Fathering Blind

As a child, like all my peers at the time, I believed in the children’s book idea of a family. Even our teachers peddled the same ideas of a nucleic family consisting of a father, mother, and children, any deviation from this ideal was seen as unique and far from a “real” family. I had a friend whose father passed away when we were eight and he became an example for one such “unique” family set up. Overnight he ceased being Tinashe and became that kid without a father. Everyone looked at him with pity and changed the pitch of their voices whenever they spoke to him. No one wanted to play tag or chikudo, as we called it, with him anymore because we all feared he would break. I for one pitied him and was glad I wasn’t in his position. Little did I know, five years later I would join Tinashe’s elite club.

My father passed away in a car accident when I was twelve. Apart from the tragedy of losing a father at such an early age, the segregation I was going to be subjected to occupied my mind. Where I grew up losing parent was like having leprosy. One was ostracised and left to walk home alone after school and playing games with the guys was just out of the question. I guess it can be attributed to either the naive understanding of death that we had or simply that kids just weren’t that nice where I came from. Back then being friendless was the biggest and most detrimental side effect of losing my father. As I grew older I realised that growing up without a father had some other far reaching consequences that went beyond being picked last or not being picked at all for a game of street soccer.
Now as an adult I ask myself just how much growing up “dadless” will define me as a husband and father. Common knowledge and popular tradition dictates that boys grow up to be the husbands and fathers that their fathers set as examples. The examples my father set during his presence went largely unnoticed at the time. I was under the naive impression that when the time was right my father would sit me down and say “Son, get a pen and paper, I’m now going to teach you how to be a man.” Unfortunately for me, his life was cut short before that day came. The only example I had left was my mother. One can argue that I also had my uncles to look up to but apart from the occasional phone call and odd visit, I failed to get the advantages that would be gained from constant contact.

My mother found it difficult to cope alone with three kids so she employed the assistance of my unlucky-in-love Aunt Magdalene (four marriages and six kids unlucky). The oestrogen levels in that home were off the charts. For a boy who had just entered the confusing maze that is puberty this was far from ideal. With the lack of a male guide to help me through it I was left to my own devices and the shoulders of my peers to lean on. Everyone had their two cents to put in and I distinctly remember a young man who went by the nickname Mhungu. Those who had the misfortune of attending back-of-beyond boarding schools will agree that great story tellers were revered and venerated. Mhungu would beguile and dazzle us with tales of his holiday sexual exploits. The man would describe the female anatomy with such poetic accuracy that we could all paint a picture. If indeed all his conquests were true he must have bedded at least twenty six girls during the four years that we shared a dorm room. We would clap and unanimously agree that Mhungu was the epitome of manhood during those days. Unfortunately this was an idea that would deeply embed itself and stick with me through my adolescence and into early adulthood.
All through my encounters and experiences I had only my mother to look to for parental guidance. Obviously I was unable to speak to her regarding the more intricate issues of male adolescence but she was the only example I had. Bless the woman she tried so hard to fill that void. The fact that she worked as a Sexual Health Counsellor for an NGO really made our discussions all the more awkward. She found it difficult to deliver the raw facts of STDs without the added emotional burden of having to deliver them to her own son. As I left for college instead of giving me a knitted sweater or quilt to remember her by she gave me a carton of condoms. A carton, containing 75 packs, each containing three latex condoms, that’s 225 units. I guess she thought that’s what fathers did for their first born sons as they went off into the world. Her being without a husband and me being without a father we just made up the rules and expectations as we went along.

During early adulthood I was crippled by the feeling that I did not know the first thing about being a husband let alone a father. Having only the example of being a good mother I felt I had no practical example of a good father. Yes I did have memories of my father but my so called mature understanding only dismissed most of what I remembered as romantic impressions of a father sugar-coated by the eyes of a child. So I was in limbo and stole time by believing that one day a bright light from the heavens would shine on me and induce an epiphany that would reveal all the secrets to me. By the time I left fantasy land I was twenty nine, had been in a committed relationship for five years, but had not made any solid plans to put a ring on it. Even then I was still not ready to be a father and husband.

