Monday 30 January 2017

Boys don't cry

I knew from very early on that I had a sensitive child – he would cry at the sound of a bus driving past or the mere sound of someone coughing. He was difficult to appease. I felt like I was failing him – that he was not happy. I thought perhaps he’d grow out of it; that he’d get used to this crazy world; that he’d become laid back like his dad. 

I hoped he wouldn’t become like me.

He was barely a toddler when I saw the first sign of empathy – a little girl had fallen over on the pavement opposite and she was crying. We had to stand there for what seemed like an age, just waiting for the situation to calm down. He would not leave until he knew she was alright.  “Come on,” I said, “she’ll be okay. She’s with her daddy,” but he just stood there like an ice sculpture, tense with the unease. 

But as he got older, the tears did not stop. He cried the first time I took him to the cinema – he felt every emotion that was meant to be felt but ten times harder. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want people to describe him as soft. I wanted him to be strong in the hope he would never be picked on - I wanted him to grow a thicker skin.

I didn’t want him to be like me. I hoped to God that he was different.

One day he hurt his hand and cried. He had cried a lot that day. I started to feel the weight of it - the discomfort. This isn’t how boys are supposed to be, right? I somehow believed the hype; all that playground bater; boys don’t cry. I had believed all these years that crying was for girls and that, though I would never say it out loud, we must have somehow been lesser human beings because of it. Why was it such a bad thing? I’m not sure if the grazed hand was the last straw for him - but it was for me. I snapped at him - "man up!" I said in frustration.

Man up?

What does that even mean? 

Hide all emotion? Don’t show hurt? Don’t show any empathy to others?

I’m not sure why as a culture we have embraced this notion that a man mustn’t cry. Despite the fact that higher numbers of women experience depression than men (or get help for it), more men commit suicide. It is, in fact, the number one killer of men under 50. Men aren’t talking about pain or sadness. They’re avoiding vulnerability and tears. If hiding emotion is a coping mechanism – a sign of strength – it is failing us. 

So I have a choice. Do I want to protect my son by teaching him how to fit in with society and hide all emotion? Or do I prepare him for the future by encouraging helpful ways of expression so he can talk to friends about problems and get help when he needs it? Do I want him to be someone who battles on on his own and has less human connection? Or do I want him to be free to be truly himself?

Some researchers have argued that the gender difference in tears is at least partly cultural. Stories from long-ago cultures — including those in the Bible, "The Iliad" and the medieval knights' tales — are replete with sobbing, powerful, manly men. And until puberty, with its hormonal onslaught that affects boys and girls very differently, both sexes cry about equally, according to a 2002 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.*

For a long time I have associated crying with weakness. As someone who also feels things very deeply, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have a son who feels such emotion. Along with sadness, I feel immense joy. I perhaps feel heat and cold more than others. I sometimes find daylight too bright. I hear a pin drop. I am distracted by all sorts of colours and sounds and movements. My brain does not switch off. This is why I make a good artist - I am observant at least; I find details in things others would overlook and I make connections with things that help others to connect too. There are times when I have experienced crippling depression and anxiety, and there are times when I feel as though I am higher than the milky way. 

But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Certainly not my children. I don’t want them to feel things deeply because at times the lows are frightening.

So I tried to squash it – to distract my son when he got a little too upset – to change the subject. I tried to train him not to cry because I hoped it would stand him in better stead. I stopped him avoiding films that had ‘sad bits’ in to see if he would get used to sadness, and when that didn’t work I vetted every film or programme for hints of unhappiness.

I was left with Peppa Pig.

And Peppa Pig was not going to get him through high school one day. Or is first day of work. Or his first heartache.

Then something happened. My nana died: His great grandma. Someone who, only weeks before, my son had offered his little hand up to in order to help her into her seat – a voluntary act of empathy for her as he saw her struggle. One minute she was here in our house; one minute he was telling her about school and football – and the next she was gone. 

We were scared to tell him - how would he react? And how would we help him? 

He cried. He cried big tears. 

I cried. I cried big tears.

We sat and hugged and cried.

For what seemed like a long time.

And he looked at me and I looked at him, and we knew. We knew each other like never before – He understood. And for the first time I recognised he had this gift – this beautiful gift of connection that would help him to have strong relationships and do great things. It felt kind. I knew it was important. I didn’t want to suppress it. 

When the funeral came around I told him he could sit at the back with his Dad, or he could sit at the front with me. I knew that, in the same way he refuses to watch films he knows might be sad, he would avoid getting too close to the emotion. He wanted to sit at the back and be distracted by snacks and colouring in. He wanted to be close to the exit, just in case. We told him he could leave if he wanted to – his dad would take him out.

Five minutes into the service and he got up from his seat and left the pew. But instead of heading for the exit he walked right to the front of the church and squeezed in to the pew right next to me. He sat close to me and cried with me. He grabbed great wads of tissues and thrust them onto his eyes. 

He wanted to cry. He needed to cry. I needed him. We needed each other. 

Since that day we have spoken about his great grandmother with fondness. No tears. That day was closure for him. And me. What could have left him angry and frustrated has been transformed into something good. I don’t know how these emotions will change as he grows or whether they will seem, as they often do to me, overpowering and exhausting, but what often seems like a thorn in your side can be the very thing that is your healing – not just for yourself but for others too. I never want to suppress his emotions - to tell him that boys don’t cry. He is stronger for his tears. He knows what pain is because he has allowed it to happen – he connected with it in order to let it go. 

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