What We Take into Adulthood – and Pass on to Our Children

Seeing my daughter’s tears with clear eyes.

On the same day I put my very sick, very old kitty to sleep, I happened to have a hair appointment. I got to the salon, sat in the chair, and dissolved into sobs in front of Megan, who does my hair. She cried with me a little. I joked that I had paid a coach $15,000 to be able to sit there and weep.

Truthfully, it wasn’t a joke. And I would have paid double.

What I can’t decide now is whether I want my 7-year-old daughter to walk the same path as me. Maybe I could save her from it. Instead of investing a chunk of change to learn vulnerability in her late 30s, she could invest that money in a beach house—and then invite her aging parents to stay in the room with the best view.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

But oh, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Everyone has that moment in childhood where they experience something stupid. Not insignificant or painless, necessarily, but stupid. Something it takes them another 25 years to let go of—if they let go of it at all.

My thing happened in fifth grade, 1984. That was the year I cried almost every day. The tears often came in the space between stepping out of the blue Oldsmobile and into my classroom at St. Agnes School in Ft. Wright; other times, they waited until the lunch line, when someone from the Amy/Aimee contingent would inevitably tug at my plaid jumper and call me a baby. The inability to control my tears was nearly unbearable. I never won against them. And the worst part was that no one would stop asking me what was wrong. Actually, that’s not true. The worst was that I didn’t have an answer. Which made me cry even more.

Looking back, I can see that it was a mixture of things working on me. My grandmother had died the year before. I wasn’t especially close to her, but I had seen my mother really cry for the first time, which made me profoundly sad and afraid. Then a friend of mine—not a best friend, but someone I liked—had been killed in a car wreck the summer before fifth grade. I had been at her house, and then a few days later, she was simply…gone. The world suddenly seemed unsafe to me, though I didn’t have that language at 10. It didn’t help that I was a little too in my own head. While other kids collected scratch-n-sniff stickers, I sat in the corner pondering the meaning of life.

My diary entries (yes, I’ve kept them) beginning in October 1984 are excruciating to read. I had constant anxiety about school. “Today I cried and my enemies made fun of me. I tried to think happy thoughts, but I couldn’t make it stop,” I wrote.

My teacher tried to help. My parents tried to help. My friends tried to help. But I was embarrassed, and I shut down. Later that fall, I joined a gymnastics team, and the distraction helped immensely. According to my diary, by April of the next year, I had stopped crying.

But it was far from over.

I moved forward in life as a kind of shadow of myself. I became two people: one who poured her heart out on the page in private, and another who kept a tight rein on her emotions in public. My first rule was never, ever cry around people, because to do so was shameful, embarrassing, and made me feel out of control. Everything bubbled so close to the surface, but I forced it back down or sent it elsewhere—into my gymnastics or my writing. I still longed to have tearful breakdowns, like the characters in the soap operas my sisters watched. In General Hospital, tears were glamorous, and everyone rushed in to help the heroine. That was a stupid fantasy though. In real life, you had to be much more careful. In fact, it was better not to engage at all.

I shed much of that as I grew up, fell in love, and got my heart broken. Still, even on my wedding day 10 years ago, I was absolutely terrified that I might cry walking down the aisle with my dad. (I didn’t.)

What really shook things up was that in my mid-30s, I discovered personal development by accident (which is the best way to discover it, in my opinion). I hired a business coach to help me retool after my once-thriving magazine writing career got trampled by the 2008 recession.

Most of the conversations with my coach went like this:
Her: You’re running a business and people are hiring you because you are the expert. You need to [insert smart business practice here, i.e., collect deposit upfront, demand prompt payment, charge more, market yourself, etc.]
Me: But I’m a writer. We don’t do it that way.
Her: Says who and why not?
Me: Um, well, because…oh shit. I actually have no idea.

She helped me get my business life straight, and then it was like, oh by the way, Judi, everything feeds into everything, so we should really explore all the ways you’re holding back. I had revealing conversations with my coach about my childhood, which I had always painted as completely idyllic, glossing over the emotional scars. I had never forgotten fifth grade, but I didn’t connect the dots of what it had meant in my life. At some point in this self-discovery process, I read Brené Brown (an expert on vulnerability), and realized how much shame had controlled my life, and what I had been missing out on by avoiding vulnerability. I started a blog. I started writing personal essays. I started public speaking. I used fancy chalkboard font to make inspiring Pinterest quotes. Slowly, I found a new voice and stopped being so afraid.

Now, I cry openly with friends (and people who do my hair). I cry at my kids’ school assemblies. I cry when my husband and I watch This Is Us. I cry with my brothers and sisters when we reminisce about our dad. I don’t hide my tears, because I know now that vulnerability is the glue that creates connection.

