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.
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, I cried alone, swiftly eradicating all signs with a tissue and a ready smile.
Yet I encourage my boys 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 do just that. What might it do for them to see I am not, after all, invincible? That this woman who holds it together, always putting them first, doesn’t, in truth, always have it together?
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: 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 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, didn’t seem too alarmed. They found me hiding out in the bedroom one afternoon, weeping. “It’s OK, mummies get sad too, sometimes,” I reassured them, smiling through my tears, drawing them close.
“Don’t be sad, Mummy, ’cause Grandad’s coming back as a baby,” said my seven-year-old, imparting wisdom of the ages, his tiny arm stretched across my shoulders. “Think about love,” he went on. “Think about all the people who love you”. And he reels off a list.
And I realised that, in repressing my pain, not only had I underestimated my young boys and their inordinate capacity for processing a gamut of emotions, but by presenting my one-dimensional self I had been doing them a disservice. By airbrushing what it means to be human I had led them to believe that “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, whose work on vulnerability and shame is shifting the way we view these less-desirable states. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability Brown says it’s imperative 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 look and say, ‘You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging’.”
I have a friend whose kids have seen her cry exactly once. “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. 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, 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 and insist that they do. And so do women, like his mother right now, weeping for the little boy who equates greatness with stoicism, not helped by all that crying in the shower.