The dry eye blues
A dad laments putting the lack in lachrymosity
I am on the couch watching E.T. with my young son when the sniffles hit. Soon, as if someone has pressed a button, my tears begin to fall, thick and fast. When E.T. flies off in his ship forever and John Williams’ music tugs and swells like some kind of sadistic woodwind tear-generator, I lose it completely. Sobbing. Gasping for air, for Pete’s sake.
At some point, I realize my son has stopped watching the movie and is regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and horror. “Dad’s crying!” he hollers.
Various family members come out of their rooms to gawk at the wet, heaving mess that Dad has become, but by this time I’ve begun to compose myself. My children know me as silly and embarrassing and even willfully dumb, but this is the first time they’ve seen me cry. Mortified, I vow it will be the last.
I would not call myself the strong, silent type. I’m weak and loud, actually, overemotional and periodically prone to senseless outbursts. And yet: I do not cry in front of my children.
At my beloved grandfather’s funeral a few years back, with my kids at my side, I didn’t squeeze out a single tear. During my Great Cancer Scare of 2017, I spent a brutal week imagining them growing up without a father yet showed little emotion, only a steely resolve. In both cases, any loss of control was scheduled in advance, when I had a good block of time alone and would not have to rejoin society until mental equilibrium had been restored. In other words, I bawled my eyes out in private. But there was some kind of public barrier that I couldn’t cross.
This is patently ridiculous. I know that crying is normal for any human and is nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of gender or emotional IQ. I also know that it’s good for you. According to William Frey, a neurology professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the leading academics to study crying, tears contain adrenocorticotropin, an indicator of stress. That could mean that not crying only increases stress.
Other men seem to have understood that intuitively. The Old Testament overflows with sensitive characters like Abraham, Joseph, and King David, all of whom blubber without shame. Even the manly Esau, when he learns that Jacob has stolen his birthright, whimpers as only a guy who loses to his brother could. (He also weeps when they reunite.) Never once is there a stigma to those tears. Overt expressions of grief and joy reside within the normal range of response to biblical situations. Crying makes these men relatable, sincere, trustworthy — perhaps even heroic.
Or so suggests an anonymous 18th-century writer quoted in Tom Lutz’s 1999 book, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears: “Moral weeping is the sign of so noble a passion, that it may be questioned whether those are properly men, who never weep upon any occasion. They may pretend to be as heroical as they please, and pride themselves in a stoical insensibility; but this will never pass for virtue with the true judges of human nature.”
When did this attitude change? Was it in the Victorian era, when views on masculinity and femininity were defined by each gender’s approach to emotion? Women were depicted as impossibly fragile time bombs prone to hot-flash hysteria and in constant danger of taking to their beds. The steady, sturdy gentlemen in their lives were expected to be disciplined, rational, and averse to tears. This meant that men were either (a) suddenly content to lead buttoned-up lives of taciturn rectitude or (b) suffering privately with consequences that came out in less emotionally healthy ways than simple tears. (See Jack the Ripper.)
The stiff upper lip remained a fixture of Western male culture through much of the 20th century. For my stern immigrant great-grandfather and war-hero grandfather, tears were allowed only at the cemetery and, maybe, the altar. Then my father came along. A wartime baby raised by women, he grew up to be a gentle, hugging mushpot, strong and sensitive and ahead of his time in preaching the gospel of empathy. When I wrecked his car as a teenager and was hysterical with guilt, he shrugged and asked if I wanted to shoot some pool. “You’ve punished yourself enough,” he said. By the time of the 1972 release of Free to Be ... You and Me — a book and recording that challenged accepted gender roles and officially made it all right for an entire generation of boys to cry — he had been saying it for years.
But here’s the weird thing: Only once do I remember my father crying, and that was because he missed my mom, who had been out of town for a week. It was one of those terrifying moments when it hits you that the people in charge are not really in control after all, and maybe Earth spins on an axis of chaos. I assumed that his crying represented the beginning of a breakdown of sorts and that things would never be the same. As it turned out, the moment was an aberration, a blip on the timeline. But this blip must have profoundly affected me, because I still insist on hiding within the same all-powerful Dad shell that sheltered my forefathers.
It was one of those terrifying moments when it hits you that the people in charge are not really in control after all.
What do my kids make of all this? They’re growing up in a world that appears to have split in two. Meghan Markle, now known as the Duchess of Sussex, adopted the masculine pose of the stiff upper lip as she adjusted to life in the royal spotlight. How did that work out? “I really tried,” she reports in a recently released documentary, “but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
Meanwhile, a 2007 Penn State study by Stephanie Shields and Leah Warner suggested that crying in men can lead to a “positive evaluation” by other people. But as Shields explained, that favorable reaction can depend on the situation. When LeBron James sobbed uncontrollably on the court after finally bringing an NBA title to Cleveland in 2016, we understood: He had overcome a decade of criticism and heartbreak and ended 52 years of his hometown’s sports misery. Tears made sense.
Contrast this with the story of Adam Morrison, an All-American forward for Gonzaga University who, as he began to realize his team was going to lose during the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament, openly wept in a nationally televised game. Cameras focused on his face, almost cruelly, as if judging this startling loss of decorum and forever solidifying his legacy. For some hoops fans, that’s all they remember about Morrison: “Oh yeah, the dude who cried on the court.” In sports, it seems tears are OK only when you’re a winner. Or when you indulge in what’s known as the “man cry,” a single tear that streams down a male’s face while he reveals no other emotion whatsoever. So finally we have a tactic that makes it OK for 50 percent of the population to weep, so long as it’s laconic.
Back at home, as I navel-gaze about what this all means, my wife is matter-of-factly showcasing a full range of emotions for our offspring. This includes crying at everything from shaving commercials to photos of the family picking apples in 2013. That is strength and our children know it — and I’m pleased to say, all three of them cry constantly.
As for me, I keep waiting for the moment when I overcome years of conditioning, when real, raw emotion — not the reflexive Pavlovian response triggered by a fictional animatronic alien and a manipulative film score — boils over, and I show my children all of myself. They’re waiting, too. It’s only a matter of time. During a recent weekend in Albuquerque, one in which three generations of Rubys sat in a field at 5 a.m. to watch hot air balloons launch into the endless Southwestern sky, I asked my father about this not-crying business. “Tears were never close to the surface for me then,” he said. “I suppose I showed my emotions in other ways.”
But two days later, when he was saying goodbye at the airport, he pulled me in for one more hug and told me he loved me, and I saw his eyes welling up. He’s 77, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.
• Jeff Ruby has written about his daughter Hannah and his son, Max, for The Rotarian; his daughter Avi awaits her moment in the sun.
• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.