The fear of failing my wife and children crippled me into delaying the inevitable. As I realised that time was no longer on my side, the epiphany did come, without the bright light though. I realise that I had gone about the wrong way. I realised that my father didn’t have to hold my hand all through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood for him to have set an example. From the so called romanticised memories I have of my father I managed to sift the following out:

I do not have a single memory of my father being violent towards my mother. If they ever fought they made certain it was never in front of us.

Lesson: Never raise your hand against the mother of your children or any other woman for that matter.

When I was nine we lived just behind my school so it took me ten minutes to walk there through back street connections. I would get so jealous when I saw other kids being driven to and from school by their parents. I nagged my father asking why he didn’t do the same since we also had a car. Even though he tried to explain that the purpose of us moving so close to school was for him not to have to drive me there and he finished work late so by the time he was done I’d be home already. Still I refused to understand this. One afternoon I walked out of the school gates to find him waiting for me. He had got of work early just to come and drive me home.

Lesson: It’s your children’s job to dream and it’s yours to make them come true.

I was a very inquisitive child and always had questions about everything. From what incest was, to why the whole world went to war twice, to who gave all the colours their names and how he came up with them. My father always had an answer ready. If not he made an effort to find out before I forgot the question all together. This was before Google so he invested in a complete set of encyclopaedias for reference.

Lesson: You are to be an inexhaustible well of knowledge for your children.

My father helped me assemble my first BMX. He taught me how to fix a puncture on my tyres, he fixed my back pack zipper whenever it wouldn’t close and how to replace a blown out appliance plug.

Lesson: You must be able to fix anything.

My father was always there to help with my home work, attend my school activities, and even watch Brave-Star and Voltron with us. The only time my father was unavailable was on Sunday evenings while watching English Premier League soccer on TV. Apart from that he was ever present and the only time he went AWOL was the day he was in that car accident.

Lesson: Always be available.

My aunt had her wedding nine months before my father passed. My mother was heavily pregnant with my youngest sister at the time and it had been a difficult pregnancy. During the after party at my grandparents’, my mother got into an altercation with one of the uncles and retreated to her mother’s bedroom balling her eyes out. When my father heard of this he came like a freight train shoving all the elders in his way. He stormed into the bedroom and picked my mother up. As the uncles protested at his disrespect he merely pushed through them and put my crying mother in the car and drove off.

Lesson: You are Superman and you protect your family against any and all threats at all costs.

These are just a few of the lessons I picked up and will most definitely implement and add more to them. And even though I viewed my memories of my father as romanticised and fantastic, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t children have fluffy and dreamy visions of their parents? It’s when they don’t that something is wrong.

Being raised by two over protective women did however have side effects. I cried when Nicolas Cage died in City of Angels, I can carry a twenty litre bucket of water on my head; I know how to braid hair and could change cloth nappies since I was fourteen. I just hope I won’t smother my children and find that balance between over and under parenting.

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I, Man (Part 2)

After a period that felt like eternity, I was thrown a life line. It was a junior entry level position that I was exceedingly over qualified for. Just as junior as the position was, so was the salary that came with it. I felt underutilized and underemployed by being there. I always saw myself as modern man with modern world views. Just not about masculinity I’m now embarrassed to say. Truth be told one cannot ignore the cultural changes that have come about in terms of the traditional gender roles in the world and African society. Now women hold offices as high as those of their male counterparts and have shattered the age old position of being lower on the social and economic totem pole. Women are just as tenacious business people as men are. That economic gap that used to exist between the sexes is quickly closing and it is not unusual to see a female CEO of a multinational company. This is a product of the global feminist movement that has fought to give women a foothold in the global economy. Women are now waiting later to get married if at all in order to work on their careers and some prefer to be single mothers who are well capable of providing for their children. These occurrences add to support the fact that ladies do not have to marry a man for financial stability anymore. Like Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin said way back in the day, “Sisters are doing it for themselves”.  However those who do want to have male partners still prefer to have to have financial equals or better still one in a better position. Every woman is a princess waiting for a knight in shining armor to slay the dragon and carry them away on his white horse, even if they absolutely don’t need one.

