What Happens When Kids See Their Parents Cry?
It traumatized me as a child. But now that I’m a parent, I realize that my mother was just human.
My first few years as a mother were unexpectedly awful. My son was chronically ill from six months old and it took almost a year for the doctors to figure out what was wrong with him. It took another four years to get him better.
His deeply damaged intestinal tract compromised his immune system — nutritional deficiencies, eczema, chronic exhaustion, painful bloating, lethargy, etc.
Three years into a painful and long road to healing him, he had developed a baffling and excruciating itch on his testicles. We were bounced from hospital to hospital, specialist to specialist. And yet, he would still scratch his balls until they were bleeding.
I’d send him to his daycare with three pairs of underwear on so he couldn’t get his hands in there.
I’d clip his nails as short as possible and he’d still come home with blood-stained clothes.
We couldn’t bath him, only sponge him clean.
I’d sleep beside him, ready to pounce and grab his hands as soon as he started squirming.
At this point, he was 3-years-old and I was working 40 hours a week on a maximum of three hours of sleep per night (broken into 30-minute sprints…the most he could sleep before waking up).
After five months of this, I snapped. I had just fallen back asleep for the fifth time that night, and he woke up again to scratch. I was delirious with exhaustion. I slathered him with the only ointment that seemed to give him relief but it wasn’t working anymore. He fought me and scratched so hard that I could see his fingers covered in blood. I couldn’t stop myself from crying and as I walked to the bathroom to get a warm washcloth to clean the blood off his hands, I collapsed on the floor and started to hyperventilate.
I felt totally out of control, lost and desperate. I felt helpless that I couldn’t help my son. I sat slumped over on the floor, heaving violently as the tears rolled down my face.
My son was terrified. He crawled into my lap and wrapped his arms around my neck and started sobbing.
“I’m sorry, mommy! I won’t scratch anymore. Please stop crying!”
He wiped the tears from my face. But I couldn’t stop. I tried and I couldn’t.
I cried for a long time on the hallway floor, my son in my lap. When I finally caught my breath, I told him that I was okay but I was scared that I couldn’t make him better.
When the tears finally stopped for both of us, I cleaned the blood off of him and I fell asleep with him in my arms.
Four years later, I reflect back on that emotionally raw moment and it reminds me of all the times I’d seen my mother cry growing up (it was a lot). She was 19 when I was born and 20 when my sister was born. She raised us alone. She worked 50–60 hours a week. She was lonely and dealing with the shitshow of dating. There were financial problems, heartbreak and never-ending stress. No wonder she cried.
Because I was the eldest child, I bore the brunt of her emotional outbursts and I’d shield my sister from them. My mom was always an over-sharer and I definitely knew more about her than any child should know of their parent at such a young age. Having this knowledge forced me to feel responsible for her well being, so when she was sad, I felt like it was my job to make her better.
It wasn’t my job though, and it fucked me up. It taught me that I’m responsible for the happiness of others — my friends, my family, my colleagues, my partners. I’m so busy worrying about keeping other people happy that I forget about keeping me happy.
And I don’t ever, ever want my son to feel that he is responsible for my emotional well being. That almighty task is mine and mine alone.
But I do want him to feel comfortable expressing his own emotions and to be empathetic towards the emotions of others, especially his mother’s. It’s important that he understands how hard I’ve had to work to get him healthy, to keep him emotionally balanced, to nourish him with all the things he needs to thrive.
Doing everything myself and hiding my fear/stress/pain is something I’ve become an expert in. I learned how to do that from a long line of battle-hardened women. But it served them no good and it sure as hell hasn’t helped me at all.
So I’ve decided that I’m not going to hide my humanity from my son. I refuse to watch him grow up seeing me bitter, void of emotions. But I also won’t let him see me crying on the floor again either. No child should have to grow up with that burden.
If I get it right, my son will grow up understanding that I am a human being with human emotions. He’ll understand that being his mom is both the most rewarding job I’ve had but also the most challenging.
Sometimes, he’ll see me sad. And I’ll explain to him why I’m sad.
Sometimes, he’ll see me scared and I’ll tell him what I’m afraid of.
Most of the time though, he’ll see me happy.
And so, when he does witness my moments of sadness or fear, he will know that it will pass.
And he’ll know that it’s okay for him to feel sad sometimes too.
So what happens when kids see their parents cry depends on the conversation you have with them to give it context. It depends on being mature enough as a parent to know at what point vulnerability and honesty become an emotional burden too heavy for a child to bear.