Stability or Repression? Or, Parents Don’t Have Time to Cry

Crying is not always bad, pathological, or a sign of emotional instability or depression. Crying, sometimes, is how we work through emotions too deep, too big, too painful to otherwise healthily process. As we learn in many good parenting books, and from our expert children if we allow them to teach us, sometimes a good, messy, noisy, desperate cry, supported in the arms of one who loves us, is the only way to get past these fears and hurts and traumatizing memories. What traumatizes us often isn’t the event but the event we cannot leave behind; crying can be how we let go.

I cannot cry. Or at least, I haven’t in a while, not in any meaningful way, not in longer than I can remember. It’s not that I haven’t anything to cry about — oh do I have — nor that I lack the impulse. But as though some part of my brain has decreed that breaking down is beneath me, I find crying beyond me. My face becomes stone when the impulse comes, and no mere waterworks shall be allowed to deface me.

I am invested in stability for a reason, desperate to never again return to the hell-on-earth of out-of-control mixed states moods. But I also have a belief that I feel fully, passionately, unbridledly, and I value that as well.

And now I find I cannot cry. And I am not writing, instead choosing safety and an early bedtime above expression.

Sometimes that isn’t bad. Certainly, to follow the emotional and creative trail every time it presents itself would be disastrous. I would never be able to function, not even as little as I do now.

But increasingly I suspect that what I once mistook for stability — a lack of tears, a more regular bedtime — isn’t the same as what the emovtypical experience. Or if it is, that they’re a far more fucked up group than I’ve long believed, because this — the feeling that the feelings are there, trying to crack the facade but unable, and unreachable when one turns inward to let them free — is not healthy.

This is not tenable.

And yet I write this with no particular affect but blankness. A slight tightening in my chest, but more a wall encountered as my heart strives to reach out than a hand embracing to empty me of tears. I write this wanting to want to cry, feeling a self that once would have been screaming in a corner, now in an oubliette unaccessible, the map forgotten. I can remember times when I have sobbed until tears and snot and saliva mingled and bubbled at my mouth as I decried every wrong that had been done me, every failure I had fallen, every obstacle the Universe had strewn in my path, and a part of me wishes that for myself again, if only to have that all out — but all I feel is a slight tension in my forehead, and I ignore it except as a mild irritation.

As a human, I long to cry, have a reason and a right to. As someone with a history of disordered moods, in which much of my life has drowned, I have a reasonable fear to, but all the more reason to. And as a parent, I haven’t the time or the freedom — or so the stick that pins me down, props my blankness tells me.

As a parent I have every reason not to make a habit of breaking down in front of my child, and a culture eager to blame me for his every once and future imperfection if I should; but also I have every reason and need to do so somewhere, more than ever.

Parenting is hard. We are unsupported in the work we do, alone except for an ever-watchful, eager-to-blame-us gaze. And the work we do is hard, did I mention? Not only do we have the daily trials of keeping our child(ren) and ourselves alive and relatively unharmed throughout the day — every day, day after day, unceasing –, each hardest moment with our young ones brings us back to our own youth and the traumas we suffered then. We rage at our seeming impotence now — to dress an unwilling child content in hir nakedness, to hurry one who would rather play and has yet to learn to be ruled by clocks — because we so keenly are reminded of our impotence to dawdle and play and choose for ourselves then. We have more cause to cry than ever, more need to expel through snot and tears and an hour of much deserved wallowing the fresh hurts of now and the long held hurts of then — but we have a child begging for food, for play, for one more one-more book, we have groceries to buy and a house to halt sliding into squalor and library books to return else risk the wrath of the librarian and trigger another childhood terror, we have playdates and preschool and story time and science museums and doctors appointments and if we are lucky self-care pampering appointments to get to, and we are late and they are dawdling and we have to go now and we have no time to sit and sob and feel sorry for ourselves.

And when, miracle!, by blessing of alloparent friend or dint of multi-hour bedtime rituals or at cost of unaffordable but still underpaid child-minder, we have a moment, at last, a moment to ourselves — we cannot cry. Blubbering, bubbling, needy, necessary breakdowns resist scheduling, and rarely come when called, and besides, we’re supposed to be unwinding in the tub, undressing with a lover, or questing for the holy Grail of Finally Enough Sleep. And those things are good, and those things are necessary, and those things are possibly needed first if we are to let go enough, become vulnerable enough for the ocean inside to wash over us and wash us clean — but our hour’s up, our friend’s impatient, our bed is calling, the sitter’s leaving and it’s on to the next day the next crisis the next appointment and hurry the child and think of the child and stay strong for the child and don’t traumatize the child and keep going keep surviving keep repressing we can rest when we’re dead, right?