Being under-employed really throws a monkey wrench in those works. Lynnett and I had been dating together for seven years before we got engaged for a further three. I had no intention of keeping such a long engagement but my economic situation forced me to keep pushing back the marriage date. The toughest part of it all was having to see just how much the rest of my peers had zoomed past me at lightning speed. I also saw just how much my situation impacted negatively on other aspects of my life. I withdrew from friends and family. I was once a very outgoing character but just receded into a shell. Having to look at all the disappointed faces of all who thought I was going straight to the stars was a just too much for me to bare. In addition I never really got to experience or enjoy my early young adulthood because I spent the better part of my twenties trying to dig myself out of a muddy financial pit. All in an effort just to justify my manhood.

Instead of allowing the darkness that is self-pity completely consume me, I dug deep into myself and found what I had lost, my masculine energy. I worked twice as hard as all my workmates combined and made sure that my efforts were noticed. And after 8 months of blood sweat and a cocktail of both I was promoted two levels higher than my pay grade. When I saw my new pay check I wet myself with the overwhelming sense of self achievement. I finally earned more than my wife. I felt like my testicles were growing back and filling up my sack again. I wanted to buy a frame, have my paycheck, title and the letter detailing my perks enlarged and hung up for all to see. It was at this point that I felt like I had just received my invitation back into the elite club of “Real Men”. Men who used a paycheck to take care of their business. Most of all I wanted to tape it to my manhood and rub what I perceived as piteous looks from my wife right in it and yell “I’M THE MAN IN THIS HOUSE, WOMAN. AND HERE’S THE PROOF!”. I felt proud and was the king of my castle all over again. But in the center of all that celebration I felt an even deeper shame for feeling that way.  Lynnett never took my manhood away neither did she belittle me for earning more money than I did.  If anything she was my loudest cheerleader and was nothing less than patient, respectful and knew exactly what to say to inflate my ego to the right levels.

Through various discussions with friends, strangers, elders and internet forums I realized that I was not alone. I represent a whole generation of products of a society that calibrates a man’s worth by the number of zeroes on his bank statement. This has become the modern day interpretation of the olden day powerful physic and manly aggression when it comes to the working class swagger. All is well however as long as those zeroes are not outnumbered by the ones on his wife’s. As much as the world has changed now that there is more economic parity between the sexes, I cannot escape the fact that a man is the head of the home, the breadwinner, protector and provider. The inexorable fact is that all these are tied into being gainfully employed. I know marriage is supposed to be a fifty-fifty situation. I know Lyn loves me no matter how much money I make. I know my paycheck doesn’t make me Alvin. I know there is a whole lot more that makes up the essence of a good man than how much bacon he brings home. I know all these things. But Is simply knowing these things enough to realign perception of manhood? Are we as African men lost on the fringes of and ever changing world as we hold on to the century old constructs of masculinity? And ladies what do you expect from the men that share that share your lives?

I, Man (Part 1)

I was a man or at least I thought I was. I am the offspring of a society that has strict definitions of the essence of masculinity. For as long as I can remember, for a man to be a fully-fledged member of the species he had to be an aggressive protector and provider. The spear wielding hunter however has evolved into a morning commuting being with electricity bills and taxes to pay. So instead of being rated by the size of the animal flung over his shoulder as he swaggers into the village after a hunt, such calibration is done by the size of his monthly after tax pay check. I believed and put a great deal of stock in this definition with no reservations as this was the wisdom of the elders which was beyond contestation. After safely satisfying the criteria, I was Superman and nothing less than a tonne of Kryptonite could slow me down. Well the tonne of kryptonite did hit me recently. Lynnett, my wife, had a simple word that summed up all that I was now coming to grips with. She called it REALITY.

