I work in a Division I athletics program. It’s very masculine. Everyone is tough, and the best way to get through a problem, issue, or frustration is to power through. Push harder. Be stronger. That’s the culture. The student-athletes I work with are 18-22, and while all of them are big or strong or fast, or a combination of all three, one of the hardest things we have to overcome with athletes, particularly male athletes, is to help them come to terms with depression — to help them realize that sometimes you can’t power through. Sometimes you get homesick. Sometimes you’re not the best. Sometimes you get frustrated with all the demands of college and athletics.
In the couple years that I’ve worked in athletics, I’ve caught wind of a couple suspected suicide attempts. And when I think about the fact that my son is only 10 years behind the students I work with each day, I get really scared. I want him to know that it’s okay for a man to show emotion. It’s okay for a man to cry. It’s okay for a man to express sorrow and not always be able to power through, push through, or whatever through. It’s okay to seek out help.
This isn’t to say that I cry all that often; I don’t. In fact, crying has become so taboo in my mind that there have been times when I should have cried, I know it, but I flat out couldn’t. I feel the same sorrow in my chest. I feel the same trembling in my hands and the lump in my throat that comes with crying, but I just can’t make it happen. And I think this what it can mean to be a man. Men are brought up to build thick heavy walls around emotion, and even if you wanted to cry, or you know that you should cry, you just can’t.
I don’t know what that means exactly, but I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing. And in so many ways, I don’t want that for my son.
I want him to be strong, surely. I want my two daughters to be strong, too. I want all my children to be able to look someone in the eyes and ask for what they want. But at the same time, I want them to be compassionate. I want them to be able to cope with the mix of emotions that comes with raising a family and caring for a family.
But here’s where it becomes complicated, particularly with my son. I want him to know that it’s okay to show emotion. I want him to know it’s okay to cry. But a huge part of raising children is leading by example, and the fact is, in this particular situation, I don’t feel like all that great of an example.
When my father died, I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry when I got married or when any of my children were born. In fact, since having children nine years ago, I have cried once — and that was when my middle daughter had to go to the emergency room because she burned her hand.
I don’t know if I can cry anymore, at least not when I should, and that’s something I need to work on. But in the meantime, what I am trying to do is help my son know that it’s okay to cry. He doesn’t cry all that often anymore, honestly, and I wonder if he’s starting to build those walls.
But what I do know is a few months ago, he cried after a soccer game. That’s his sport. He’s been playing soccer for a few years now. He was playing as a goalie (his favorite position), and his team was down by two. The game had about 20 minutes left, and the other boys on his team started to give up. Tristan blocked a lot of shots in those 20 minutes, but without the defenders making an effort to stop the opposing team, Tristan was more or less on his own. And despite his efforts, the other team scored four goals.
Once the game was over, Tristan and I stood on the sidelines. His face was red, and his eyes were misty; I could see him holding back tears. He was so frustrated, and yet he was conflicted. It was an emotion I knew all too well — the feeling that he shouldn’t cry because he was a man. And I knew it was where those walls get built.
I didn’t do like my father did; I didn’t tell him to toughen up, or walk it off, or stop being a baby. He didn’t need that right now, just like I didn’t when I was young.
Instead, I leaned down and wrapped him in my arms and whispered into his ear, “Let it out, guy. Don’t fight it. Just let it out. Trust me.”
I could feel him nodding, and then he buried his face into my shoulder and cried.