My ten year old son cried in public the other day.
This was noteworthy because it wasn’t. At the time, I didn’t even think much about it.
I had had a rough day. He hadn’t seen me in thirteen hours, and we went out a local coney island to grab a late meal. He was looking forward to playing Uno before the food came, but I told him I was grumpy and tired and didn’t want to.
He looked shocked and hurt. He’d obviously made a plan in his mind that this was going to happen. But he said it was okay, that he understood. The whites of his eyes turned red, and as we sat in the booth, he put his head in the crook of my shoulder.
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a man. I was told that boys don’t cry. I was shamed whenever I cried, which was often and loudly. I learned that, to be a man, I wasn’t supposed to cry.
I was histrionic child. I didn’t cry gently; I exploded. I threw things. I broke things. Everybody knew I was unhappy.
I was shamed. Boys don’t act like this. Men know how to control their feelings. More than once, my parents promised to give me something to cry about. To my peers, my public misery was a source of humor.
The more I was shamed, the louder I cried, because I would hold things inside until they couldn’t fit there anymore. I had no way of little things out gently, at the time. I had no way of talking about my feelings. Boys didn’t do that.
As I got older, I learned how to not cry. I funneled it into anger instead.
Ninety seven percent of mass shooters are men. They funnel their negative emotions into anger instead.
Men succumb to suicide at a rate of three and a half times that of women. White men alone account for 70% of suicide deaths in the United States.
Boys don’t cry, they explode.
My father rarely cried around me when I was young. I only remember one time, when my parents were divorcing. They’d had a huge fight. My mother had gone somewhere else, slammed out of the house. He was at the foot of the stairs that led to my bedroom, and he cried. I’m sure he thought I was asleep.
Men in his era weren’t supposed to cry.
Men in my era aren’t supposed to cry.
Men in my era are killing themselves and others in violent ways.
Men don’t cry, they explode.
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women,” bell hooks writes. “Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
I’ve lived half a century now, and I’ve torn my manhood out of my chest. If being a man means destroying myself, then maybe I don’t want to be a man.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it even means to be a man, about why we as a culture seem so very obsessed with putting people in gender buckets.
Merriam-Webster recently added the non-binary sense of “they” to their dictionary, complementing the existing singular, which is used when someone’s gender is unknown. Comment sections around social media were filled with sarcastic moaning, even about the centuries-old use of calling someone whose gender we don’t know “they.”
Some people can’t seem to even communicate about or with someone until they have pinned down a gender.
So if I don’t want to be a man, but I have to be a man… where does that leave me?
When my spouse and I discovered that our coming child was a boy, I worried. I wanted to role model a vision of being a man that had been denied me: A whole, complex person. Someone who openly cries when they’re sad, someone who talks about their feelings in sunshine and storms.
I felt that being more in touch with my own emotions, honestly and openly, was something that I could accomplish through conscious acts. But crying was another thing. Even at funerals, even at times when I feel like I have the urge to cry to cleanse my sorrows, I still struggle. I have learned to never cry, and I have to fight that learning whenever I need to cry.
I found a way around this for my child: I told him all of this. I told him why sometimes I got stony-faced and distant when it seemed like I wanted to cry. The ideal would be to role model open crying, but the alternative was to at least explain the contrast between the ideal and the reality.
In the coney island the other day, as I held my son and let him cry into my shoulder, I realized some things.
There was no revulsion in my heart; I had been worried there would be, at times like these.
This was, in my mind, an inane thing to be crying about. Even if I’d been quietly weeping like my child was, my father would have become exasperated with me. “Grow up,” I would have been told. “This isn’t something to cry about.” I had been trained to respond to boys crying with that hostile revulsion.
There was no desperate bargaining in my heart; I had been worried there would be, at times like these.
When I had had negative emotions in public, my mother would search for solutions to get me to stop. I was trained to believe that my negative emotions were a personal failing on her part. Good mothers don’t let their boys cry in public.
The inability of adults to deal properly with my tears undoubtedly caused me to weaponize them. Crying would turn into screaming, and that would get me what I wanted, even if it came at the cost of shame and peer isolation.
Instead, I held him, and let him sob his disappointment into my shoulder. As we sat silently, I realized that I was being unfair to him anyway, that I really wasn’t that grumpy anyway. Feigning grumpiness was my easy way out.
Feigning grumpiness is, far too often, my easy way out.
I asked my spouse to go get the Uno deck out of the car, and my son wiped his tears. There was no manipulation in this crying; it had been an honest and healthy release of disappointment.
After we got the cards, he said a quiet “Thanks” and that was that.
I don’t know if “men” cry, because I’m not really sure what a “man” is.
I know that people cry. And if my son, the person, wants to cry, I’m fine with that.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.