhaps I’m ashamed, honestly. Ashamed that I have little to give as a man or that what I know is wrong. After all, if there’s a right way to be a man, then surely there has to be a wrong way, too, and I don’t want to be on the latter side. As I get older, I feel this hope-consuming dread has already swallowed me and that I’ll never find my way out of its stomach – that I’ll never be man enough in a world that demands so much from Black men while expecting so little from them, on top of thinking little to nothing about how they feel about that. Hell, I’ve seen Black men more moneyed, more established, and more put-together in life than I am chewed up and spat out. Every time these thoughts tap me on the shoulder, the feeling of not being enough becomes as inescapable as guilt.
I remember this one time, one of those other rare times I spent with my father. We – Dad, Ma, and I – were sitting at a table, and he gestured at all of us seated around the wooden table and said, “Ukuthi uyangithanda noma awungithandi, anginandaba. Mina ngifuna inhlonipho.” (isiZulu for “I don’t care whether or not you love me. I only want respect”).
Just like that, he’d told us he couldn’t care less about whether or not we loved him; our respect was all that mattered to him. I feel, beyond our misunderstandings and generational clashes, that the translation of what love means was the barrier that kept my father and me from truly connecting. I don’t know how I’d feel inflicting such pain on my child, putting them in a position where they felt their love didn’t matter and, as a result, meant nothing to me. What kind of fatherhood is that? What kind of humanity would I be passing on? That respect matters more than love? Shouldn’t the two walk hand-in-hand instead?
As a man still becoming, still growing, still evolving, I’ve already sat down and made peace with the reality that I am in emotional and mental debt and that it’s going to take years to pay off. I hope I’ll be able to because not everybody can – it’s one of those things I trust will reach the mailbox of the pearly gates after signing them off with an “Amen”. Will I be able to make peace with that reality on time so that I can build a home – so that my house won’t inherit my father’s heart now beating through my chest because I struggled to do the healing? But like I always tell my friends, with kindness, when they don’t know where to start talking about that wound that tears a little when they move: start where you can.
Another debt I fear will take away my future is the way I tend to mismanage emotions. Sometimes, I notice in myself an inability to work around emotion, which is weird because I feel everything so deeply, so I’d assume I have to know. A man should be passionate, not petulant; present, not just providing; proud, not prideful. I say this because I’ve seen husbands who are passionate, yet they curse their wives for the littlest things. I know present dads who are so unavailable that their children feel like unchosen orphans wandering restlessly in their foster homes. Don’t even get me started on proud men who put their pride first, ahead of everything and every duty entrusted to their care as fathers – this is where I’m currently stranded as my father’s son.
Most of the things I aspire to be are things I only see on the TV screen, scripted storylines I wish could be true but that I have a realistic mind to admit will never be and that I should be wise to never reach out for because sometimes hoping just doesn’t cut it. Especially when you come from a humble and quiet place like Pietermaritzburg. Hope sometimes is like a slippery river rock; no matter how much you try to hold on to it, the currents of life will overpower you, and your grip will mean nothing against the waters. Because how does a husband talk to his wife? Is there a certain kind of voice you must use when talking to her, like how you’re supposed to change your tone around your baby? Are there more secrets? Cheat codes? What are they? From where can I learn them? Should I follow my instincts?
I ask myself these questions because I don’t know how much I should give. That’s the problem about being a boy like me, a boy sunken almost up to the neck in emotional debt: I just don’t know when to stop.
How big is too much? I’ve been in relationships where I’d been told I’d given “too much”. Cared “too much”. That I wanted to be “too close” – whatever that means. Such makes me wonder, or at least it used to. I’m older now, and I get it more and more that there’s nothing wrong with me being the way I am. There’s nothing off with being a man who loves to love, who feels deeply, who becomes so vulnerable in love that he can’t feel anything beyond the fluttering of butterflies when her face comes to mind. But I wonder how all of this could’ve been avoided had I had an emotionally and mentally present father to coach me. To help me navigate my emotions as a man. Because I’m only giving as much to people as I feel I should – but how much should I give? Because I don’t know. I don’t know what’s too much, too this, and too that. How do I gauge too much (or too little) to give when I hardly have any adjusted measurements to work with?
When you’re a young Black man like me, sensitive and all, you trip over little things people say and do that make you feel like something’s terribly wrong with you. That there’s something you must change about your settings. You grow to hate your gentle quietness, your way of thinking, your love-seeking style of feeling; you grow so much in despising what you are that what begins as just spite for your qualities progresses into wholehearted self-hatred.
How do I explain it? Like, the longer you live, the more your ‘flaws’ become clearer to see. It’s like that weird moment when you look at your reflection for too long and end up getting all strange about looking at yourself. I had to calm myself after years of thinking there was something abnormal about my sensitive being. Accepting that there’s nothing wrong with being a guy who felt too much, fell too hard, and fought to the death when it came to expressing love. When I say it took years, I’m not going to the moon with the numbers; it really did take that long.
I mean it because even though I’ve embraced it, I’m still fighting it. Still paying off this debt. I got to. Because even though I don’t know what it entails to be a proper and grownup man, I know enough about what it takes to be a good person, and that to get there, I must start by not living in hatred of myself. Love can’t come out of hate.
In all these things, I often think about how my children will see me and how they’ll hear me as the voice inside their heads someday. What kind of voice will I be? I can’t be talking to my children from a place of hate.
So, what kind of voice will I be? Catching myself overhearing conversations between my mind and my heart always has me thinking about how nervous I used to be around my dad. Admittedly, that’s partly the reason I don’t like being around him. Not that I hate him, not that I despise him, not that keeping my distance is a form of punishing him. If anything, my staying away is helping some of my mental scars close up quickly. So, no. I’m just being frank about the impact he’s had on my mind because sometimes I find myself talking to myself the same way he’d scold me. And I’d know it is wrong and talk to myself nicely after that. I don’t want to be like my peers who are becoming men who’d rather open their mouths to consume alcohol, power, and the lives of their women instead of doing so to let out all the inherited emotional debts stuck in them.
