Cry, baby

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by Katrina on September 7, 2010

My first semester in grad school for journalism, more than a decade ago, was a shock.

Boom! Right from the beginning we had daily story deadlines. Each of us desperately wanted to prove ourselves to be the next Edward R. Murrow. None of us knew what we were doing.

We were awestruck by our professors, who had held important positions at The New York Times and the major news networks, reported in war torn countries, and braved beatings in Tiananmen Square. We craved their approval. We would labor over our stories intensely, only to have our heroes rip them to pieces.

No one escaped that first few months unscathed.

Finally, one of my classmates did the thing we had all been trying very, very hard not to do.

She broke down in her advisor’s office and cried.

Marcia, her advisor, did not shrink in horror, or send her away, or belittle her, or get flustered, or do any of the things we all secretly feared she might do. Instead, she reached behind her desk and pulled out a box of tissues.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You wouldn’t believe how many students have cried in my office.”

* * *

I wish we all had Marcia’s attitude about crying. I wish we could take it in our stride, see it as a normal, healthy response to everyday disappointment, pain, and stress, instead saving it up for the big stuff—death, divorce, this.

We see crying as a sign of weakness. This is a terrible burden for men, of course, who are supposed to be “emotionally available” but without any of those sissy emotions. But it’s also a terrible burden for women, precisely because we tend to be more easily moved to tears. It’s expected of us. Then when we do it, we are dismissed as delicate, hysterical creatures who just can’t take the heat. Or manipulators.

So when we feel tears coming, we do everything we can to shut them off.

I’m one of those people. I never cried in Marcia’s office. I rarely cry at sad movies. When some difficulty arises, at work or at home, I tend to get angry or focus on solving the problem, but not cry.

It’s gotten so hard to cry, in fact, that I’ve developed what you might call crying constipation. The tears are there; they just don’t come out.

It’s like my tear ducts haven’t been properly maintained. When I get really upset, a tiny janitor inside my (brain? sinuses?) pulls out his wrench and cranks the rusty old faucet open. But just when the water starts rumbling in the pipes, he shuts it off again. I end up dry-eyed and anxious. Or worse.

Two years ago, as I was spiraling into the depression, that turned into a nervous breakdown, I couldn’t sleep. I could barely make myself eat. I was having panic attacks at random times of the day and night. But I couldn’t cry.

Looking back, I think that I imagined that if I started crying, it would mean I had been beaten. Crying was a kind of surrender, and when you think you’re holding the entire world together, you can’t surrender. Too many people depend on you. You have to keep going.

At a certain point, I couldn’t keep going. That’s when the tears came.

I would seem fine at work, then meet my friend David for lunch and cry into my Tandoori chicken. After lunch, I’d blow my nose and go back to work until it was time to pick up my kids. I’d start crying again, quietly, on the BART train, and by the time I picked up my car and arrived at Ruby’s school, I’d be sobbing in the parking lot.

Blow nose. Pick up kids. Drive home. Make dinner. Hold it together until Brian could get home and take over the evening routine. Stumble upstairs to bed, and cry myself to sleep.

This terrified me. Who was this woman with the endless supply of tears? When was it going to stop?

Sometimes your body knows a thing before your mind does. Maybe it’s your soul that knows. I realize now that crying was my body/soul’s way of saying, Honey, enough is enough. This is way too hard. You are made for more than just taking care of other people.

A nervous breakdown can be caused by many things. In my case, one of the causes was a failure to listen. All those tears that I’d been holding back, they were trying to tell me something—that I was trying to do something impossible, that I was living the wrong life, that I was giving up too much for a job that gave back too little. But I’d been too afraid to listen.

* * *

The crying went on for months, and then slowly started to dry up. At some point, I realized I was better. I don’t know when it happened. Now I find it hard to cry again, but I know better. When I feel that little janitor coming with his wrench, I try to let him do his thing.

Every once in a while, after the kids are in bed and I’m alone in the kitchen making their lunches, I’ll listen to a particularly sad Moth story and have a nice, satisfying little cry.

You know what else helps when I want to cry but can’t? Chopping onions. Sometimes a fake cry makes it easier to segue into a real one. Sad movies or sad music can also help. Anything that quiets the mind can help. For me that’s writing or meditation.

Why am I telling you all this? If you browse through this blog, you’ll find hundreds of comments from women and men—most of whom I’ve never met—talking about their struggles to do something that is incredibly hard and maybe impossible.

My message to them, and to you, is that it is OK to cry about it. It’s not a sign of weakness or an act of surrender. It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job like I did, or that you’re going to spiral into some terrible depression. It’s actually the other way around. It’s simply a way of taking in a message your body already knows, but your mind hasn’t been able or willing to absorb:

This isn’t your fault. It’s just really, really hard.

Crying is a way of having compassion for yourself. It’s just listening. Once you can take that in, you get to decide what to do about it.

* * *

Need a good cry RIGHT NOW? Listen one of these two heartbreaking stories from The Moth: Andrew Solomon: The Refugees; Mike Destefano: Franny’s Last Ride.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }


I let myself just weep while trying to put my 4 year old to sleep – something he clearly wasn’t going to do until maybe 10 or 11. He was pretty surprised, but sweet really. He gave me a kiss. I told him mommy’s just really tired and frustrated. He didn’t got to sleep, but I felt a little better.



