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Sean O’Connor: The close shave that brought me & my teenage son together

It’s a fact of nature that children begin to move to a different beat when they reach their teenage years. But there are some ancient rituals of learning that still hold the power to cut across the generation gap.

By Sean O’Connor*

My son and I are not religious. At his age though, I was. I remember the profundity of my Roman Catholic confirmation ceremony. It was a rite of passage, chaperoned by a genial Franciscan monk. He managed to get me to feel something spiritual, something that touched the presence of God, deep inside me. I trembled.

I knew that I was undergoing a ritual, an arcane process that would be celebrated by our community. It turned into a glorious day full of singing at a mission church deep in the hills of KwaZulu. I had a crush on one of the girls from a neighbouring school. I wore it so obviously, it makes me smile now. Just remembering that time makes me remember her brown eyes, for the first time in about 30 years.

My son enjoys no such rites of passage. His road to independence and manhood is along a slender bridge with unseen souls to guide him. Like many of his generation, it seems he has to make it up all by himself. Father figures and role models are lost to alcohol, their cars and the traffic, DSTV, alienating employment and their smartphones.

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Their sisters seem to have just made it underneath the hearth their mothers provide, or into rude little cohorts that retain a smudge of faux-naivety. My son’s male associates on the other hand have seemed feral at times, micro-macho competitors with haircuts and attitude. I heard it said that ‘my boy’ will be ‘lost’ to me for a few years now, from the age of 15, and then perhaps return to be ‘mine’ again, as he undergoes his rites of passage.

The thing is, he has never ‘belonged’ to me. I am simply privileged to try and provide for his needs, both emotional and otherwise. Like my credit card number, to buy an upgrade to an online game. But will he confide in me? That seems more tricky. Someone said to me recently that boys need a kind uncle, another kind of deflected paternal and perhaps even brotherly authority other than their father.

His arena is online. I’m glad he has avoided social media but am alarmed at the number of hours he spends gaming, killing people with enviable prowess. It’s true that my generation was not groomed to parent this kind of situation, that the Internet has presented a major conundrum for parents. That’s another story for another day. Right now, he is very social while swopping assault rifles and planning raids, but in a different universe to mine. I guess he’s just a teenager.

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I exhort him to find people ‘in real life’ – spend time with his friends, which he does, on occasion. His skin, inherited from both his mother and I, is rumpled with angry teenage zits. To his credit, it seems like he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t spend hours squeezing, but takes care of those that are in the line of fire. He’s modest and lovely. I watch him mutate from boy to man to boy to young man, a see-saw hormonal journey.

Amongst his facial pimply protuberances are wisps of fine black hair. Until several hours ago these grew unkempt, a slick shadow that would always meet their day of reckoning. At least this in one mark of manhood, a complicated tableau, shaving.

It was wonderful for me to at least teach him this skill. His first shave. This is one tiny but remarkable step into adulthood, into independence.

His mom had procured him a four blade swivel razor, like something out of Star Wars. He scrapes his chin and another being emerges. A second skin, beneath the first he was sheathed in. Like me too, continuously evolving, and still working out what my own parents both enabled and threw in my way.

Although my children are dependent on me in many ways, I guess they need me less and less, although it’s not about quantity. Their needs and mine will change as they age, and I age too. As long as a door is open for us to find each other in, we will all walk our paths, slender and wide, sloping, difficult, untethered, free. Like a child, wondering, wandering.

  • Sean O’Connor is a dad of three who runs his own business, producing theatre in the workplace, in communities, and in public spaces. He has written textbooks and DJ’d weddings, and looks forward to DJ’ing funerals someday too. He lives in Observatory, Cape Town, with his dogs Seigfried and Milo, and believes that the quality of his community impacts directly on the quality of his life. Which, he feels privileged to say, is good.
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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