As a child I was, as my peers so often liked to call me, a bit of a crybaby. I had always been prone to emotional expression, whether it was after watching a sad movie or because I was feeling lonely. I even recall crying once after my teacher broke it to me that a nugget of knowledge I shared with him during lunchtime was, in fact, incorrect. I can acknowledge that I was overly sensitive, and my tendency to become emotionally devastated at the slightest provocation often left even my kind-hearted mom irritated.
It’s strange to look back at that time, as I find that now, even though I’d still like to call myself an emotionally stable and empathetic person, I have a hard time crying. What came so naturally (even too naturally) when I was young now feels awkward and alien. I’m pretty sure I know exactly why.
My dad is that classic oxymoron: a lawyer and a generally nice guy. I remember when I got a piano as a kid and learned from my mom that he had accepted it as payment for a case because the client didn’t have enough funds to pay him (and had wanted to get rid of it anyway). He raised me on a solidly moral but strict foundation. In some ways, however, especially in comparison to where we would like to think society is heading now, his guidance fell short. In no area was this quite as clear as in his handling of his – and my – emotions.
My father’s family has always had a problem with anger. It took me until my teens (and even into my early 20s) to develop a coping mechanism to handle my own anger management, but it remains a struggle for my dad, who didn’t have a veritable saint like my mom to balance out his upbringing. In my household, masculine anger was an accepted norm. Men just…got angry, sometimes. This wasn’t exactly the best environment for a sensitive child like me. My crying often enraged my father, and of course, when your father is enraged, this just tends to make you want to cry more. It was a cycle of unresolved emotional issues on both sides.
“Stop crying like a girl” and “men don’t cry” were two phrases I heard commonly growing up. My father, for all his anger issues, clearly carried a significant amount of guilt about it, and I have a feeling my emotionally vulnerable response only served to enrage him because it was easier to get angry than to acknowledge that he was damaging his child. It had to be my weakness at fault, not his own.
As I got older, I outgrew my emotional outbursts, but I often think I overcompensated, as a great deal of men in this country have done. Discussing the poisonously masculine culture of our political landscape in the last couple of years would be an entire blog series in itself, but suffice it to say, you don’t look at the current people running this country and think “empathetic and sensitive”. Gender norms have become a hot topic over the last decade, and we are beginning to look into the toxic masculine culture that lies in the seedy underbelly of a significant number of problems we currently face: school shootings spurred on by a blend of gun culture and the insecurities of angry young men, abusive families and rape culture grounded in the idea that men must be in charge, and emotionally distant and detached men who have had it hammered into their brains that “men don’t cry”.
The problem with this age-old crying moratorium is that it leaves men unable to express themselves, and makes them unwilling to confront their emotional and mental issues; and meanwhile, those who do express their feelings, whatever gender the person be, are seen as weaker beings in general. By saying that “only girls cry” and punishing me for my emotional outbursts, my father was implying that women are weaker, whether he intended to or not. This isn’t even touching on the idea of what gender actually is. When a close family member came out as transgender later in my life, it threw into question everything I had been told about gender expression; did this person, this woman, now have the right to cry that they lacked before? Or was the whole premise of crying as a weakness in itself complete nonsense?
In an age where the behavioral and mental health landscape are being rigorously explored, understanding and fighting this culture of toxic masculinity is critical in helping men to understand and express their emotions in a healthy way, as well as recognizing that seeking help for these problems is okay; although depression rates are over twice as common in females than males, fatal suicide rates are three times as common in men. This suggests that there are a significant number of men who just aren’t dealing with or taking care of their mental health.
I’ve been lucky enough (and mindful enough) to have surrounded myself with emotionally open people as I’ve grown up, and though the damage of my childhood has certainly not evaporated, I am finally beginning to understand what exactly I faced as a child and how it has affected my development. Taking care of my mental health and anxieties has dramatically improved my quality of life. From time to time I even cry again, now. The best part is realizing that this is not only okay, but it is healthy. Men can cry. Men do cry. Men should cry. Maybe when we as a culture truly understand this, we’ll be able to understand the new (and yet as old as the hills) American landscape of violence and division we have been confronted with over the last few years.