Here’s the scene: my kids are preparing to head out the door for school. I take a moment to look at my beautiful children, filled with enthusiasm to start the day, and dressed in their clothing choices. My daughter’s outfit for her morning of kindergarten really gets me. She’s wearing a deep purple taffeta dress with a velvet bodice and rhinestone-studded sash. To match her school “gown”, she’s chosen navy and maroon striped tights, a sparkly fuchsia headband, and her favorite ratty pink and blue sneakers. Before I’m aware of my reaction, my daughter looks at me and says, “Oh, Mama! Don’t start crying!” She’s caught me. I’m all verklempt, just bursting with happiness and pride, but I didn’t think it was so obvious. When I ask my daughter what makes her think I’m crying, she replies “Your face turns red just before you cry, especially your nose. I can always tell.” So much for hiding my emotions.
It happens to me all the time lately. I go to thank the custodian at our townhouse complex on Christmas Eve and find myself tearing up as I hand him a gift in appreciation for all his hard work. Or at the school talent show I dab my eyes during the performances of children who aren’t my own—intent piano players who can barely reach the pedals or the rock band of 7th grade boys with angelic voices. I won’t mention the obvious tear-jerker parts of movies—it embarrasses me that I fall for every heart-tugging scene in some of the corniest kid movies (yes, even Barbie movies). And the struggles to maintain composure occasionally make their way into academic life. After the final lecture in the last class I taught, as I thanked my students for a great year (they really were a great bunch of students), the wave of emotion hit me unexpectedly hard and I had to cut my good-bye short. I’ve had students cry in front of me, but I wasn’t about to let loose in front of them. I’m sure my nose was red.
I wasn’t always like this. In high school my best friend and I bragged that we were the only ones who didn’t cry when we saw E.T. I went to college far from my parents, and tearless good-byes were part of the routine. At least from my point of view. My parents hid their emotions well, I think because they felt it would upset their children by having us see them cry. On the other hand, I later met families who let the tears flow freely. The first few times I accompanied my husband to visit my in-laws (well before we had kids), I was caught off-guard by their open displays of feeling when it was time to leave. Everyone would be in tears, while I stood by wondering why I was so hard-hearted and incapable of expressing more.
What happened to my steely exterior, my façade of stone? I think it crumbled around the time I had my first child. All I had to do was gaze at my newborn son’s face, and I’d melt into a puddle of sleep-deprived, maternity hormone-laced goo. But now that my children are older and I get more sleep, I’m moved even more easily, especially in any situation, movie, or scene involving parents and children. At least I know I’m not alone. My mom-friends and I laugh with each other about how easily we cry. One day as we arrived to pick up our children outside the 1st grade classroom, we noticed that the mother of one of my son’s classmates had just returned from her trip to China. When the teacher opened the classroom door to release the students, my son’s friend saw his mother and ran to meet her. It was such a sweet reunion, and I looked around (in tears) to see the teacher and several others blowing their noses and wiping their eyes as the mother hugged her son. When she looked up, she wondered why we were all crying.
So is it motherhood? Is it raging maternal hormones? Or just that we’re finally old enough to realize it’s OK to let go and show our emotions? I think it’s good for my kids to see me shed a tear now and then. I can’t hide it even if I wanted to!