I began to clean, dipping a rag in a bowl of milk and carefully wiping the ivory touches. Milk, according to design magazines of the 1970s, made ivory, well, ivory, and I was at work when my dad came on the scene.
Seeing me wasting my hard earned money really struck a sour note with my dad, who was normally dumb and easy going. “Susan!” I remember him screaming. “Come in here!” I had never seen my parents arguing, let alone raising their voices, and when my mother ran away I found her in the laundry room, literally crying over spilled milk.
She said all the right things, assuring me that it wasn’t my fault that she and my dad would be fine and that they would not divorce. Yet for me, realizing that my strong, willful mother could be reduced to tears was and remains a staggering incident. It was also an isolated case; growing up, I was more likely to spot a unicorn than to see my mom’s wet cheeks again.
Unlike my mom, I don’t snuggle up by our dryer for a private fit. I cry often and openly. Happy tears, sad tears, ugly tears, tears of frustration, tears born of anger. The whole range of tears. After 14 years of marriage, my husband, still dry-eyed, is now used to it. But I have to stop and wonder about our 9 year old son Leo.
Instead of having a single “laundry room” moment engraved in his memory bank, Leo has dozens of them. Which raises an important question: Should I turn off the aqueducts?
“I think it’s always good for parents to show a full range of emotions,” said Rachel Altvater, a Washington-area psychologist specializing in child and adolescent mental health. “We want to normalize the sadness and disappointment for our children. Crying is actually very healthy for our body because [the stress hormone] cortisol is released in our tears.
Plus, she says, kids intuitively know when something is wrong. “Failure to show your genuine and unapologetic personality can make you untrustworthy as a parent.”
When I asked him if crying in front of a son was any different from crying in front of a girl, Altvater acknowledged that historically the message to boys has been to be tough, to man. “Anger and aggression are more socially acceptable in men,” she said, which reminded me of my teenage husband. Essentially a fatherless after his parents’ divorce, Karl was the man of the house, and with that role came a talent for compartmentalizing his whirlwind of emotions.
When I asked Altvater if Karl was sending the wrong message by holding back tears, she said, “It’s definitely a possibility.” If Leo saw him cry, she said, that would be a beautiful message. “A father who cries in front of a boy who has received signals that crying is for ‘sissies’ may begin to question this long-held cultural belief.”
On the positive side, Altvater continued, the media today is doing a great job of portraying male emotional pain. As proof, she pointed to none other than Harry Styles.
A few hours after our call, Altvater sent me a link to a TikTok video. In it, Styles stops in the middle of a gig to wish a happy 10th birthday to a young fan named Daniel. In what should be everyone’s answer to Mr. Watermelon Sugar’s own call, Daniel begins to cry with what I can only assume are tears of joy.
“First of all, let me tell you something,” Styles said after apologizing for embarrassing the child first. “Crying is very manly. Being vulnerable is manly, Daniel. Before resuming the show, Styles gives a farewell gift. “You are a good man, Daniel.
I would like to think it was one of Harry’s parents who taught him this level of compassion. “It’s something he learned,” Altvater assured me.
She was talking about Leo’s tendency to go get the tissue box when I look like I’m ready to blow, but she might as well have been referring to Styles. “Leo is coming to feed you because that’s what he learned from you.”
Before he starts campaigning for the Mother of the Year, Altvater has a few caveats. In addition to being aware of cultural beliefs around crying, there is reason to be concerned if a parent cries excessively. “If a parent is depressed, for example, it is likely that they will have a hard time being emotionally available for their child,” she explained. “If the child sees a parent in distress, a child may feel unsafe or wonder if they are to blame.”
I’m pretty sure Leo didn’t feel responsible the last time he caught me crying. I was zooming in with a dear friend, sharing our respective stories of the decline of a relative – my mom, her dad – at the cruel hands of dementia. There is so much sorrow these days, this year.
“I’m not a big crier, in general,” admitted my friend Emily, a mother of two boys, one in Leo’s eighth grade. “I think I cried in front of them when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away,” she continued. “But maybe that’s it.
When I asked her how they answered, she replied: “Total indifference”.
Maybe some parents, like Emily, just aren’t great criers. They do not, to use a word that Altvater frequently mentioned during our call, “role models” or do not express strong emotions outwardly in front of their children. And some, like me, do.
It is the job of parents to teach empathy to their children. As much as I want Leo to be a good kid, I also want him to become a good man. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time feeling like a stranger – harassed for being too sensitive, too quick to cry, too easily hurt. “Why do you always have to wear your heart on your sleeve?” my mom asked me once. At the time, I took his question as a warrant. To protect me. To hide what was sweet. To the woman. But over the years, I realized that my mom and I were built so differently.
The other day I asked Leo what it was like for him to see me cry. “Hmmm,” he said, thinking. “Hmmm.” He quickly remembered the August we spent at my family’s beach house in Connecticut. My brother and I had argued over something petty that, in hindsight, was really about something much deeper. “You were crying on the phone with Uncle David,” Leo said.
I returned at that point, Leo sitting on our stairs, his little body shaking, his face all red and stained. Leo adores my brother, so he stayed nearby, watching a parade of emotions run through my face: sadness, anger, despair, grief and, ultimately, forgiveness and relief.
“If it really touches my heart,” said Leo, “I’ll cry with you.”
Now – as a mother myself, after having suffered losses, setbacks and many disappointments – I realize that my mother’s attitude towards self-preservation has another side. Being tough doesn’t mean you can’t be tender.
Thanks to Leo, I saw the flip side and learned the value of nurturing a little boy’s natural drift towards empathy, worry and vulnerability. And it never fails to make me cry.
Cathy Alter is a frequent contributor to The Post whose articles and essays have also appeared in O, Oprah magazine, The Cut and Wired. His most recent book is the anthology “CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Lasting Power of their First Celebrity Crush”.