[written for my writing group for the subject: Permit]
My second-grade teacher and my parents were at odds over how to deal with me. They didn’t know they were giving me such mixed messages because I didn’t tell my teacher about what was going on at home (although, having taught 7-year-olds, I am sure she knew something was wrong). And my parents never received any complaints from my school, just the occasional note that I seemed sad.
One afternoon that year, my teacher had us watch Free to Be You and Me, the 70’s TV special narrated by Alan Alda and some other people I don’t remember, all about being comfortable in your own skin, not putting labels on people, and various other hippie ideals that were not quite as popular in 1982, but that my teacher firmly believed in.
I remember very little about the TV show except for two things: the radical notion that boys and girls could like the same things and the song “It’s All Right to Cry.” You see, in my family, it wasn’t all right to cry. Crying was not permitted, at least for me. It was all right for my little sister to cry, and my mom was rarely not crying. I was pretty sure that my little brother or sister on the way was going to be crying most of the time. But for me, it had never been OK.
My mom had me when she was 25 – not that young by the standards of the day, but she was completely emotionally unprepared. To this day, when someone talks about how they might be less lonely if they had a baby, or how it would be nice to have a child so there would be someone who was always there, I have to walk away. I recently ended a friendship because my former friend spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, confiding to me that, without a partner, she was really lonely, so even though she was financially and emotionally unprepared to have a baby, she just “really needed someone who loved her unconditionally.”
That’s exactly what my mother intended I would be for her.
It should really be no surprise then that she couldn’t handle me. From the time I learned to walk and talk (both around nine months old, which shocked everyone), I had opinions. Actually, I probably had opinions before then. I was not the malleable precious little doll-baby she had imagined, but was strong-willed and emotional, and she had no idea what to do with me. So she made the rule that I couldn’t cry. After all, only one of us could be upset at a time, and it was usually my mother.
This rule was enforced in different ways at different times. I’m not sure what the mandatory reporter laws were like in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was probably more convenient for everyone that I didn’t talk to my teachers about this enforcement. The mildest version was to be sent to my room if I cried, and if she could hear me through the closed door, the next threat was to have to spend the night in the garage. I never had to do that because I would put the pillow over my head and hold my breath, trying to stop myself from calling out for my parents, who were clearly not going to be any help.
If my mom wasn’t feeling patient, she’d slap me across the face which would generally do the trick. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and all that. It’s hard to blame her – that would have been an act of love compared to what she grew up with. It’s no wonder that I grew up steeped in shame and fear; she had come by those honestly and passed them on to her children in our DNA and from her behavior
One day though, everything changed. I came home from school and something happened, and I cried, and she slapped me across the face. We had just watched the last part of Free to Be You and Me and I just wasn’t taking it any more. “My teacher says it’s OK to cry!” I yelled at her. “It was on TV! You can’t punish me for crying!”
I’m not sure she had any idea what I was talking about but I kept going. “If you hit me, I’m going to tell my teacher because I’M ALLOWED TO CRY!” I screamed at her. And went in my room to do precisely that.
That ended it. There were plenty of other problems in my family, but I wasn’t punished for crying anymore and she never hit me again.
But, of course, it didn’t really end it. The shame never left. I still feel it every time tears come – I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m disappointing people, I’m not good enough.
My nieces and nephew though – they don’t have this. They know it’s OK to cry. They know feelings matter and are valid, and they don’t feel ashamed when they express their feelings. The cycle of shame seems to be ending, and maybe it’s time for the adults to learn from the kids. They didn’t even need Alan Alda.