Sunday, November 4, 2012

the lost art of Cry It Out (in someone else's arms)

Saf at 3 weeks saying, 'no more pictures please.'

My son, at 27 months, is just starting to semi-regularly produce tears.  They still don't run down his cheeks, but at least they well up in his eyes now and then.  My daughter has had tears welling and running since 8 weeks, like most other babies.  I never worried about my son's tearlessness since his eyes otherwise seemed normal; my friends joked that it was our parenting style, never letting him be upset enough to actually produce tears.  It's true we don't let our children cry alone, but our children do cry with us present.  And they Cry.  And CRY.  And CA-RYE!!!!!!

Crying is good for us sometimes, no?  Do you ever feel like you need to have a good cry?  I've been feeling that recently - my post-baby hormones are betraying me and the things that usually release my sobs (my husband asking me to help him with the dishes, for instance) haven't been doing the trick.  Crying feels really good, a language of it's own that can express sadness, grief, anger, frustration; it's healthier than swearing at your spouse or punching a hole in the wall.  (I've possibly done the first, but not the second.)  

Our children need to cry, too.  I don't believe babies and toddlers cry for "no reason", but I do think sometimes they need to process or vent or release big emotions and crying is the best way to do it.  They aren't hungry, wet or in pain - they just need to cry.  Crying alone harms the child and their attachment to care-givers, but crying-in-arms is a different story. I remember holding my son when he was about 6 months old in my lap, looking him in the eyes as he screamed for about ten minutes.  I had just read this article, about crying for comfort, and rather than distracting him from his emotions I engaged him there; when he was finished he cuddled into my chest, at peace, and that night he slept surprisingly well.  I lost my fear of his big emotions then, and I'm still not afraid (although I do find them inconvenient sometimes, especially when large groups of strangers are staring).

My daughter, nearly 10 months old, sometimes seems to need to cry in my arms for a few minutes before she falls asleep.  She will be obviously tired and I'll take her for a nap.  I'll offer her "nai-nai" in the rocking chair which she will refuse, desperate to stay awake.  I'll hold her close and rock her for 2-3 minutes and she will cry there with me.  Then she will nurse quickly to sleep.

I was a sensitive teenager.  I cried very easily, especially if someone in authority was unhappy with me.  My highschool basketball coach was a great person and excellent coach.  Over the four years I played for him, he took our team from a very much losing record to a very much winning record.  He yelled a lot in the process, and especially in my first couple of years on the varsity team I really struggled with that.  I probably cried at some point during most practices and every game.  Yes, crying while running down the court, or waiting for the girl I had fouled to shoot her free throws.  It must have been excruciating for people to watch me try and hold in my tears, which was nearly impossible, teenage hormones and all.

thanks, husband, for digging up this photo.  it's really great.
I would often cry after games, even when we had won.  There was something I wish I had done better, or something my coach or teammate had said that stung my uber-sensitive heart.  And you know what my mom would do?  She would hold me in her rocking chair, all 150 sweaty pounds of 17 year old me.  And she would let me cry there, in her arms.  I often ask myself in parenting, "What would my mom do?"  She would definitely let me cry in her arms, no matter how big or old or supposedly mature I was.  I still call my mom crying (although admittedly it has been a long time since she's rocked me.  Maybe when we visit over Christmas? ;)  She's honoured to be invited in to that vulnerable place where I've lost control and my sobs flow free.

It's hard to cry in front of people, isn't it?  I recently asked our power company to give us some kind of financial grace when a leak (we didn't know about) caused our hot water bill to sky rocket.  The woman on the phone kindly declined and the tears started to flow - I quickly said, "Okay, goodbye" and hung up, lest she feel bad for her message-bearing.

It was also difficult to cry in front of my friendboy and fiance (now husband).  And "in front of" I mean in real space but also through cyberspace, as most (maybe 80%?) of our communication when friend or dating was through email and Skype or phone calls.  During our three month long distance engagement I had a lot of body image stuff surface and it was dark.  It was ugly.  I was embarrassed, hesitating to admit my fears and struggles and low self-esteem as it surprised me, I deemed it unattractive, I wanted to shove it down.  But I couldn't shove it, it was that big.  One conversation, probably a couple hours of internet time in, we were talking about our impending marriage day (and night) and I had this huge sob welling up from way down deep.  "I need to go", I said.  "I need to cry."  

