The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Who’s Crying Now

By

I was an easy baby who seldom cried. My parents say that I soothed myself to sleep and could play alone for hours with the teaspoons and measuring cups that they kept in a bottom drawer for my amusement. This account pleases me, corresponding as it does with my earliest memories of myself as a child who, at four years old, took in what other people said and did and tucked the information away to make sense of in secret. I did not want to be similarly spied on, and when I enacted elaborate scenarios with puppets or dolls I would speak their dialogue only in my mind so that no adult could hear me. I recall instances of sobbing—the time I was left at an unfamiliar daycare center; after losing a battle about shoes with my mother—but I disliked the out-of-control feeling and its exhausted aftermath, and I avoided it whenever possible. Even in situations where I was in peril and afraid, my instinct was to retain a measure of control. When I got my foot stuck in a swing set exercise ring and was dangling head-down out of reach of the ground, I did not cry out. When I was squashed underneath my teenaged cousin with my nightgown up and his pants down, I stayed silent and remained that way on the topic for many years.  I sealed myself up tight. This made me feel strong.

My parents’ accounts of my infant disposition are usually told in the context of discussing my brother, who came along two and a half years later, screaming all the way. Perhaps sibling rivalry helps explain why whenever the descriptions of my early demeanor come up, I feel inordinately proud. I came to value the traits assigned to me that earned praise, self-containment and stoicism, and although I’ve interrogated that prejudice since becoming a parent myself, I’ve not quite dislodged it. With each of my two pregnancies, I didn’t have daydreams about what gender the child would be, or how I’d dress him or her, or how he or she would come to love any of my own passions, but I did nurture a hope that the baby would have a reserved temperament, like mine.

This has not come to pass.

My oldest is eleven as I write this. He kept pretty quiet his first dozen hours out of the hatch—it’d been a long labor—but he started crying adamantly the night after he was born, and he kept it up. For the first year of his life, he cried for many hours a day, and he had a full-bodied, ear-splitting, most passionate cry. He’d cry because he was hungry, but he’d be crying so much that it was hard for him to latch on to my breast. Once latched, he’d nurse voraciously, but he’d pause periodically to pull away and cry. He cried every single time he was in the car seat, and almost every time he was put in the stroller. He woke up crying in the night and he started the day off crying each morning. He cried when he pooped and he cried when he farted. Unfortunately, his brand of flailing, athletic crying caused him to poop and fart more than most. And, of course, he often cried when we changed him.

Eventually, the pediatrician ventured a diagnosis of severe acid reflux. We ended up making a few visits to the gastrointestinal clinic, where they ran some tests and we got some medicine. We also got a sense of perspective, as some of the parents and children in the children’s hospital were clearly dealing with issues of greater long-term consequence than were we. In the clinic and labs, doctors, technicians, and other parents responded to our son’s size and relative health, never mind that his strength was demonstrated in the violent way he recoiled his body from pain.

“How old is he?” one owl-eyed young father finally demanded as my baby writhed in my arms, arching his back, screaming. We’d been sitting in a waiting room together for the better part of an hour. He and his wife had been speaking to each other in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Fifteen weeks,” I said.

“She is twenty weeks!” He pointed to his daughter, a listless little bird perhaps half the size of my son with her head tipped onto her mother’s shoulder. “Look at him,” he commanded his wife in English. “Look how strong!”

Ropes of muscle stood out on my arms as I held my son while he bucked against me. My back ached. My upper lip wore a moustache of sweat.

The other mother and I looked at each other, the river of fretful love we were each pouring into our babies spilling for a moment beyond its banks. The big, crying baby. The small, silent one. The traits these children were born with, and the value assigned to them. The worry, the worry. I felt a ripple of defensiveness for the quiet girl child—don’t compare her!—and a twitch of pride for my own strapping son before he regained his breath and let out another of the earth-shattering wails that made my heart gallop. I believed that I’d have done anything to comfort him, that I’d have torn the skin from my own body, chewed off one of my own limbs and left it at the alter of any god who offered succor. I was afire with the imperative to care for my baby. It was both a torture and a kind of relief. I’d never felt anything so absolutely before.

*

I possessed no such clarity during the year my cousin molested me. He had come to live with us after getting kicked out of his own home, and soon after he arrived he began slipping into my bed at night with whispers of a game to play. It was mostly confusion I felt in those initial months, a muted befuddlement that gave rise to a tenacious desire to understand. But eventually he grew more bold, and it became clear to me that he was doing something wrong, and that I didn’t like it. The worst of it occurred one day when I was stuck home with a high fever and he was left to care for me while the rest of the family went on a scheduled outing. He hovered at the side of my bed and crouched over me in it for what felt like hours.

