August 3, 2013 — 7 Comments

JP hilltop pic July2013It’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.

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7 responses to Ironman


    wow. i applaud you for everything you have done. Keep up the GREAT work and good luck!



    Michael – you are SO SPOT ON with the challenges of raising a teen today! I’m teared up because you hit on all the sore spots I had this spring in raising a teenage daughter. I have felt so often like I’ve missed my mark – like we are so far behind other parents and teens. My oldest is an average kid in an above average family with above average friends. That leaves her feeling frustrated and feeling “less than” most of the the time. In short, spring was hell. She’s probably a year behind neurologically — and in all ways good — a few years ahead socially, which means at worst and best she ‘s perceptive beyond her years which deepens her self awareness and sadness and her connections with others.

    You’re psych take on Mtuseni and you and his background could not be more accurate. Teens push just when we pull in that stride towards creating themselves separate from our image. So often I have just struggled to keep my kid on track academically and emotionally since regular classes won’t do for her. She wants to be in the higher classes with her “social” mates (she’s fluent in German as well as Native English–from spending summers in European schools) so she does have social and cultural advantages… but we spend so much time just passing the high level classes that I have to wonder what is lost of fun? Of living? Or of the higher intangible lessons I had so long thought I’d share with my children about social justice/ family history / sense of community / life lessons / the environment / spirituality / helping others (she has no time for volunteering–which may further trash college entrance, etc.).

    Additionally, the emotional support aspect of democratic parenting…knowing when to step in and ask the leading questions, when to let them constructively fail, when to not say something, when to walk away, etc. has been a very trying learning curve… and the ultimate fear of wondering if they will have enough skills to survive in this world, ultimately find their way when it’s time, indeed rocks so many of my late nights.

    As frustrating as it is, your story with Mtuseni sounds very normal to me given my parenting experience and early teaching experience in remote Native villages in Alaska, which suffered from sanitation, cultural transition, addiction and parenting issues. In working through losing my daughter’s amazing piano teacher this week, I tripped over some quotes to share with my children about dealing with change, frustration and loss. Reading this post made me remember being drawn to these quotes this morning. Hang on Michael. The hard part might be over soon. It might not. And maybe you don’t want it to be either. Challenges keep us thinking. Keep us alive. Blessings – Renee

    “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
    ― Rumi

    “Forget safety.
    Live where you fear to live.”
    ― Rumi



    Also, not to mention that culture shock alone of coming out of a more rural / depressed geographical/cultural area, crossing time and cultural zones into over-stimulation, alone could have caused any one or more of all the behaviors you so adroitly identify here…



    Thanks for the perspective and kind support, Renee. A friend who has older kids told me a while ago “I don’t think you know all that you signed up for.” It’s true. And I’m trying to be some idealized, loving, supportive 21st century American parent — avoiding the mistakes of my 1970s parents — across thousands of miles and many layers of culture. People here tell me to “let him find his own way” — but they come from a perspective of what US kids have. He is lacking so much in terms of resources, knowledge, perspective, family and community support. He’s not too far from bottom already, so if he fails and falls the repercussions are greater. Of course I should empower him to track a true course, and I try to, but he can be so clueless at times it’s scary. He’s been a big fish in a very tiny pond, but he’s getting ready to enter the open ocean — and he’s really only a minnow.

    I just need to keep doing my best with him and prepare for a long stretch of white water. Parenting Mtuseni sometimes is like threading a needle in a blizzard; it’s hard to find the sweet spot.

    Funny you offered the Rumi quotes. I’m not a big poetry fan but I do like Rumi and often get some wisdom and solace from him. (And I’ve been meaning to replace the collection of his poems that I sold at a yard sale to raise money for an ill-fated film.) So in the spirit of trying to navigate parenting, I’ll offer this Rumi quote:

    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”





      The needle in a blizzard analogy works well too… but the universe still knows your intentions… like that you like Rumi… I am trying to keep my head above water myself as a parent right now. No one knows what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for parenting. And I imagine no parenting experience is exactly alike either, tho they mostly are: our desires, shortcomings, angst — it all gets magnified somehow… and as my husband likes to tell people who weigh the merits of to have or not have children: “There is no rational reason to do this.”

      On another note – I’m not getting WordPress notifications when people respond to my comments – so sorry I didn’t reply sooner – knowing you’re fairly prompt and enjoyably articulate, I went looking for your answer here in your comments column… also to ascertain if WordPress is having some bugs as well… seems so. I will check the notify comments via email button and see if that makes a change… maybe it’s a google issue. I’m moderately tech literate for my stage of life/education, etc… but still.

      Thanks for throwing Rumi back at me. I had to meet my kids on a different level tonight… set aside the expectations and just throw some hugs and appreciation around. That field was great to take a break in… Thank you! – Renee


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