Chris encouraged me to cry with him there, he wanted to hear and be present.  I insisted I needed to hang up.  "Do we do that, becca?  Do we just hang up on each other when we are upset?"  I did.  And I ugly cried into my pillow alone, disconnected from the man who was preparing to share the totality of his life with me.  It was too vulnerable, I couldn't go there with him, into the dark and unknown of my tears.  When I was done, I called him back and apologized.  I wanted to get there, to that space where we share it all.

Our early months of marriage were full of tears.  When it wasn't money issues it was the loss of our first baby, a loss that I cried about for many, many months.  I had to learn to let Chris in to those tears as my instinct was to cry alone.  If I would have walked that grief independently I would have forced a huge chasm in our new marriage.  For us to survive as us, I had to let him in.  It was very hard and often he wouldn't even know what exactly was going on or was wrong or what had triggered the onslaught of emotion, but he would stay there with me.  As I laid face-down in our bed wailing, he laid there next to me.  He would stroke my hair and maybe whisper prayers or maybe do nothing at all but listen and validate my sanity with his presence.

And it's not just our spouse, but we need our friends to witness our big emotions and tell us we are okay.  The most healing spaces for me in grief have been with people to listen to me cry, pass me tissues and accept how my face gets red and my nose drips snot and my eyes stay very small for hours after.  Letting people in, to share and minister prayer and encouragement and even just to listen has saved me from having a trauma-induced bitter heart that lives in a constant state of crisis. 

Our culture pushes for babies and toddlers who are independent:  they can fall asleep alone, pick themselves up after a tumble, handle bad dreams in bed without a cuddle, and let mom and dad leave without a tearful display.  This makes our lives as parents easier for sure, and people genuinely think it benefits the child in the long-run.  They will be able to self-soothe, to handle themselves in public and not be so dependent on parents or carers or friends for comfort.  They can go it alone and be content.  But I wonder if we actually spend so much of our lives un-learning this independence that doctors and pastors told our parents was so important for us.  We find it hard to open up, to share our hearts in vulnerable ways, we carry shame over our tears rather than freedom.  We move into relationships and marriage with our boxes half-packed, no one is trust-worthy enough for our heavy bags of secrets.  We struggle with intimacy in relationships, we run away when people get too close to our real, insecure, needy selves.  We want our toddlers to be independent, but don't we long for teenagers who will reject the false comforts of sex, pornography, alcohol and self-harm because of their ability to openly communicate with us?

We also struggle to be open with God about how things really are with us.  We hide our fears under proclamations of trust and "God's will", we bandage our broken hearts up tight and pretend things are the way they are meant to be.  The sun's still shining, isn't?  It is well with my soul.  Except it's not: I'm angry, disappointed and confused.  We think creation's groaning in labour pains is for the faithless, and that is not us.  

The truth is, the depth to which we are honest with our pain with God and each other, the openness with which we will cry and ramble and pray in front of others, that's the depth to which real comfort can come.  It's comfort that finds all of our attempts at self-soothing shallow, a comfort that actually heals our hearts wide open and invites us into a future that is good and full of hope. 

I want my children to keep crying in my arms, even if it's about petty things, even when they are bigger than me and covered in sweat still in their basketball uniform.  Healthy self-control of emotions will come when they are ready, but I never want them to hide their true hearts for shame of being found unworthy.  And when they cry publicly in their toddler-esque meltdowns, I want to take it as a challenge to share my own tears with others in a way that feels vulnerable but I know will set us free.  I want to re-kindle the lost art of cry-it-out, but in someone else's arms.

I highly recommend this fascinating clip from Dr. Gordon Neufeld on the importance of children attaching to their parents rather than to their peers.

And now I must go clean my kitchen.  Yes, I must.


  1. Thanks for this, Becca. Freshman year of college, I was on birth control for my acne and it threw my emotional stability out the window. For some reason, my hormones demanded that I weep uncontrollably every Sunday evening. My boyfriend (husband :)) would let me bury my face in his chest for at least an hour every. single. week. It was that practice that ensured me he accepts and loves me just as I am - balanced hormones or not - and that he will always be there when I cry. No one should cry alone, especially not fragile children.