And still I said nothing. I just kept turning the stone of it over in my mind until I grew old enough to gain some understanding of the nature of his trespass, at which point I figured he had used me to practice for teenaged girlfriends.

I had mixed feelings about my memories. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim. At times, I felt my early experience with my cousin contributed to or at least proved some of the toughness of which I was proud. The word “pedophile” didn’t occur to me until he was arrested twenty-six years later for the same crime committed against another girl the age I had been. I found out about this shortly after my son was born. Awash already with new-mother hormones, I felt a crash of guilt for not protecting this unknown child. And how many other children were there in between us two? If I had been less concerned with my own self-image and said something at the right time, in the right way, and, could I have stopped the long unspooling?

*

With time and medication, the symptoms of my son’s reflux abated, but still he continued to cry loudly and often. Throughout his preschool and elementary years, his crying was a regular topic at every parent-teacher conferenceimg148 we had. When other parents were volunteering in his school, I’d often get a message letting me know my son had had a meltdown. As if this were news. As if we should be prepared to treat him with a ramped-up sensitivity when he got home. But we’d become inured. We’d softened into the crying. Of course we tried to help him cope, to look at things differently, to take deep breaths. But we’d come to believe the best thing to do was mostly to accept the tears calmly—shrug it off with a “that’s just the way he is” and wait it out. Slowly, the nature of his crying has shifted. Now on the eve of middle school, he more often turns the sobs inward. Still, tears leap to his eyes at any hint of frustration or injustice, at any setback or splinter or sad thought or threat of hard times ahead.

Occasionally he cries in his sleep. If I hear, I’ll go in to him.

“Shhh, it’s just a dream,” I’ll say to him. I’ll rub his back.

“It’s just a dream?” he cries, his voice full of pained incredulity.

“Yes,” I’ll say. “It’s not real.”

He never remembers in the morning.

*

His little sister is still in preschool. When they play together, it often ends in tears. The first ones might well be his. Then she’ll join in. She’s learned from the best.

There are seven years between my daughter and my son, in part because it took us so long to recover from the shock of our first foray into parenting. My husband and I were buoyant when we realized that this new infant was not colicky. When she’d cry during the first few months, we’d look at each other, proud and disbelieving and say, “That’s her loud cry? That’s nothing!” Parenting this one was going to be so much easier.

But I had to revise that theory. She came to her crying later, as a toddler. It was more an emotional rather than a physical response. While my son’s crying very rarely seems directed at my husband or me, hers almost always does. She seldom cries in school, the teachers say. She’s amazingly calm. A very together little kid.

This kind of report causes a different type of frustration than being told again and again that your child cries too much when you know that as well as you know your own name. Because at home, for the past couple years or so, our daughter cries with incredible frequency. She cries if her socks are crinkled, because she wants to be carried down the stairs, because her stuffed animal has slipped in amidst the sheets. She cries because she wants some milk, some milk in the blue cup, not that much milk. One night she cried for half an hour because she surmised that George Washington—about whose dog we read a book— is dead. She is physically brave and very athletic, was quick to learn how to hang upside down off the monkey bars and to pump on the swing. She can fly herself high on the set in our backyard. But if she’s not in the mood to pump that day, or if she wants me to look at her pumping and I’m not, or if an ant crawls across the slide, she cries.

Over the years I’ve learned the best thing to offer my son when he’s crying is a calm response and my presence for him to take or leave. I can do this, even if sometimes I must stifle (or try to) an impatient sigh. But my daughter’s crying rattles me. It does what it’s meant to. It pushes my buttons.

“Stop crying,” I tell her. Yes, as accused by her, sometimes I say this in a mean way.

All the crying in my house frays my nerves, leaves me spikey and sparking. Toughen up, I want to tell both my kids. Sometimes I do tell them. I’m a breathe-through-the-pain kind of person. Or shrug off the pain. Step away from it and analyze it. Box it up to look at later. Think of something else. Burrow into yourself and away from it. Run. Of course, these strategies have probably contributed to some erratic behavior and simmering resentments on my part. Perhaps, too, they’ve lessened my intimacy with important others at times. And maybe they don’t stem entirely from inborn traits, maybe I’ve learned some of them as defenses I’d be wise to investigate. But I retain some conviction they’re serviceable.

“Don’t you think sometimes crying just makes the hurt last longer?” I’ve said to my kids.

“Wouldn’t you rather be doing something else?”

“What’s wrong?” “What’s wrong?” “What’s wrong?”

“Pull yourself together.”

“Take some breaths.”

“Do you want some water?”

“Go to your room until you’re done with your fit.”

“TIME OUT!”

“That must have hurt/ been scary/ felt frustrating. But it will be OK.”

“It will be OK.”

