I have spent most of my life trying not to cry in front of other people.
My earliest memory of hiding tears is when I was seven years old on a family trip to Lake Tahoe. An older girl said some mean thing and I couldn’t shake it off. When walking through our lodge later, my aunt noticed my watery eyes and asked, “Are you crying?” I said the smoke from the fireplace was making my eyes water. Even then I believed that other people couldn't handle my full emotions.
As a teenager I got used to hearing the question Are you crying? whenever I went to see a movie. The answer was usually yes and I always felt embarrassed. My companion would lean forward and peer into my face in the darkness looking for evidence of tears like a rubbernecker passing a car crash. I perfected my discreet theater cry - letting my nose drip, wiping away tears while pretending to scratch my face - through lots of practice. Often people can name a handful of movies that have made them cry. At the moment I can’t think of a movie that hasn’t.
I also cry with music in the car, commercials on tv, and whenever I watch the news. I've cried at every work place I've ever had. When I was younger it was sometimes mortifying, but often cathartic. Now I'm learning to own it as a side effect of my strong empathy.
It was reassuring to learn a few years ago that I'm not just a "crybaby" - I'm a Highly Sensitive Person or HSP. Biologists have found that being highly sensitive is genetic, which makes sense to me as my mother and I seem to be cut from the same emotional cloth.
When I was thirteen Mom and I watched a nature show that followed a band of monkeys through the jungle, a documentary where the crew never intervenes and a somber narrator like James Earl Jones discusses the animals using made-up names like Little Daredevil and Rascal. At one point in the show a monkey called Rascal missed his branch during a jump and plummeted to the ground. His mother called to him and prodded him hopelessly with her little monkey hands (no opposable thumbs to pick him up). Finally she allowed herself to be pulled away by her mate as the band of monkeys left her baby behind. I imagined her sobbing into her mate's shoulder. I can still see the camera zoom in on the baby’s motionless body, evoking the harsh reality of nomad life in the jungle. My mom and I were riveted, horrified, tears streaming down our faces and hysterical laughter mixed with sobs as we cried, “Poor little Rascal!” We knew it was perhaps foolish to be so caught up in a nature show, but our reaction was visceral and out of our control. At least we were in it together.
This scene reminds me that feeling understood by a parent who lived on my emotional frequency helped me know that I wasn’t alone. Crying was just something that we did in our house - when we’re happy, sad, upset, angry, or just experiencing those emotions vicariously with others. While it took years for me to learn how to share that part of my self comfortably with other people in my life, I’m grateful that I was never shamed for my tears.
As a mother I reflect often on the kind of life I want to create for my two sons. In our society, tears and boys don’t mix. Boys are taught from a very young age that to "be a man" means to bottle up all their feelings, unless those feelings are anger or aggression. Jennifer Siebel Newsom's new documentary "The Mask You Live In" captures the devastating impact of this toxic masculinity for society and for our boys and men. The film is available for showings at schools, libraries, or other public spaces and has an accompanying curriculum. View the trailer here:
My partner and I can’t control the messages our children will encounter when they spend more time away from us than with us. But we can make sure that our home is a sacred space where big emotions aren’t something to fear or feel ashamed of. Often parents say they just want their kids to be happy. That doesn’t cut it for me. I want my kids to feel whole. I want them to learn that a wide range of big emotions can be felt and expressed - through play, laughter, thoughtful words, and even tears - without damaging relationships or reflecting poorly on their manhood. I want them to feel proud of their big hearts and compelled to share their love, light, and compassion with the world. I want them to know that I see them, and that they are enough.
My sons will never hear "boys don't cry" in our home, and I can only hope that by the time they hear it out in the world they will feel only compassion and pity for those who believe it.