I love you son. Oh, how I wanted to be the object of these words. I’m 28 years old and I have never heard these words from my father or my mother. The best I’ve gotten are paraphrased text messages, with failed attempts of my parents telling me they love me. Picture a whole paragraph of we will support you with all your dreams and ambitions. Now picture the text message ending with “inkosi ikubusise”. This is usually how I finish conversations with my mom. She will always throw the bible at you when she wants to express love. I’m not complaining just reflecting. Whilst I have very little to complain about when it comes to my childhood, I sometimes wish there were things I could change about it.
My boyish days were spent playing with bricks pretending they were cars or rolling car tyres running down a hill. My favourite game was playing house and I always had to be the father otherwise what was the point. I wasn’t old enough to have sex but I wasn’t so young that I didn’t understand the mechanics. Looking back at these memories I could have never imagined that as an adult I would face the problems I'm faced with now. Somehow as a little boy, I imagined how perfect life would turn out for me.
There are a lot of things I wish I could go back and change about my childhood days. One of these things would be when I kissed a white girl back in primary school. If I could go back I would make sure I give her a French kiss, because my chances of kissing another white girl are now pretty much zero. I would also change the memory of the one time I slapped my baby sister right across the face. The past is a tricky place to visit; you never know what you might come across that you had buried deep down in your subconscious. For this article, the main thing I would change is growing up in a household that allowed me and my siblings to be vulnerable.
Now I before I go on to tell you about how I came to believe in being a vulnerable man. I want to share my definition of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable means you are not afraid to appeal to your softer side. It means that you can speak without having to raise your voice every time. You learn to love yourself even when you find out things you don’t like about yourself. Being vulnerable is knowing when to ask for help. It’s lowering your guard and building relationships that are protected. Being vulnerable is choosing to live a little. If you’re a man then it also means not falling for labels that come with masculinity. My childhood and post-adolescent stage taught me a great deal about being vulnerable. I’m grateful for every lesson.
About 4 years ago I picked up that I wasn’t able to be vulnerable to most people in my life. I wasn’t able to communicate about things that were hurting me and as a result, I was all alone. I was living the pain in my head and smiling at the world. One day when the world came crashing down on me I realized I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I was tired of being Samson and pretending like I was invisible. I could no longer push back the pain and play pretend with my life. All the strong men in me were tired and I knew I needed a change in my behavior. I needed to learn how to be vulnerable with myself so that I can deal with my emotions. All my suppressed anger that I had directed at my parents was ready to burst out.
My dad is a retired member of the South African Police Service and my mom is still an active professional nurse. Watching them go through trials and tribulations just to raise me and my siblings is a story that deserves a medal. Growing up my dad embodied the “I’m a man” characteristics, and my mother took on “The respectful and hardworking wife” characteristics. Both my parents are strict and they weirdly complement each other. You could hardly play them against each other if you wanted something as a child. They have dedicated their lives to trying to provide a good life for our family. Unfortunately, they are by-products of growing up during apartheid so somethings to them were not a priority.
Their time was occupied with providing for the family and making sure we had security. Creating an affectionate and vulnerable environment so we could freely express ourselves was not on the top of the list. I’m not saying they were robots and did not feel anything but there was an emotional gap. I realized that I failed to be vulnerable because I grew up in a household that had strong characters all the time. The only time I have ever seen my dad cry and allow himself to be vulnerable was when his mother passed away. I have no other memory of my dad being vulnerable and I certainly don’t have memories of him teaching me how to be vulnerable.
I only have memories of parents who provided the best life they could afford for their children. I know now that my parents were probably vulnerable but they could never show us that side of them. It is impossible to be strong all the time. We are emotional beings and at some point, we come crashing down. My parents couldn’t create a vulnerable environment because they never knew a vulnerable environment. They grew up under very volatile circumstances which didn’t give my parents many options on how to feel about life. Look at me calling apartheid volatile, that shit has left our parents scarred for life.
I think I would still be carrying my parent's scars had I not met my friends when I moved to Joburg. I would still blame them for not knowing an environment where I could be nurtured against some of my instincts as a growing boy.
I met my friends back in 2012 when I moved to Johannesburg to go to study at Wits University. We’ve been friends for 8 years now and there’s so much that we have overcome to be in a place where we could be vulnerable as per my definition. Our varying backgrounds, cultures and economic status made us an interesting group of people. These varying differences are the main reason we were able to learn from each other. Over the years of communicating and bonding, we reached a place where we don’t allow our masculinity to control our basic urges. We had to desensitize our friendship so that we can have an open and honest relationship with each other.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion and freedom of self-expression in the boundaries of our friendship. The real judgment we pass on each other is when someone wants to go home at midnight when the party is starting at Great Dane. I haven’t always been good to them but I am blessed to have them in my life. My friends and I are far from perfect. We still have our own personal issues that we deal with but it makes me happy to know that I have friends in my life who I’m not afraid to show who I really am under all this skin.
I realized that I have hurt a few people in my lifetime. This has never been intentional but all of the instances are linked to when I couldn't allow myself to be seen as weak. I can’t take back the pain I caused but I do wear it as a badge to remind myself to be kinder to people. I learned that allowing myself to embrace my softer side did not make me less of a man. If anything it brought some of the best parts about me. I can connect with my emotions on such a deep level and it is such a beautiful thing. My softer side allows me to be kinder to myself and not always have to be strong. It makes me all the wiser than the juvenile sex-crazed man I used to be.
I think men owe it to themselves to become vulnerable and stop walking around as vanguards of unsupervised male masculinity. We ought to be softer and kinder to ourselves so we can see the world in a different light. We need to make the effort to build relationships where we can be vulnerable. We can only complain or blame other people for so long, at some point, we need to take action. I think it’s important for not just men but women to be friends with people who allow you to express your vulnerability. We are at a turning point in our lives. We have to teach others what we missed growing up as children. We must set the tone and ambiance for the future.
I live my life embracing both my masculinity and femininity. I spend time working on myself so I can become a better human being. I consider myself to be a vulnerable man for the right people. I’m also vulnerable enough to ask for help because I have learned you can’t do this life thing alone.
I can tell you now. It is not easy allowing yourself to be exposed. It is terrifying given the society that we live in. However, from my experience, I know that you can’t live a full life if you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable. I’ve allowed myself to sink to the bottom only to have my way going back to the top as my only option. Experiences will never be the same but we all need to try and figure out who we really are when the world is not watching.
If you’re a man and you are trying to fit the “real man” label, stop! It is not worth chipping away your vulnerability just so you can be more masculine. Life slaps differently when you allow yourself to feel your emotions. Don’t be a rock that cries tears.
P.s I love you too, dad
Edited by: Khuleko Siwele