“It will be OK.”

“Grandma and Grandpa say I hardly ever cried when I was little,” I tell them.

*

The very difficult thing for me about my emotional and talkative children is that they foreclose my own tearless coping strategies, which I’ve been honing since before I knew how to ride a bike. They’re always knocking on my mind’s door, or just barging in. Even when I insist on privacy, when I need it, they jangle the lock incessantly. I can’t run away. I can be thigh to thigh with my daughter, forehead to forehead, and she senses when I’m trying to find some peace, rise above, keep my patience by escaping the cacophony. “You’re not really looking at me.” “Why are you talking like that?” “Why are you making your eyes that way?” “Mama!”

*

I know my son and his crying well by now. I’m getting to know my daughter’s. But at heart their way of responding remains mysterious to me. What do tears defend against? Could there be a benefit to crying? Might it in some way protect them?

My daughter is now the age that I was when my cousin moved in with us. I’m very conscious of this. It can evoke in me a fierce protectiveness towards her as well as a sense of woundedness when I wonder at her and thus my then-small size, as well as that of the other girl he was caught abusing. Sometimes I listen to my daughter prattle and contemplate how much she seems to live on the surface. By this I don’t mean that she is superficial—she offers us the surprising nuggets common to thoughtful young children; she’s clearly thinking about how the world works. But just that she is so willing to let family members see where her mind goes. I compare her openness to how deeply burrowed I already was at her age into my private fantasy life and analysis, into my serialized tales of punishments and princesses and salvation.

And, perhaps just once, I contrasted myself to my daughter in another way, too. She was crying for the fourth time that morning because, after she refused to put them on herself, I pulled up her underwear too quickly and my broken nail scratched her thigh. Frustrated at having to pause and make elaborate apologies after tending to her all morning and being met with incivility, I had this thought (against the background of her small body, my small body, his big one): Look what happened to me when I was four, and I never cried.

*

Would I have been better off if I had cried?

I’ve wondered that.

Why did I not tell my mom, even after he dropped the pretense of the game? Even when I watched him tell her a bald-faced lie? “Yeah, I gave her the aspirin. After that she slept the whole time. ”

Why did I never cry?

*

Over the years I’ve told myself that maybe I should be glad my children both do it so easily. It’s hard to conceive of my son suffering silently through anything that makes him uncomfortable, that makes his body feel odd. And while it’s scarily easy to imagine my daughter’s stoicism out in the world, it’s hard to imagine she’d keep it together at home. That she wouldn’t have a lot to say.

But I’ve come to see that these predications are parental fantasies, really. Many of us devise explanations for why sexual abuse—experienced by an estimated 1 out of 5 children—won’t enter our home or go unseen if it does.  And entertaining the belief that I might have been able to prevent future abuse if I’d have cried more is a fantasy too, I suspect, one I’ve created to grant myself the kind of power I didn’t actually have as a small child. It’s also a kind of humblebrag: I was too tough for my, for their, own good. But the truth is there’s nothing to suggest that personality type predicts when a child discloses molestation. I might have cried less than most preschoolers, but in saying nothing about what my cousin was doing to me at the time, I was entirely typical. Plenty of the kids who cry and complain freely about other things keep as quiet as I did about the complicated wormy weirdness of interfamilial sexual abuse.

So although I will continue to work at allowing my children their own responses to things, if someone touches them in a way that invades them, no, I don’t want them to cry. Instead, I want them to breath deep and expand. To draw from my son’s well of passionate umbrage and channel all of my daughter’s demanding outrage and to grow bigger, wider, taller, to rise up from the bed from the floor from the closet, to tower above the man-sized body and to let loose a howl that draws the world’s attention.

Sometimes I perceive myself to be hollering like that now, in retrospect, when I think of that one worst day, me laid out on the bed with the feel of sandbags weighting my body and lips.

Sometimes I say it was just one bad day. I grow frustrated with myself for allowing its continued presence in my life, a little stone in my shoe I should have removed long ago, and yet I still let it press into me. Is it to gain attention? I’ve been grown-up for so long. I still need to cry?

*

It seems that I do. In the last few years of writing about this subject I’ve taken some breaks to sob.  At these times I respond as if to one of my own children, beginning with a patient response to myself and even with some gratitude for the opportunity to offer comfort. But then I grow bored by the tears, and irritated when they get me too far off schedule, and cross, which doesn’t help anything.

Eventually I cycle back to patience, truer this time. I allow a long look at the feelings. That must have been scary, I tell myself. That must have felt bad. But you’re OK now. You’re OK. You’re OK. You’re OK. And this: You can talk out loud about what happened— and even cry—and still be tough, still maintain the drive to muscle through.


Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the award-winning memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. More from this author →