My daughter’s face is raw and red, with tears streaming down her cheeks. She’s in full toddler-meltdown mode. I’m stricken, clenching her in a hug, my own face so close to tears you can almost see a wobble in the chin in the still photograph.
Artistically, it is a fantastic photo. The lighting. The mood. It was taken by a professional assigned to shadow our family as part of the famous Eddie Adams Barnstorm Photography Workshop. As a photographer, I can appreciate it. As a mother, I’m awed by the emotional scene between parent and child.
But as a woman? It is me, forever breaking down, caught on a digital Nikon in full color at high resolution. I am serving at the whim of my emotions. Kind of like the toddler on my lap.
And that’s where I’ve fallen in love with this photograph. Because my daughter is not afraid to show how completely devastated she is at this particular moment in time. She hasn’t lost control of her emotions. She’s using her tears to say, “Mommy, my finger, it hurts.”
Society in general does not respect crying from people over four feet tall. You are a “crybaby.” There’s “no crying in baseball.” You “cry like a baby.” “Big girls don’t cry.” Is it any wonder we spend decades fighting back tears?
I’ll admit I was never very good at it. The father died in the movie Armageddon, and I balled my hands in fists so hard I left nail marks in my palms. Still, I cried. The nurses in the hospital struggled to find a vein for the IV, moving from arm to arm and hand to hand, while I chewed a piece of my lower lip off. And still I cried.
That shame of letting go sits at the back of my mind when I watch my daughter’s eyes begin to water. But she’s not looking around to see who’s watching (not when she’s really crying – there are the manipulative toddler tears too, those “Mommy won’t buy me the 99-cent toy near the grocery checkout” tears).
She’s not about to apologize to me for crying, and I’m not going to make her. I might even join her. Because there are few things that make you feel better than a really good cry.
Watch your kid go from a face red and raw with pain, frustration, and utter devastation to the calm after the storm. It doesn’t matter what started it. It could be your baby – who isn’t talking yet – just needs to get some noise out. Or has some wicked gas. Or your toddler has just lost her favorite truck to her best friend in a sandbox battle.
When the last tear is shed, it is all over. And they go back to whatever they were doing – gurgling in their crib or shoveling sand into dump trucks.
I’ve found a beauty in that lull after a particularly raucous screaming fit, in kissing tear-stained cheeks and wiping a sniffling nose. She is not picture-perfect, but she is at her most loving, letting her wearied body fall heavily onto my chest and clutching at my arms, whispering her “I love you, Mommy.” After the violence of the cry, she feels safe. So what if she shows it by running her dripping nose across my shoulder?
I’m learning to take a cue from my crying kid.
“Why are you crying too, Mommy?” They literally sob for our sympathies. It’s up to us to let them know it’s okay.
They might be crying babies, but they’re no crybabies. According to a study dubbed the International Study on Adult Crying – which took into account the reports of more than three thousand people in a variety of countries, when they cried, why and how they felt afterward – ninety percent of people feel better after their tears are shed.
But where children weep unapologetically, the societal connection between crying and weakness dulls the efficacy of the act. A study at the University of South Florida on why some people feel better after a cry than others found that those who felt “shame or embarrassment” for their crying jag were less likely to reap the benefits of the release.
But those who reached out for (and received) emotional support while crying – those who weren’t embarrassed to reach for a hug – felt better. Which is something kids know from birth. Babies’ cries, in particular, are on a “crying curve,” that changes based on their developmental levels. They even start tearing up around two to four months old, when their bodies’ nervous system is developed enough to tell the tear ducts to get leaking. Mothers have been shown to sport an instinct to respond to our children crying, making it not just a response mechanism but a biological necessity.
So when the electricity blacks out, and suddenly twenty minutes of work on the computer is gone and I’m frustrated and up against a deadline, and my daughter starts wailing over the toe stubbed in the dark, I simply sweep her up in my arms and head off to the couch.
“Why are you crying too, Mommy?” she asks, sniffling into my shoulder.
“Because it’s okay to cry.”