Teaching boys that “boys don’t cry” can cripple them as men, but under the right tutelage even this questionable lesson is valuable in the right context.
The eight-year-old son of my friend died in an accident. We received the news on our answering machine.
My wife dropped to her knees in distress. I took our young son from her arms and tried to console her. I was calm and called our friend’s home. I spoke with a relative and asked that he relate our sympathies. Most of the night was like this; my wife wept and I did not. I made dinner, bathed my son and put him to bed, cleaned the dishes, made the necessary telephone calls, prepared for what would come. I maintained equanimity and carried on. As a scholar of gender this was interesting to me.
Why couldn’t I react like my wife? I thought about the boy who died.
I remembered the time I made pizza with him, and the time he played his fiddle for us. I remembered teasing him and his younger brother, and watching them play in a tree house when we went for a walk in the country. I remembered him as a sweet little boy, but now even faced with his death, I did not feel the need to cry.
I fully understand that our culture teaches males not to express their emotions, that “boys don’t cry.” I understand that this lesson often unnaturally distances adult men from their emotions. I am versed in this stuff, right? Why, then, does it still have hold over me? Shouldn’t I, a professor of gender studies, be able to cast aside these silly mandates? Shouldn’t I, at least, be able to ignore social expectations and cry?
The next morning I got into my car to go to work. Ten minutes into the commute I started sobbing. Experts would say that because I was alone in my car, where no one could see me, I felt safe to cry. Maybe that was part of it, but it was also the first opportunity I had to cry.
As I wept I realized that it wasn’t a bad thing that I could not summon the tears immediately. Sometimes we are quick to judge certain cultural expectations as bad because they can indeed be bad, especially if those expectations interfere with one’s needs, desires, and dreams—with one’s life. Every virtue taken to the extreme becomes a vice. “Boys don’t cry” taken to the extreme can cripple a man. Yet, under the right tutelage, and in the right context, the lessons we learn as boys can also be good.
I have no doubt that my wife could have done what was necessary had I not been there. But by staying composed and taking care of the routine, I eased the burden for her and the people I love. And although I probably always knew this, it became clear that the burden of grief would be shared, that my turn to express that grief would come, and not only while I was inside my car.
Boys do cry, when they’re ready.
This post originally was published in the Kansas City Star.
Photo: Anders Ljungberg/flickr