A couple of weeks ago, my older son Noah asked me a question while I was dropping him off at school. It was a question that took me by surprise. “Dad, how come I’ve never seen you cry?”
It was something that, as a 9-year-old, I didn’t expect him to think about. It surprised me because I was sure he has seen me cry. What about that time when I made him watch E.T. twice and I had to fight the tears from flowing as we sat on the couch? Or the numerous times my voice broke as I read he and his brother Wonder? Or when he tested for his blue belt in Taekwondo and he had to break two boards with some sort of back-kick maneuver, but couldn’t do it, yet refused to give up. Then after a number of times of trying, he finally did it with the kind of assertive confidence I’ve rarely been able to muster in my own life. I had to hide my tears from the crowd, coyly wiping my tears of pride with other parents around me cheering him on, but I cried then, too.
However, I realized that that wasn’t the kind of crying he was talking about. Because during those times, I was subtle about it, trying to hide my tears out of fear of embarrassment. He was talking about the kind of crying you do at a funeral. The kind you experience when you see a loved one for the first time in a long time. The kind where it’s explosive and impossible to hide—the big, unflattering, super-emotional kind.
We sat down on a bench before he had to go to class and I talked to him about the importance of crying, especially for boys and men. We talked about bottling up our feelings and how that can lead to unexpected behavior, hurt feelings and dangerous actions. But most importantly, I told him that to cry, I mean really cry, with tears flowing down our faces and big ugly sobs, is perfectly natural and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. In fact, it’s quite healthy. Then we hugged and he headed up the stairs for class.
It’s funny the timing of Noah’s question because I recently talked to freelance writer, editor, host and storyteller Wilbert L. Cooper about a beautiful essay he wrote for Vice called “I Was Forced to Fight, Now I’m Learning to Cry.”
The piece, which was published in 2017, is about his experience with crying and how it was looked down on by the men in his family. More broadly, through his experiences as a black man in America, Cooper explores how destructive and emotionally crippling the aspirational concept of manhood can be. The essay concludes with him finally learning how to cry and he reflects passionately on how important it was for his personal growth.
Cooper says he’s grown a lot since he wrote that piece two years ago, and that he’s still doing a lot of research and educating himself on the perils of masculinity. “I want people to know that this is something that never ends,” he tells me over the phone when discussing the process of learning how to be vulnerable. “I was raised and spent so many years of my life thinking in a certain way and it’s going to take a lot of time to unlearn those things, to separate how I really think from the way that I sort of have been indoctrinated as a young person in America.”
To unlearn normative notions of manhood, Cooper has started going to therapy. But not just any therapistм—a woman of color who’s also a feminist. It was important for Cooper to get this specific perspective so he can evolve as a person, to get another perspective other than one rooted in patriarchy.
“If we can sort of let go of the ugliness that comes with manhood in America today, we can try to better ourselves so that we don’t hurt people,” Cooper tells me. “That’s one of the biggest things this essay explores: The way we have constructed masculinity in American society is very harmful for us as young men, but it’s also a key element of how we end up hurting other people. So dismantling and breaking that down is a really important mission for me. And I’m not there yet, but I feel like I’m further along and I was.”
At the end of Cooper’s piece is a really beautiful moment that takes place at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and it reminds me of a moment I shared with Noah just last week.
Noah was having one of those moments many 9-year-old boys face. His emotions were running high, his temper flaring because of something not going his way. But he was acting more aggressive than usual by yelling at me and saying hurtful things. He was trying to intentionally hurt my feelings. Instead of coming back at him with anger and threats as I tend to do, I calmly asked him what was wrong. He kept yelling. I asked him again, what was bothering him, and why he was saying the things he was saying to me.
Finally, he began to cry as he responded, “I don’t know…I don’t know Daddy.”
I walked over to him, pulled him close, and told him I understood. These were the bottled up feelings we talked about a couple of weeks ago before school, and the bottled up feelings Cooper wrote about in his Vice essay. I know because I bottle my feelings as well.
As I held him, I said, “Remember when you asked me why you’ve never seen me cry?” He shook his head. “I’m crying now,” I told him, as my voice cracked and I felt heavy tears down my cheeks. I held Noah even tighter as we both cried in each others’ arms, our shoulders and backs convulsing with the flow of our sobs. We must have stayed in that position crying for at least five minutes before we gathered ourselves up and wiped our tears from our faces. I beamed at him, incredibly proud of the man he’s becoming, albeit way too quickly. It’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and one that I hope defines him on his journey to manhood.
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