I cried in front of my kids this week. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s a big deal to me on a couple of different levels. First, I remember about 10 months ago going to talk to a friend about how trapped I felt in my grief over losing my mom, but how I couldn’t cry to save my life. I would find things to do to take care of people. I would wallow in numbness. I would make sure things got done, and then throw myself into my work, but I couldn’t cry.
Then I realized that Mary Ann was doing the same thing, and she thought it was good. She said, “Mom, you’re so strong! You’ve been through such hard things and I never see you cry!” She thought it was a badge of honor, but to me it was an eye-opener that I was teaching my kids not to grieve. I was teaching them not to feel, but to instead avoid and bury feelings. I was showing them to refuse to acknowledge loss. It wasn’t something I did intentionally, it was just a protective mechanism— keeping myself at a safe distance from my pain by refusing to actually feel it.
The other reason it was a big deal is that someone actually saw tears. My tears. Before my mom died, if I cried at all, I tried to do it alone. I just wasn’t comfortable with the vulnerability of someone else seeing it. I needed to maintain this outward facade of strength and dignity and fall apart on my own time. I don’t know why, but I just desperately needed people to think I had it all together.
So, in this one moment of crying in front of my kids, I decided to feel whatever I was feeling, and to feel it in front of people. Immediately I felt terrible about it. I apologized even, to Mary Ann, and told her I was so sorry, that I should be happier and she shouldn’t have the stress of seeing me upset. There’s a whole chapter in Rachel Hollis’s book about how you have to keep your act together for your kids so they are protected, and here I was blowing it. But Mary Ann says to me, “Mom, happiness is temporary. Joy is permanent. You have to be ready for it, but one day you’ll find your joy.” Then I cried even more because who even raised this kid?
So fast forward to today. Mary Ann was desperate to get out of the house because she is her mother’s child. We turned on the audiobook of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and took a trip to Wal-Mart. She was telling me how anxious she’d been feeling this week, and how emotional, and I told her that she was probably feeding off the anxiety she saw in me. I told her that I was sorry she saw me struggle because I’m the mom and it’s my job to protect her from things like this. I can’t protect her from all the death and sadness she has witnessed in her short life, but she should at least have the benefit of her mother making her feel safe in the midst of so much uncertainty. And once again, she channels her inner middle-aged woman and says, “Mom, it’s not your job to protect me from anything. No one can really protect anyone else from anything for very long anyway. It’s your job to show me how to cope with hard things, and you do that.” Why is it that she understands parenting better than I do?
Anyway, we eventually make it to Wal-Mart to grab bread. One thing. But while we’re there, we stop at the book section because again, she’s her mother’s child, and then she asks if we can get Welch’s sparkling grape juice. “It was mine and Mamaw’s favorite.” So we get some. And then over in the bread section, we find my mom’s idea of the holy grail of junk food. French cheesecake. I can remember being 12 years old and eating this stuff on the beach, or in the living room floor while watching movies, or in the car on the way home from the store because, who was going to stop me?
Christina Yang texted me last week that she was craving it because she too remembers eating cheesecake with my mom every chance we got. Mary Ann sees the cheesecake in the bakery, picks it up, and says, “I think this was a good memory. Sometimes I can’t decide though. “
“I know what you mean,” I say. “Sometimes it hurts to remember, but it also hurts to forget.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” she says. “But today it feels good to remember.”
My kids saw me cry this week. But judging from how Mary Ann is currently winning at life, I think maybe it was OK. Maybe Mary Ann is right, and the bigger victory in parenting is not pretending to be stronger than you are, but rather acknowledging your weakness, and processing it, and living authentically in front of them so that when they reach their own hard things they know how to survive because they saw it in you. I’m taking parenting advice from my ten year old, and I’ve made my peace with it. One day it’ll feel good to remember.