The shower, I find, is the best place to cry. The cascading water drowns out the sound of sobs while washing away any evidence. I shower after the kids have gone to bed. It’s a practical arrangement, the only time for guaranteed solitude. And it’s strategic, taking advantage of a rare window to contemplate anything un-dealt with in a day swallowed by the needs of others: frustrations, regrets, laments. It’s safe in there where the kids can’t hear.
I’ve always done my best to shield my two children from my sadness, worried it might unnerve them to see their mother, their touchstone of equilibrium and reassurance, undone. If I needed to cry, and there has been need, I cried alone, swiftly eradicating all signs with a tissue and a ready smile.
Yet I encourage them to cry. My seven year old prides himself on never crying at school. I draw breath when he tells me this, sensing a pivotal point in the development of his childhood brain. “Oh but you must cry”, I insist. “Crying’s good. It gets the sadness out. Never hold back tears”.
But then I go and do just that.
What might it do for them to see that I am not, after all, invincible? This woman who holds it together always putting them first doesn’t, in truth, have it together? Not always.
Then my father died. And there was no way I could schedule my grief.
I got on with things, as you do as a single parent to a seven and five year old, the youngest still at home at the time: readers and homework, meltdowns and meals, reassurance and my constant upbeat presence. But still it came. The tears forcing out of me without preamble, the realisation that my Dad was actually gone hitting me like a fresh shock at unforeseen and inopportune moments with an intensity impossible to stifle.
My boys, to my surprise, don’t seem too alarmed. They find me when I’m hiding out in the bedroom one afternoon discretely weeping. “It’s OK, mummies get sad too, sometimes”, I reassure them, smiling through my tears, drawing them close. “Don’t be sad Mummy ‘cause Grandad’s coming back as a baby”, says my seven year old imparting wisdom of the ages, his tiny arm stretched across my shoulders. “Think about love”, he goes on. “Think about all the people who love you”. And he reels off a heartening list.
And I realise in repressing my heartache for my young boys, not only have I underestimated them, their inordinate capacity for processing a gamut of emotions, but by presenting for them my one-dimensional self I have been doing them a disservice. By airbrushing what it means to be human I had led them to believe that classified ‘negative’ emotions are a concept only. It’s one thing to tell my children it’s OK to cry. It’s another to show them how it’s done.
We owe that to our children says social researcher and author Brene Brown, who’s groundbreaking work on vulnerability and shame is shifting the way we view these less desirable states. In her TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ (one of the top five TED talks of all time) Brown says it’s imperative that we “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen”.
“Our job is not to protect our children, to keep them perfect”, says Brown.
“Our job is to is to look and say, ‘You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging”.
I have a friend who’s kids have seen her cry exactly once despite divorce and other calamities. “It was such a shock for them that they’ve never forgotten”, she says. “It shakes the foundation of their world”.
We must present, she believes, as bulletproof.
But who then will teach our children about suffering for when their time inevitably comes?
In leaning into our own pain we fuel our children’s empathy to the pain of others. We encourage them to feel by feeling ourselves. Rather than censoring our sadness, we must teach them how to handle it.
My five year old appears by my side with a swollen eye, blackening already despite its freshness, a collision with a cousin. Yet not a tear. He tells me he cried in the bushes because “big boys don’t cry”.
I hold him firmly and insist that they do. That the best men cry. So do women, just like his mother is doing right now, for the little boy who equates greatness with stoicism, not helped by all that crying in the shower.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 14th May 2017