Photo of Ericka by Sarah Sido
I was lying next to my seven-year-old son at bedtime. He doesn’t ask for this often because he knows I always say no. One week ago, I had two backpacks to unload, two lunch containers to scrub peanut butter off the sides of, a dishwasher to fill and run, as well as make sure their basketball outfits were cleaned for the after-school game, and sweep all the rice, Legos, sand off the floor before finally settling down to get to my work, which was memorizing lines for an audition or sitting down to edit photos for a deadline. 8pm was my time, my alone time, my work time.
But now there is no work. And none in sight. There are no bento box containers to clean, no backpacks to unload. There is little to organize or prepare for. The sports gear is already shoved away deep in the closet.
So I laid with my oldest son. Because I had no excuse and really, why not? We are all anxious and I know his head was spinning. The least I could do was be a warm comforting body next to his.
We were quiet for a bit and then he asked, “Do adults ever cry?”
“Sure,” I said. “Of course they do.”
“But you don’t cry mom. You never cry.”
I pride myself on creating an emotionally safe household. Big feelings are welcomed here and we honor them and work through them. Both my husband and I take the time to sit with our children in sadness or explore anger and safe ways to express it. We want to raise sensitive and emotionally mature men and we work hard at nurturing that.
Why do I feel like I need to be superhuman when really I am being less human?
But this question took me by surprise. “Surely you have seen me cry before,” I said. “Never,” he replied.
It got me wondering about how I deal with sadness and why I won’t let my children see me upset. The first reason (and I assume for most parents) is that I don’t want to scare them. I want them to think they are living in a safe world and they have nothing to worry about. I want them to believe that money isn’t an issue and mommy and daddy don’t argue and they are fully protected as long as they apply ample amounts of SPF 30.
I don’t ever want to “lose it” in front of my children because that means I have lost control, and to me, that is too scary, too vulnerable, unknown territory. Control, at this point, is the only commodity I have, and I’m not going to give that up.
I come from a tight German stock. I grew up in below-freezing Wisconsin winters. I am tough. I can sit in heat with swarming mosquitoes and face a windchill of negative 15. And although I knew I was loved, our family rarely said it. I was taught to march on, move forward, and “let it go” when things got rough.
I witnessed my father cry just once when he gave the eulogy at his mother’s funeral. I remember how it jarred me and my thinking How strange. But in that moment I saw his love for his mother, his sadness, his heart, and how deeply human he was. I was shocked, but I wasn’t scared.
So why is it that I refuse to let my guard down? Why do I feel like I need to be superhuman when really I am being less human?
The thing is, my kids know everything. They can’t hear me when I yell “put your shoes on” for the 30th time but they hear every hushed word between my husband and me in the bathroom. They are tuned in to the tension I am feeling right now and they see every twitch in my face, every wince when I open Facebook, every over-pour of wine, every agitation when I scrub a glass too roughly and it breaks in the sink.
I am breaking into pieces in front of their eyes, but I refuse to break down.
I have read enough Brené Brown to understand that vulnerability is the key, it’s the core, and it connects us to ourselves and to others. I get it, but, wow, is it difficult to practice.
I imagine the learning they really need, along with phonics and shapes, is to see how an adult navigates hardships with honesty and grace. Maybe I can sit down and color with them to work out my worry. Maybe I can punch the pillows and stomp like an elephant to get out my frustration. Maybe I can allow myself to be complicated and confused and concerned and squishy and soft and available and deeply human. Maybe I can let the tears flow when they come.
I just can’t touch my face when they do.