Perhaps no wonder I cannot cry, not really, not fully, not as uglily and as messily and as self-pityingly as I need. Somewhere I learned that open bawling is not for proper adults; sometime I discovered I’m too busy to be able to; somehow I confused repression for stability, blankness for being content, not crying whatever any cost for not needing to cry.

We all need, sometimes, to get naked and messy, to soak in salty water and messier, thicker fluids, to cycle through pain clenching our bodies and relaxing and rushing through us again, to be wrung out, to be held and heard throughout, and to be lifted, at the end, in the embrace of those who love us unreservedly, without our needing to have earned the absolution of their love. So we, born now anew, can live.

I want to live.

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19 Responses to Stability or Repression? Or, Parents Don’t Have Time to Cry

  1. Maybe that’s why we (myself + husband) throw ourselves into the ocean at least once a week. We’re definitely too busy for tears. I’ve snuck a few moments in the shower lately, but the last time I got good and snotty was when my baby was 5 days old and the dr called to tell me his jaundice was bad enough for hospitalization and I lost it (flashbacks to #2′s hospitalization for the same thing, which caused flashbacks to #1′s NICU stay, etc). Mostly though, I’m just too tired and busy to dwell on anything long enough for tears.

  2. Stellar post! I must, must, must revisit this again to reread. It’s definitely a ‘rereader.’

  3. My last really snotty cry was Christmas eve last year. I remember being mid-howl and thinking “crap, I’ll wake the kids and their unwrapped presents are strewn all over the lounge room!”

  4. I cry a lot. I cry at the news. I cry when I have those “Is this as good as it gets?” moments. I cry when I get angry. I really hate that I cry when I get angry.

    But that all consuming, lose yourself in it? Not so often. I think the last time was when I was contemplating the possibility of a third miscarriage – I took to my bed (but it never happened, that pregnancy is now nearly 3yrs old). Before that? When our sponsor child died of malaria at age 4. I took to my bed then too.

    I hope you can find the time and space to let it over take you at some time. You deserve the release.

    Maybe if we have to do it in front of the child/ren sometimes, we are showing them that they’re allowed to let it over take them some times too, when they get to be responsible adults.

  5. I haven’t cried since my PPD crying jags when Kieran was a wee babe. And before that, I cried a few times during my pregnancy and once I can remember when Tom and I almost broke up several years ago. I’ve thought about that a lot lately – how strange is it that I rarely cry? A couple of movies have made me cry, but I don’t count those times, sniffling at some make-believe drama.
    How often do normal people cry? Is this normal?

    • Dionna — I don’t think “how often do normal people cry” is a very good question. A better would be, have you felt the need to and been unable? Because normal or not, I don’t think that’s very healthy for us.

      • Good point. And the answer would be, I’ve definitely felt unable to cry. Or at the very least, things that *used* to make me cry no longer do. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m in a different place in my life or whether something is blocking the tears.

  6. I’m on the other side lately. I can’t keep my tears in. My eyes well up and I spill a few here, there, and everywhere. I hope you can get your release soon. I had a friend who told me she didn’t cry for a whole year while she was on antidepressants. Then when she quit, she cried non stop. Like her body was just saving it up.

  7. Coming from an odd direction here, but there’s stable and there’s stuck. Stable is probably good….stuck is not.

    One thing my mother tells me about my father: she came from a chaotic abusive household, and desperately wanted stability. What she got was my dad, an Aspie who’s idea of “something only a crazy person would do” is eating something new for dinner or buying new underwear.

    I learned not to cry growing up in my father’s house. It’s a skill that has served me well in the profession I work in (90% men, all uptight “professional” people)…but has not always served me well in my private life.

    I want my son to know there’s a better choice. I’m less likely to hide tears at home…but sometimes it’s still hard to cry, even when I really *need* to cry.

  8. This is why I love to read you.

    I don’t cry. At least not in public. It unnerves me, makes me feel out of control. I have the same reflex when my kids cry. I can stop myself from trying to stop them from crying, mostly because I know it’s impossible, but the crying still bothers me. Probably from being told not to cry myself. We are a cltre that deems tears as weakness, rather than a normal human act.

  9. I have a hard time making a cohesive comment. This is closer to me than you could have imagined. However in my case it is that we have started parenting drastically different in the last year. The result has been children who are so independent and free and excelling in their life,, and leaving behind all those tense moments of scheduling juggling you spoke of, tensions and a feeling of “scarcity”, controlling my kids. It’s been wonderful. But -

    yes, life is better than ever but it is as if a low-grade PTSD is now descending on me from my last 8+ years of being a parent – mother – of two young children. I find myself AMAZED now at the lack of support I received and resentful of how much I bought it and didn’t speak or shout I needed help. I find myself embarassed at how controlling I tried to be with my kids to make them pleasing to others instead of telling others to go Fuck Off (not literally, or maybe sometimes). I find I did indeed “shut down” in so, so many ways during this time. Too many to list. I had to shut down. I had to shut down to survive.