I’ve always gone through life believing in a fundamental ideology, hard work always pays off. This idea was shoved down my throat so hard and so frequently by parents, Sesame Street and teachers alike, it became doctrine. This was the integral belief that our growth and development as boys was based upon. A man had to sweat early in life to set up a foundation for his future family life. The progression of life, fuelled by hard work of course, was to be as follows: Primary school, high school, college or university, good job, financial security and stability, date, get married, then build and support a family. That was the order I was to follow which was passed on from generation to generation. Only then would I earn the title of and respect of awarded to a “Man”. However through all this indoctrination not once did I consider just how much my environment influenced my success or failure. In fact failure was never an avenue I explored since hard work was the guarantee.

So I went through life blinkered and beaming with a false sense of security. I breezed through high school and went on to college. Yes I did engage in a lot of inane activities but I worked hard at my studies just as much. I was recruited while I was still in college by a leading Hospitality group to join their management training program. I aced it in a year and was appointed assistant manager in their flagship hotel. Life was good at the tender age of 25. It was at that time I sat back and took stock of my progress in the natural order of life. Primary school, check. High school, check. College, check. Good job, check. Financial stability, check. Then came the fun part, dating. Very methodical I was.

Through various encounters I came across a variety of ladies all with one thing in common, they all appreciated an economically viable man. Not that I’m saying they were gold diggers, far from it. In the context of larger social and economic changes that obviously caught me napping, the sex I always viewed as fairer had developed to become equal players. Most of the ladies had their own careers and led well established city lives. They really did not need a man to “save them” or protect them. However the mere fact that I was able to pick up the full tab even though they suggested we go Dutch made me all the more attractive. During this period there were a lot of discussions that revolved around the dynamics of dating and relationships. Since I was on the desirable end of the spectrum I was a strong opponent to the whole “love, trust and companionship first” argument that guys of derisory means were peddling. Love never put food on the table; neither did it ever pay rent. Even though there were all these shifts in social order, the fact was a man’s worth was still quantified almost exclusively in financial terms. His ability to think about and face Valentine’s Day or his partner’s birthday without flinching was of paramount importance.

It is from all this chaos that I started dating my now wife. She was a marketing executive for a vehicle tracking company and she had her own apartment, property and was about to buy her own car. Still I was on a moderately higher financial position so according to the wisdom and word of the ancients, I met the criteria. Soon I realized that simply earning a moderately higher salary than that of my female partner was just going to cut it. There had to be a significant chasm that separated us. The difference just had to obvious. I jumped onto the entrepreneurship band wagon and started my own business with eventual fat dividends in mind. I was still holding on to the adage that “hard work always pays off” so I hit hard at it. Things got off to a slow start then picked up 8 months into the venture. That ladies and gentlemen was where it all ended. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and still my business did not take off. It was then that I started questioning the mantra that I lived by. Maybe I was being naïve in believing that the hard work ideology existed in a vacuum but it had carried me that far. I put my blood sweat and tears into that business but still the fruits of my labour were never truly realized. After toiling for some time at it I put the business on hold, swallowed my pride and decided to return to the world of earning a pay check.

Unfortunately for me, that world was not as welcoming as I was willing to embrace it. I struggled to find any meaningful employment after my two year hiatus. I was so confident in my experience and qualifications that I did not expect too much resistance. Life on the other hand had other plans.  I applied for positions that I was well qualified for and given my experience I would have been a perfect fit. However letters of regret came from all directions and in ridiculous amounts, I was drowning in them. By the time I came up for air I had not been gainfully employed for close to a year.

At this point all the things I believed defined me as the man I had worked so hard to be had slowly eroded. My confidence slowly faded and I didn’t feel I fit the bill of the alpha Male any more. For somebody who was as proud as I was to be a man this kind of lifestyle was never an option for me. Lynnett, who at the time had assumed the role of the breadwinner in our home, was an angel when it came to this issue. She kept me propped up by continually stroking my ego and telling me that my pay check did not define me. I was a good hard working man whose qualities out value any paycheck I may receive. Soon I took her words to heart and settled into the role of a man whose wife brought home the bacon. I became an avid proponent of feminism. Somewhere along the line, the little voice in my head told me that I was simply trying to cover up for my own inadequacies as a man. That’s when I realized just how much my situation really bothered me.

I will continue the saga in my next post. Till then…keep healthy.