I had never been much of a crier. Not during sappy rom-coms, not when I cut my finger to the bone chopping carrots, and rarely when my feelings (or pride) were hurt. Growing up, I had a single mom who worked her butt off to support my sister and me. I don’t think she had time to cry, and when she did, it was most likely in the wee hours of the morning when she finally got a moment to herself.

I don’t think I would have ever said this aloud, but crying seemed like an admission of weakness, and that didn’t seem like an option. I never wanted anyone to be under the impression that I couldn’t handle my own life. And it never fixed anything, right?  Your circumstances were still your circumstances even if you bawled your eyes out, so I just never saw the point.  

And then, I had children.

Maybe it was because I had suppressed them for so long. Perhaps it was the hormones coursing through my body like a live wire. I’m sure it had a little something to do with the postpartum depression that felt sneakily like imposter syndrome with my second one.

Whatever the root cause was, I couldn’t stop the waterworks from flowing, and while it took some adjusting, I didn’t really mind this new tender, softer me that motherhood created.

That is, until I had to return to work much sooner with my second born than with my first, and had to put her in full-time daycare from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week.  

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On my first day back to work, my 8-month-old screamed bloody murder as I handed her over to the lovely infant room teacher at her daycare. She patted my hand, called me “Mom,” and told me not to worry—the tears eventually stop. My heels clipped down the hallway to the rhythm of both of our sobs, and I had to sit in my car for a solid 15 minutes before being able to drive out of the parking lot, spilling hot coffee with a shaking hand.

When I got to work, my co-workers took one look at my swollen face, breasts already leaking from needing to pump and my bag, split wide-open filled with empty bottles and papers before ushering me inside with assurances that, “we will both adjust quicker than I would have ever thought possible.”  

It was the first time I realized that the absence of tears is the societal signifier that, as a working mother, you’ve passed the first test of proving you can handle having a family AND a profession.  

Your ability to stem the flow meant that perhaps, one day, women in the workforce wouldn’t be viewed as such emotional beings, and we’ll finally get the respect we deserve to lead and serve as we see fit. They must have been so disappointed when I continued to show up day after day, having to reapply my mascara after every daycare dropoff. 

Here is the thing I want to clarify: perhaps some of those teary days were due to some mom guilt of having to leave my baby with someone else while I went to teach other people’s children, but most of the time I felt very proud that both of my daughters would grow up knowing I worked hard so they could have a life full of opportunity and as much security as was in my capability to provide them.  

And yet, the tears still came. 

They came when a picture popped up in my inbox of her sweet little blonde, curly head playing Play-Doh at a circle table with a bunch of her friends. They came when she brought home a painting of her hand, decorated like a turkey. They came when I missed her smell and her giggle so much it ached, but I still had three periods of English literature left to teach before I could go and get her.  

They came on her first day of kindergarten this past year as she was so terrified she shook but got on the bus anyway.

And they came again when she came flying off the same bus in the afternoon filled with stories of new friends and teachers and class pets and adventures I would never have been able to give her myself. 

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I’ve come to accept the fact that tears mean I am paying attention to my life and the world around me and I am in awe of it, to the extent that I don’t have words. This kind of awareness and empathy has only elevated my capacity for strong leadership, wise executive decisions, and thoughtful communication. There is nothing weak at all about the outward admission of vulnerability; in fact, I believe now that it’s one of the bravest things I do.

Now, every time I see a mom hustle out of a daycare hallway faster than her pumps can carry her, I try to catch up to her and offer her a tissue. I tell her what a great mom I bet she is. And most of all, it’s OK to be a mom who cries. Nine times out of 10, I get to prove it to her with tears of my own. 

Jenny Vanderberg Shannon

Jenny Vanderberg Shannon has a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Education Leadership and a Ph.D. in overcommitment. She resides in northern New Jersey with her husband Rich and their two, wild daughters. She’s a writer, reader, cook and you’ll often find her at the piano or in the garden. Basically a contemporary Victorian lady with a deep-seated penchant for Thai food, fart jokes, and strong coffee.