Yesterday morning, I woke up after a blisteringly hot evening of tossing turning and negotiating shared bed space with my toddler. I went to the bathroom, sure that my son wouldn’t wake in the 5 minutes I’d be away for him. A few seconds in, I heard a small voice:
“I’m here, I’m just in the bathroom,” I called out.
Because it’s been as hot as Hades this week, we had several fans running and he must not have heard me. When I went back to bed, he was gone. I experienced that momentary irrational panic all parents are familiar with. It was 6am, the house was locked up, he couldn’t have gone far, and he would have gone alone. I found him standing in the lounge, in front of the closed door behind which his father was (theoretically) sleeping.
He thought I’d left him, and had gone to find his dad.
He was fine until I scooped him up, the mild, irrational panic receding, morning cuddles commencing. He collapsed into floods of scared, anxious tears. “I get a fright for you!” he said haltingly, through tears. Proper tears. Once the panic faded, I was flooded with mom-guilt. He had to know that I – we – would never, ever leave him, and alone at that. I wiped away his tears and told him that. Mommy and Daddy would never, ever do that. He can always count on having at least one adult who knows and loves him, and whom he knows and loves, to be with him.
I’ve thought of my son’s tears often this week. Some of it is the still lingering guilt; the rest is an attempt to reframe this small episode in the long series that is parenting. It was a misunderstanding, a snafu, and in the long run, it’s not what he’ll be talking to his therapist about in 30 years. (I sincerely hope he has far more interesting stories to share.) And I hope he will feel that he can see a therapist if he feels he needs to. He is being raised in a household in which his tears are not pathologised or gendered away. This is not a boys-don’t-cry household. Boys can and do cry, and when they do, their families make space for their tears. Yes, even when they are about going to sleep with shoes on, or wearing rain boots in the middle of a heat wave.
I wonder if boys – in particular, black boys – elsewhere are given this space. In July, the news of Professor Bongani Mayosi’s death by suicide shocked the nation. This week, we learned of the death of local hip hop artist, Jabulani ‘Hip Hop Pantsula’ Tsambo, also by suicide. I don’t know what it is like to be a black man in South Africa. I’ve no doubt it’s hard and painful. I’ve no doubt there are black boys sobbing in homes across the country. And they grow into black men. Brilliant, talented, loved. Depressed and desperate. And lost to the darkness.
These two losses – high profile and sudden – will hopefully open up a conversation about the mental health of men in this country. Suicide is mysterious and taboo and impossible to speak about. But it is usually, mostly a symptom of a lack in society. Our world – our society – was a place that no longer held space and comfort for these two men. That’s on us.
It’s our responsibility to listen to what the dead whisper to us in the way they die. What does it look like when a black man is depressed? How do we make space for young black male pain? Even when it looks like rage? Even when it threatens to bury us?
Raising a son is wondrous. I am let in on the secret world of little boys. It turns out that even though it appears very different from little girls’ world, it is filled with much the same: flights of fancy, and magical trips down bright, imaginary lanes. One boy’s dragon fight is another girl’s teddy bear tea party. I know this will change as he grows and I am desperate to hold on to the parts of his life that give him room to be sad out loud. To cry, to look for help, and to expect and express nurturing support and love.
As a mother, I am asking the world to join me in this. For my son, for little boys of colour everywhere.