On a cold, drizzly Friday my son and I set off for a fathers and sons weekend. Turning off the freeway we found ourselves faced by red and slippery district roads, far better suited to farm trucks that the city sedan I was driving. With some slipping and sliding we eventually found ourselves at the entrance to the camp: a steep, slick tongue of red clay. “Ok, ok. Here we go boy”. But no go, the car slid off to the side of the road, and settled itself in the thick, wet, grassy ridge. “Maybe we should just go home Dad?”
In this guest blog, psychologist Dr. Rob Pluke recounts his experience of a seemingly disastrous father and son experience and discovers that all is not what it seems when it comes to building relationships with our boys.
Truth be told, my son wasn’t that keen on the camp, and he’d said that he felt a bit sick on the way. But I had wanted to go. I had planned for it – damn it, even paid for it, and we were going! Anyway, soon some of the other dads made their way down towards us, and one used a big 4×4 to tow me out of the mud. If this weekend was about showing our sons how to be men, then I was off to a rather poor start.
Two failed men
Gathering our bags and pieces of my dignity, we picked our way up towards the lodge. As late arrivals we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line. As we trekked up the path to the platform, my son grabbed my trouser leg, looked up at me with pale face and big eyes, then turned towards a bush and vomited. Half an hour later we were back in our car, bags repacked, and creeping ever closer towards the comforting familiarity of tar. We had a Phil Collins CD playing at the time. Maybe you know the song “Cos’ I can’t stooop loving you! No I can’t stoooop loving you!” Two failed men, singing at the tops of their lungs. Later that night we made supper together, and then my son introduced me to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie. He told me it had been a great day.
I don’t know. By my expectations, we hadn’t managed to fulfill one of the requirements of a fathers and sons camp. No blood-letting, solemn pacts, or weird chants – gee man, not even a single obstacle course was conquered. But strangely enough, the weekend stands out for me as a highlight time with my son. On reflection I now see, that without awareness or intention, my boy and I ended up checking some very important boxes.
Ticking the boxes
First simply by being together we were able to enjoy moments that are impossible to script. I’m going to try to remember this.
Second, we knew in a beyond words kind of way, that because we were in something together, partners in crime if you like, we were busy being men. So I guess what this tells me is that masculinity isn’t something out there – an essence we need to achieve. Instead, masculinity is what happens when men come together. It’s a relational experience – an acknowledgement of ‘us-ness. This is one reason why dads are so important to their sons. When we stand alongside our sons, they experience themselves as men.
Third, something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons during moments of weakness and vulnerability. When we can do this, we show our sons that they really can be themselves. So whether they’re sick, scared or uncertain, they’re still ‘man enough’. Did I wish that my son would charge up the hill and swoop daringly down the zip line? Sure, a part of me did. But I think I’ll always be glad that I stayed with him, walked with him, and loved him as he was.
Finally, one of the great benefits of staying at my son’s side was that he invited me into his world. I know that he and I will always have Transformers. But more personally, I will always have that song. Whenever I hear it, a fierce love seeps from my cells and rises up and into my throat.
Going off road
On that day my son took me off-road, and away from pre-navigated routes to masculinity. He helped me to chart territory of the heart that I had never before encountered – territory that exists far beyond the prescriptions of status and peer approval.
So I don’t give a damn what the real-man’s manual says. Because I can’t stop loving you.
Rob Pluke is a Counselling Psychologist and author. His latest book is called ‘Are you disappointed in me Dad?’ and will be available from November 2016.
Want to learn more about connecting with your son? Then have a look at this clip from ‘The Representation Project’. Whether throwing a around a ball or serving up breakfast, Steven and Mike model healthy masculinity and support their kids in being their true selves.
If you and your son are interested in a fathers and sons experience with a difference then check out the Courage 2 Connect website at: www.courage2connect.co.za