I’d love to end this piece here: I can cry! In front of people! No more shame! Self-actualization achieved! Strike up the band for Abraham Maslow!

The thing is, there’s a new problem. My daughter, Georgia, is crying in school.

The first few days it happened in September, I didn’t think that much of it. It was a new school year, with new expectations, and a lot of kids still get weepy in second grade. “You’ll settle in, don’t worry,” I told her, not worried about it myself. In fact, I didn’t think of it at all.

Until her teacher called one afternoon. “I’m not sure what to do,” she said. “Georgia tears up, and I can’t get her to tell me what’s wrong. She just withdraws.” Her teacher was incredibly supportive, and we had a great conversation. The subtext was clear though: We should figure out what to do about this.

When I talked to Georgia about it, she could barely get the words out. “I’m always afraid I’m going to cry. But I don’t know why. And when my teacher keeps asking me why, I cry even more and I don’t know what to do!” she explained in one desperate breath.

I asked her how it made her feel when she cried. “Embarrassed,” she answered.

“How come?” I pressed.

“Because I try so hard not to cry, but I can’t stop it, and then everyone looks at me!”

It didn’t occur to me that a 7-year-old could know that kind of shame yet, but of course they can. Of course the stupid thing that redraws your emotional landscape can happen at 7 (which is basically the new 10 anyway).

She looked at me with sad eyes. I registered her furrowed brow, but what I really saw was a movie screen showing grainy, slow-motion footage of me in the back of the blue Oldsmobile. The camera zoomed in to show my 10-year-old face willing away the tears that would never be willed away. Then it pulled back, and suddenly, Georgia was there in my place. In a kind of sepia snapshot, I saw my bright, inquisitive, imaginative, full-of-life daughter dividing herself just as I had done, walking in a shadow of herself because of shame.

There was no way I could let that happen.

Fortunately, 43-year-old Judi knows what 10-year-old Judi didn’t: personal development tools.

The first tool out of the bag was validation. When Georgia grabbed her backpack off the hook in the mudroom and quietly asked, “What if I cry today?” I responded, “It’s OK to cry. You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

“But I am! I will be!”

“I know,” I said. That’s when we practiced personal development tool number two: breathing. “When you start to feel like you’re going to cry, take some deep breaths.” I showed her. She made an effort, but I could tell by her added sound effects that she didn’t get it.

I also tried to plumb the reason for her tears. Was she worried about her older brother and his fits of temper? Did it upset her when my husband would lose it with him? Had she heard us fighting about it? Was it the incident early in the school year where she accidentally offended another student by telling a joke that didn’t quite land, and had to write a note of apology? Maybe it was all of it. Maybe it was none of it. My nudges were fruitless. And she continued to cry.

She even started becoming withdrawn on Sunday afternoons, because she was already dreading Monday morning again. I was nearly ready to start a Pinterest board with her, featuring positive quotes in feathery typeface set against moonlit oceans and dewy forests. Or maybe chalkboard font quotes. What problem could chalkboard font not solve?!

The guidance counselor e-mailed next. She had also talked to Georgia to try to understand why she was crying, but Georgia had shut down again. I asked Georgia about it later that day. “Everyone keeps asking me why I’m crying! At first, I said it was because I missed you, because I didn’t know what else to say. I kind of miss you, but that’s not really it. I don’t know why. I don’t know!”

I e-mailed back and suggested that next time she cried, they shouldn’t ask her what was wrong. In fact, they should almost ignore her—not in a mean way, but just in a way that let her do her own thing. That’s what I wanted way back then: to just be left alone. Ignored. Allowed to sail under the radar, in my own little flying lane.

I was pondering the next tool, the next something, when I realized maybe I just needed to get the hell out of her flying lane, too. Even if she flew right where I didn’t want her to go.

I had wanted to be her own coach, to give her my evolved language and empowering tools. But it occurred to me that I was trying to short-circuit the process of her becoming who she is, trying to preemptively extract pain and replace it with learning. You only learn because of the pain. Why would I take that away from her?

If I wanted her to experience the freedom of shedding layers, I had to let those layers form. I say “let,” but it’s not as if I could stop such a thing anyway. All I could do was make sure she had the baseline stuff all children should have: a loving family, food and water, a warm bed, and basic safety. The rest was going to have to work itself out.

By December, Georgia wasn’t crying anymore. She and her teacher had worked out that if she started to feel teary, she could go to her “special spot”—a little hideout under one of the tables in the classroom. “Sometimes I see her go there for a minute, but she rarely stays. She just joins right back in,” her teacher told me. I was relieved, though I knew some belief about expressing emotion had probably already formed, deep in my daughter’s psyche.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to worry, and try out some Brené Brown quotes on Georgia from time to time. I want her to be happy in the here and now. But that joy of unwrapping your own self, like an unexpected gift—I want her to have that, too.

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