As an adult, I can embrace the contradiction. My father loved me so much. He also wounded me deeply, regularly, all throughout my childhood.
As a child, it was an impossible thing to understand. I saw evidence of his love all the time. Then why, whenever I began to cry, did it seem to make him angry? Why did his stock response of “stop crying” never stop feeling like a weapon? Why did he keep saying it when it never failed to make me do anything but cry harder, longer?
I now see that all humans share a deep-set basic need. We long to be seen for who we are and embraced without hesitation. We want to be able to be who we are and to have it be okay.
My father wasn’t a crier, but I now know that is not the same thing as not being sad. He battled his demons internally. I’m now certain my steady tears threatened to confirm his deep set fear that he had passed the same murky, unrelenting morass of awful feelings along to me. It had to feel like a terrible legacy.
But I cried easily and often. I still do. My bouts of sadness are deep and dramatic, and I still find myself, at thirty-four, desperate for someone to tell me that this is okay.
What I’ve begun to do is say it to myself. It may sound silly, but I realized it’s necessary. If I cannot accept my own sadness, then unintentionally or not, I will communicate to my daughters that theirs is not okay.
While the words “Stop crying” will never slip past my lips, I do find myself feeling exasperated by the tears, especially as my oldest daughter grew up and I began expecting her emotions to shift from the volatile toddle tantrums to something that made more sense to me.
It is hard to see your child in pain, even when you know that it’s over something as seemingly silly as the wrong flavor of yogurt. You can simultaneously know on an intellectual level that it’s not the end of the world, that coping with life’s disappointments is a necessary skill and feel torn up in knots looking at their little anguished faces.
It had to be even harder for my father, who was so clearly desperate for tools to deal with his own big feelings. If I could go back in time, I’d love to be able to stand my ground and cry with abandon, while acknowledging to him that I know it’s hard for him to see me cry.
I like to think that if we had both had the language to address this, we could have moved past the scary territory where my tears threatened him, and his reaction to them gutted me. I like to think we could see that underneath it all was so much longing and love. I longed for him to be okay with me as I was, but I didn’t understand that he was not yet able to accept that part of me because he wasn’t okay with the same sort of feelings in himself. I’m sure it was compounded by the way our world makes emotionality off-limits for anyone who wishes to be seen as masculine. I’m sure it was compounded by the generation he was a part of, in which gender norms seemed iron-clad and repression was exalted.
What I’m most certain of is that when he barked “Stop crying”, it was a reaction more than a response. And our children deserve our thoughtful responses. They deserve to be fully seen by us and embraced without hesitation. They need to know that their feelings are all okay so that we can then teach them the difference between responding and reacting to them. So we can arm them with the self-regulation tools that can only be built on a foundation of self-love.
So my darling daughters, don’t stop crying. Cry as long as you need. Let the tears streak down your precious, anguished faces and know I’ll sit beside you for as long as it takes. And if the sadness ever starts to feel like a burden too big to shoulder alone, I’ll remind you that you don’t have to, that I am here for you, and that the beauty in it all is that the very thing that makes you feel sadness so deeply also gives you an astonishing capacity to feel joy.