Big Boys Don't Cry
Growing up, there were only two situations where I saw men show any kind of emotion. Mostly, it was anger, for whatever reason, and then on the rare occasion there was joy...whenever the right team unexpectedly won the right sporting event.
Even in the movies, let’s say...when a man finds out his wife has been murdered, generally he allowed one tear to slowly slide down his cheek before screaming “NO!” to the heavens and heading off to seek vengeance.
So, it was little wonder that my parents didn’t quite know what to do with 6 year old me, who, for the first few weeks of “big school” would not stop crying in the mornings. They asked me why I was crying, since everything was alright, and I said I didn’t know. They asked me if I was being bullied. I wasn’t. They were all out of questions at that point.
Now, 29 years later, it’s obvious - I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I couldn’t verbalise it at that point because, as I said, I was 6 at that time and even the adults didn’t understand what was going on. Also, I was attending an old, all-boys school with all the traditions that turned “boys into men”. Men were hard, and tough, and struggled on, and didn’t show vulnerability and definitely did not cry.
Those words were never specifically said, but in an environment like that, it doesn’t have to be. It was also an environment that does not know how to bring the best out of a little, anxious, 6 year old boy.
I don’t have any hard feelings to those early teachers of mine and I definitely think my parents did their best - they were two, working parents trying to get enough money together to get their coloured sons into a privileged white school. I don’t know how they managed that, but they did.
With the pressure that came with just getting their children into that school, there was no way they had the capacity to buck the trends and culture of the time that spoke into what boys and men should be and how they should behave. Those men in the movies I mentioned earlier? They weren’t showing the complex emotions that come with grief. They weren’t heading straight to regular therapy sessions.They definitely didn’t becoming weeping, vulnerable messes for a few years. Instead they became tougher.
So, I was encouraged to be tougher and learned to push the tears back and fears way, way down. To put on a good smile and pretend everything is fine, while your stomach is cramping up in the mornings and every project and test makes you feel like the floor is falling away. To do stupid things to prove you are tough while never learning to deal with emotions, so even when your friend is sad you don’t know what to say or do. If you aren’t physically strong, you better be funny, brother, or else you’re in trouble. And definitely, no matter what you do, mention that you are not happy, that you’re scared, that you don’t know if you can cope because do you have any idea how bad other people have it you are so lucky you better buck up and work harder play harder why are you so quiet what’s wrong?
It was exhausting, what they put that little boy, bigger boy, teenager and man through. And eventually I cracked.
Luckily, I had so many people around me who were able to help me piece myself back together over time, and I could afford to go to therapy for years to work out what being vulnerable actually looked and felt like. I’m still in the middle of that process. At least now, when I’m smiling, it’s more than likely because I’m happy.
In a way, I’m lucky I went through all that, because now I can work hard to make sure my sons don’t have to. They are still very little, but I believe that every little bit of work done now will have a massive impact later. Look, I’m not perfect (and I can admit that!), but here’s what I’ve tried to do with my boys:
When they cry, ask them why they are crying before trying to stop them
If I’m feeling sad, and they ask, I’ll tell them. I might not give them the full explanation of how sad or why I feel like that, but I want them to see me modelling vulnerability.
When they tell me a story, I try to remember to ask them how that made them feel - helping them put words to their emotions.
Obviously, these aren’t the only things that I do or that you can do - but I do think this kind of behaviour has to come from the dad. Boys need to see emotional intelligence being modelled by the men in their lives, because even though it’s no longer 1991, the world out there will still teach them that “boys don’t cry”.
It’s up to you to show them all the wonderful, complex emotions that come with life, and how to deal with and enjoy them. Please do that...so that he won’t have to spend all his time and money learning that in therapy one day.