    Oddly during this time I’ve always been able to cry and be demonstrative with my lovely children. They have been my partners through this.

    Shutting down briefly is one thing but to have done it for almost a decade… I am working through this.

    For any parents/carers of young kids who want to cry, or to get in touch with their body again, I’d recommend something physical. Like running or biking (the kind where you work up a sweat) if you want to and can; or a massage, a deep one if you want to and can. One time I paid the $25 for the all-day at the Korean women’s spa – not a waxing/plucking spa, but a health spa. I had the oddest feeling sitting there after having sweated and scrubbed and immersed and cold and hot water etc. It was me touching. There is a theory our emotional system is linked to our physical body, the limbic system. I’ve had good results following that theory.

  10. this is really close to me too… thank you, this bears a reread for me too, as I process where I am emotionally as a person and a parent.

    Kelly, I have recently struggled with that PTSD you describe, except it hit me after my now 19yo moved out. The difference in me as a person and parent between my first child and my second (now 6yo) is incredible. Outwardly, I was a single mom to the first and a married mom to the second — that alone makes for such a huge difference in the way society has treated me.

    And I’ll stop there because I feel that familiar elephant sitting on my chest, which means I need to go breathe deeply and reboot my brain with music. BBL.

    • @micaela
      Thanks for your comments. I haven’t been a single mom but I’m wondering if we can relate in the anger (some repressed) we feel.

      • you’re welcome! When you said how you felt, it struck a chord in me because I’ve been trying to figure out what the deal is, I have all these conflicted feelings and a lot of them trace back to rage at how ALONE I felt while parenting my brilliant but hyperactive (officially ADHD) son. How much he and I had to deny of ourselves in order to conform and meet expectations while receiving very little in return. Low-grade PTSD sounds about right.

  11. I’m not a parent, but this spoke to my experience. I used to be a frequent crier, but somehow I wrung it out of me as a part of healing from that traumatic part of my life. Now I find that when I need to access sadness in that visceral way, esp. when faced with a sobbing partner, I cannot, and I wish I could.

  12. Politicalguineapig

    I haven’t cried since my graduation from college (two years last May.) I didn’t cry at my own grandmother’s funeral- I was too stunned to do so. Personally, I hate myself when I’m crying or when I’m angry. I just feel that I shouldn’t allow myself to have emotions- because life, for me and for others, is easier when I don’t admit to feeling anything at all.

  13. As a child I cried regularly and was therefore called a cry-baby and told by my mother I cried too much. So I learned not to cry. Once a year would be a lot.
    The last thing that made me cry was the preview to “Like Dandelion Dust.” A blurting cry. But it was after midnight and I didn’t want to wake up the fam, so I stopped.
    I’m dad to a boychick and when he cries it can be grating, but I never want to be the giver of the message that it’s not alright to cry. It feels like a huge gray area around trying to get him to ask for things nicely and giving him the anti-crying message.
    Thanks for this and all your posts.

    shalom v’ahava,


    • my husband’s parents are really repressive emotionally. He has a very hard time expressing his emotions and has been committed to not inflicting that burden on our son. What we tell him is that it’s ok to cry when he’s angry or sad but that if he’s crying because he can’t have his way (like watching TV/playing Wii for a gazillion hours), then he can do so in his room, not as a punishment but as a way to go to “his space”. And this is after we hug him and validate his feelings. When he was younger, if he was throwing a tantrum, we would calmly remind him that we couldn’t understand his words if he was crying. Lots of hugging, holding close, providing physical reinforcement by way of holding his hand, rubbing his back.

  14. You are quite possibly the best writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us — especially the painful ones, for I know how hard those are to talk about.

    I haven’t been able to cry since the seventh grade (~12 years ago now), when the “teasing” by the local football quarterback/baseball allstar/homecoming king/richest kid in school started turning physical. While I was never actually raped, he and his posse delighted in cornering me in the hallways and in corners to assualt and threaten me. Crying was–is?–a sign of weakness; if I broke down, they won.

    So I put on what one psychiatrist in my adult life called my “manic happy cheerleader face” which is apparently oh-so common amongst the bipolar people he’s seen. Now that I’m a parent of a rambunctous toddler myself, with all the triggers and love and agony and joy this monstrous task involves, my brain tells me that it is much “easier” to simply assume that mask and soldier on, even though the toll it takes on me and my kid is too much to bear.

    You’re not alone, Arwyn. Not in the slightest. I wish you–and we–many cleansing cries, even if the getting there is painful.

    (P.S. The post “What Price Mental Health: Part II” is busted for some reason when I try to get to it from part 1. A broken link, perhaps?)

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