How many stories exist out there of boys in debt like I am? Stories of boys who grew up having to dislodge daggers of harsh words from their hearts and men who ended up corrupted by their uncleaned wounds, which infected them until they became possessed and attacked their wives and kids the same way. How many examples exist of boys who lived with the pain of seeing their friends getting picked up at school by their dads or bragging about the new shoes he’d bought them? Out of those examples, how many promised themselves they’d never be like their dads, only for them to end up being exactly what they feared? Not that they turned out that way by choice; that’s just what happens when you have nothing to pour from. I’m scared this will happen to me. I don’t want it to, but that doesn’t stop the fear from breathing down my shoulder, making me feel uncomfortable about trying to be a better person. As if wanting to be the best version of myself is thinking about stealing an heirloom I have no right of even laying claim to or let alone a finger on.
That’s just another thing about this debt I inherited: the fear. The fear itself is part of it. I’m scared I’ll be an incomplete husband, father, and leader of my home someday. How will I be able to give what I never received? Frankly, I care absolutely nothing about philosophy and psychological theories. You know what they say. We all got free will and all. I just have no soul for that. When I look into the cold eyes of my debts, all that goes out the window, and I’m just left there stuck all by myself. How do I reason with myself when I can’t even hear my voice over the mocking laughter and tone of my fears telling me this is my life and this is the best I’ll ever get out of it? How?
How many books have I flipped and libraries have I turned to, to look for the answers, but all I got were references that only opened up more dark questions about myself? Every answer I get is nothing short of a riddle, an agonising maze I exhaust myself trying to get to the other side of.
Sometimes these fears, these debts, haunt me like a trauma. They visit me at the most random times. I’ll be there eating my fifth spoon of porridge, and then it will manifest, and I’ll find myself feeling like I’m eating a spoonful of bile. I’ll be rapping and reading along to the lyrics of Nas and Kendrick Lamar on YouTube, but even that wouldn’t drown the feeling. I’ll be there laughing my heart out, and then it reminds me of something that happened when I was seven. Then that’s it. Fun’s over. And much like trauma, those who are stalked by it are never quite the same people they were before, never quite the people they ever wish to become because they spend their lives looking back instead of looking forward to the future.
It robs me, and it’s a lot. I don’t talk about these things. When I do, it’s usually on my Facebook, with people I’m unafraid to be vulnerable with. Or a magazine, where I know that someone out there will pick up my story, and when they read my experiences, the page will feel like their own chest and the heart in my words like their own beating with experiences they relate to. And I have taken so much time to express myself because men who unwrap their souls and voice their struggles are needy nothings in this world. We talk about our feelings, and people brand us as weak. Emotional. How dare a man have human qualities, characteristics that are degrading and even embarrassing for him to show?
Even with all these debts – these fears – I know who I want to be. And the picture of me that I long to see calls for me to start from ground zero, a blank canvas. Others have or had two-parent homes growing up and hands-on dads. All I have is an inconsistent record from the past and vague ideas from which I have to build a model of what I think I should be. And most of these features are more trial-and-error in approach, an experiment.
There’s no end to this. No conclusion. No this or that when it comes to manhood and trying to figure it out. This is me trying to find my destination by asking myself questions and hoping that an answer will come up with more useful questions that will help along the way. I’m still very much looking. If I am honest, I don’t believe there’s an answer out there for any of this because true manhood is just another faculty in the school of life, a never-ending class in session. How, though, do you pass when you’re a Black boy because you most likely have no study materials in the shape of good role models? How when your lecturers and tutors are absent, too proud, or too toxic? I’ll have to use what I know and what I see. That’s how I’ve had to live most of my life since I became aware of my existence at the age of seven.
From what I know, people think being a man is about having a team to support, knowing how to change a tire, and all that other stuff. Maybe it is; maybe it’s not. Conversely, what I understand is that these things can be done without a boy needing his dad around. So being a man, a husband, and a father has to be a quality, something unseen, intangible but very much there. Like the air we breathe, it’s there, and we need it, and the quality of it has an undeniable effect on our lives.
How many people have breathed bad air, ended up ill, and suffered health complications later in life? And this is one of my fears, that as a sickly boy I’ll become a frail and unsteady man, husband, and father someday. Will it be this way forever? I don’t know. It’s one of the things I not only ponder but that which I actively seek out an answer for and a way to change for the better. But I live in faith, and that’s what I stake my life on.
That’s it. I am just a young Black man giving full vent to his feelings and thoughts because this world has shown me in the silencing of young ones still becoming, like me, just how much it doesn’t care. And I’d like to think true manhood is about looking at yourself and how much you know about it to see if there are any changes you need to make, so this is my way of taking the first step on this quest. And in a way, expressing myself is my version of rolling up my heart and putting it in a bottle, hoping another still-growing man finds it and feels validated by it. That’s the writing. Nothing else.
C. S. Hadebe is a South African writer, speculative storyteller, essayist, critic, social commentator, and editor from Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. He is a three-time Honours recipient for the SA Writers College Short Story Competition, and he has been awarded an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. The Shallow Tales Review named his contribution on Issue 38 as the 2022 Best Essay of their inaugural Best of a Shallow Year selection. A host of his works have been placed in various publications such as Kalahari Review, oranges journal, Salamander Ink, and elsewhere. Additionally, he has appeared in The James Currey Anthology Vol. 1 and 2017 In Focus Anthology, published in the UK and Canada, respectively.
*Image by Abiodun Odu on Unsplash