There comes a day when you realize that your baby is no longer a baby, but a full-blown kid. It hits us differently at different times and at different milestones. It could be the time they use the potty without announcing that they have to pee. It could be the night they sleep in their big kid bed by themselves. It could be the first day of school, not having to wipe a butt, doing a chore with out being asked etc. Whatever it was for you, I am sure it hit you hard. First it was a shock, and then you were proud. Then you were sad, and then you were sentimental. Then I’m sure you boasted to your child how proud you were and told all your friends about it on Facebook.
I’ve been there.
But recently, I’ve noticed something that I’m not proud of that my four year old has started doing. Instead, I’m terribly sad that we’ve reached this point in his life. My oldest doesn’t cry anymore. OK. That’s not totally true. He cries when he gets hurt, like bloody hurt, but that’s it.
I don’t remember the first day it happened, but I had been noticing that when he’s angry or hurt or upset, instead of crying, his eyes well up, he scrunches his mouth and furrows his brows. He clenches his fists and crosses his arms while he holds his breath. Sometimes he lets out a huff or a grunt, but those tears are forced to remain in his eyes.
After a few times of this happening, and after he was clearly wronged by his brother a number of times in the same few minutes, I pulled this stiff four year old away from the situation and got down to his level. I asked what was wrong. He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he used his fists to wipe his eyes. He blinked, a lot.
“Hanky, I can see that you are really mad. What happened?”
“Theo……” he stopped. He couldn’t talk. He went back to wiping his eyes with his fists as soon as a tear tried to escape. Fast enough so that maybe I wouldn’t notice.
“Henrik, it’s okay to cry. I cry when I’m really upset. I cry when I’m sad and sometimes, I even cry when I’m happy. It’s OK. Really.”
“I don’t want to cry” he replied.
We never really got to the root of the problem with his brother, and we never really got to talk about the crying thing either. Instead, I pulled him in closer and forced his crossed arms down and gave him a big, long hug. He resisted at first. But I kept hugging. Finally his stiff body started to relax, his arms wrapped around my back and he let out a whimper and a sigh.
It absolutely broke my heart that this four-year-old boy had already learned that crying was not what big boys did. We have never told him that he couldn’t cry. In fact, we’ve been pretty open about emotions and using our words to describe our feelings. We might say, “Stop whining” or “if you are going to cry over not being able to have candy you can go to your room and calm down up there”. But, I guess the latter statement is what caused the problem.
Cry and “cry” are two different things. But to a four year old, maybe they aren’t. In the last few months my boys have seen me cry a lot. I blame the hormones. They’ve seen me cry at my sister’s wedding, around movies, while talking to their dad, and they’ve started to ask questions about it like, “are you sad?” And surprisingly to them, the answer isn’t always yes. I think they are just as confused about crying as I am. I have no idea why I cry at weddings and at the scene in How To Train Your Dragon 2 when Stoic was killed, but I do.
For much of our parenting life, Eric and I have tried hard to keep our fights away from the kids. We try to keep the conversations civil around them which means they don’t see the damage we can do to one another, but in another way, they don’t get to see the emotions of anger and love mixed together. I’m not advocating that you fight in front of your kids. But I need my boys to know that it’s OK to feel and love and get hurt. That it’s OK to cry when good things happen and when we are upset or angry. I want them to continue to use their words to describe what they are feeling and why. I want them to see that real people that they love have feelings too, and it’s OK.
I understand that our society doesn’t like it when boys cry, and I'll admit, when I see a man crying it makes me cry harder because it's so rare when it happens. But I can't care about that. I need my boys to at least understand that having emotions is normal, and good and expressing them is even better. I realize that it makes them vulnerable to “feel” but I’m OK with that because it makes them human.
The day I realized that Henrik had stopped crying was heartbreaking because right before me stood a teenager forced into doing something that was socially acceptable, but in his heart not what he wanted. I don’t want that for my boys. Actually, I don’t want that for any boys, or any girls.
And I’ll admit, maybe part of me was sad or hurt that that little boy standing before me tried so hard to be “big” and refused a hug from his mom so he could be big and tough. I know he’ll refuse hugs and kisses later, but I was taken by surprise that I was unable to comfort him so easily.
In the last few weeks I’ve noticed that Henrik has started to cry, not much. Not like his two year old brother does, but some. He still tries to hold back tears, but he’s not forcing it as much. I’ve changed my language too. I’ve tried to explain that whining crying is not allowed. But real crying is. It’s got to be so complicated for a little kid to understand, but we’re getting there. I don’t need him to be a “cry baby” nor do I want that. I do however want him to cry when it’s right, when he needs the release or just to be human.
I realize that as he grows he’s going to try to shelter his feelings from his mother. We all do that, but I didn’t think that it would happen at age four. Until he’s a teenager and stops telling me anything, I want a few more years where I get to have a kid that’s eager to talk my ear off, even when it’s annoying. I want a few more years of calming an “injured” child because of a skinned knee or comforting a kid when they are sad.
It is a surreal moment when your child stops acting like a child, and I’m not ready for it. So for now, I’m going to cherish those necessary mom snuggles, mom kisses and mom-to-the-rescue days, and yes, I’m going to cherish every tear. I know they won’t last forever.