I need a lot of quiet and preferably a dark place to cry. It’s usually a good thing to cry and cry when the time is right. But I find myself scolding my daughter (as gently as I possibly can) when her crying goes on too long, because it gets mixed up with whining and complaining and other annoying behaviours that we simply don’t have time/energy for (ie, while getting ready for school, sleep, dinner, etc.) . I don’t want her to think crying is bad, but it gets complicated. Oy.



Actually pent up stress tears being released have a physiological function too. Emotional tears (as opposed to basal tears that wash away irritants) contain 25% more proteins. These proteins are the by-product of stress, and if they build up they become toxic and weaken the immune system. So it appears that having a good cry doesn’t feel good just because of the emotional release but it is needed physiologically. There’s a good article by Nomi Kaim on the subject that describes even more about emotional tears and their connection to depression and how women have higher levels of the stress hormone prolactin, which is washed away in tears.



Great link! Thanks for sharing that. Yes, there’s a reason it feels so good to cry…



I’ve always been a big crier. Interestingly, I’m also have had to do a lot of work as an adult to get to the point where I can answer the question: How do you feel? It turns out that my tear trigger was usually fear. Now, when I feel the urge to cry hysterically, I try and break down whether I am sad, mourning, joyous, angry, scared, etc. The first three are great reasons to let the tears come (interesting stuff about the physiological function Dave!).

When I’m afraid or angry, I often find that I have something to communicate and that calming myself and figuring out what that is can be more useful than tears.

Katrina, I think the heart of your blog’s message is to let the feelings flow. Bringing our emotional selves to our relationships, activities and yes, *work*, will enrich our experiences immeasurably.



I think this ties in to the pressure in American culture to be (or appear to be) happy all the time. Nobody is happy all the time, and it is not failure to not be happy all the time. I was just having a discussion with my son about Barney. He’d never seen it, but I showed him a youtube clip, and he asked why everyone seems to hate Barney because he thought it was pretty sweet. After blustering a little (I’ve done some Barney-bashing in my time) I told him that Barney seems to give the message that good=happy, not allowing that kids are grumpy and mad and miserable sometimes, and that is okay too.



I also just thought of this Afghan friend I have, who had a baby at the same time as me. Lying in her hospital bed less than an hour after her son was born, she said to her baby, when he started crying: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that life is hard? Well let me be the first, then.” At the time I thought it was really harsh, but looking back on it, I think it is a really important message that gets glossed over way too much in the US.



I’ve never had a problem crying, but what really pisses me off is how quickly crying equates to “your viewpoint doesn’t count.” I hate that crying means you’re not taken seriously. Having said that, I feel like the best way to combat this paradigm is to cry when you need to without regard for what others think. If people aren’t confronted with the dichotomy of respected people who also cry from time to time, we can’ t expect acceptance of the fact that its not really a dichotomy at all (it’s just humanity).



@Gabby I like that. Cry proudly!
@Kerry Someone left a link in the comments on my story about “Something Rotten…” to the 60 minutes story on Denmark citizens being among the happiest in the world. Same idea as the Afghan mom–low expectations.



This is very helpful, validating and reassuring to me today. I just had myself a tentative incomplete cry after my third 8-hour day “at work” (from home today) after my baby was born 3 months ago. What a challenge to “work from home” while caring for an infant, get a 7 year old off to school , while looking at the unbelievable mess in the house, the pile of bills, the overflowing sink of dishes and the pile of laundry that needs to put away. I see myself having more good cries in the near future. Thank you for reminding me its normal.



I found you via Mamapedia, and wanted to leave a comment on this wonderful message.

I too found myself not wanting to be that stereotypical ‘woman’ who cried and became emotional over everything. Then last Christmas I realized why.

I had gone to my sister’s house, schlepping my young children 4 hours away from home to spend Christmas in her new home. My sister doesn’t have children of her own & though she had recently started cooking, she was far from ready to create a holiday meal.

Under the typical pressure of the holidays, we both crumbled. I was away from home trying to prepare a full holiday meal in an ill equipped kitchen (to put it mildly) & manage all of the typical holiday preparations & was flustered. My sister & I had an argument. Soon, it was all fine & worked out.

That night my father said something that really upset me. I love him, but he is a chauvinist at times. He said, “This is all because YOU WOMEN can’t just get along & have to get upset over everything. I don’t care if we had carry out hamburgers for Christmas dinner.”

Never mind the fact that this was the 1st argument my sister & I had since she was a teenager!

Though I’ve always been respectful to my father, I responded, “Don’t EVER speak to me that way again. When you say ‘you women…’ you are being misogynistic & I resent that. The fact that you stand here & tell me you don’t care about a meal that I spent HOURS preparing so that we could have a nice Christmas dinner, and have the audacity to tell me that a take out hamburger would have been a suitable replacement, is an insult.”

Ok, so I probably was simply feeding his thoughts that women are overly emotional, but I was truly upset. I had been insulted on a variety of levels & I let the tears flow freely, in front of the last person on earth I wanted to display that type of emotion.

It was then I realized I had been raised to believe that women are overly sensitive, easily upset, hysterical creatures & finally I was angry. However, it taught me a lesson: Just because I cry if I am upset does not make me unstable… it makes me human.

Thank you for affirming what I learned last Christmas!


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