It’s hard to believe that Mtuseni’s been back home almost a month — and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the visit. Judging by my lofty standards, it wasn’t a rousing success. Then again, when you anticipate something for almost four years and play out in your head how wonderful things will be when it finally occurs, there’s bound to be some dashed expectations.
When he finally got his US visa this spring, I had pictured the visit as a valedictory lap for both of us — with Mtuseni about to start his final semester, an educated, engaged, and intellectually curious young man on his first trip abroad… a shining example of all my hard work with him. Instead I encountered a quiet, wary kid full of defenses and snap judgments, the whipsaw moods and sullen countenance of a 15-year-old, and a smoldering scowl that would scare off a pit bull.
It was confusing and maddening. Where was the warm, funny kid I chat with every day across six time zones?
There are many answers to that question. Friends who are parents have helped provide insights into the tormented travails of raising teenagers and young twenty-somethings. It’s encouraging to hear that many of them have wanted to throttle their post-adolescent kids, and found themselves thinking “Who the fuck are you? What crazed, evil being has hijacked the spirit of my sweet, loving kid?”
I also take (grudging) comfort in the fact that Mtuseni’s behavior toward me demonstrates a level of trust that is only reserved for a parent. Yes, I agree with everyone’s assessment that he’s testing me. (But did he need to do it on a first-time visit that cost me thousands of dollars?)
The other day it dawned on me that Mtuseni is playing out this delayed developmental psycho-drama with me because his father walked out before he reached his teens. Pushing back at me, ignoring me, scowling at me, simultaneously fearing and loving and hating me — this is what he needs to do to forge his independent identity as a man. And although a big part of me wants to throw up my hands and say “Fuck this! I don’t need this shit” — it’s what I signed up for, whether I realized it or not. I suppose it was naive and foolish of me to think I’d take on the role of father and blithely avoid any of the real down-and-dirty aspects.
This classic father-son conflict is only one layer of a very complex puzzle that’s forcing me to think through some realignments and new strategies as the picture comes more into focus. He’s not at all where I thought he would be at this point. There is still a lot of work to do to get him prepared for life in the grown-up, professional world.
When I offered to put Mtuseni through school and go all-in on being there for him, I knew this thing wasn’t going to be a sprint. I was expecting a marathon — and envisioned his trip here as the beginning of the last celebratory mile. But evidently this is more like one of those insane ironman triathlons, and we’re just wrapping up the swim and getting ready for the 100-mile bike. I’m tired, stressed, and want my own life back. But I’ll do whatever it takes for Mtuseni, because I love this lunatic SOB. I’m just hoping this isn’t a decathlon.