My four-year-old girl didn’t cry at the doctor’s office today. She got two shots in the arm, but no tears leaked out of those big, blue eyes. In fact, she didn’t even flinch.
I should be happy, relieved that it didn’t involve the screaming and crying and thrashing about that is my son getting shots at the doctor’s office. Instead, I find myself a little sad. Watching your little girl hold in her tears, fight them back with all of her might, can be just as heartrending as watching her cry.
When the doctor administered the shots, I stood on the other side of my daughter and held her arm down. She turned away, blonde hair hiding her face from me, and she watched the doctor inject the first vaccine. I saw her stiffen and watched her cheeks turn red, but she didn’t cry.
As the doctor swiftly grabbed the second syringe and plunged it into her arm, I thought to myself, Now, the tears will come, but the tears never came.
The doctor turned away to throw out the needles, and I stroked her arm and leaned in close to whisper, “Great job. I’m so proud of you.” I was poised, ready to offer a hug. Surely, she would need my arms to hold and comfort.
Instead, she gave we a wobbly smile and held out her bandaged arm, “I was brave, Mom. I told you I would be.” She scooted to the edge of the examination table and hopped off.
My little girl decided to be brave today. She didn’t shed a single tear, although I could see that she really wanted to. This makes my heart ache a little because I know that this moment is only the first of many times she will want to cry but will hold back her tears instead.
She will be excluded by a mean kid on the playground one day and won’t have anyone to play with. Or, maybe a classmate won’t invite her over for a sleepover with all of the other girls. She will want to cry but won’t.
She will fall in love too quickly and suffer her first heartbreak. After crying all night into her pillow, she will feel like her heart is being ripped out all over again when she sees him in the hall at school. She will want to cry but won’t.
She will experience the loss of a loved one and realize the world doesn’t stop for her pain. She must go back to work or school before her grief can subside. She will want to cry but won’t.
Over her lifetime, she will hold back her tears for a variety of reasons. She will do it to protect her image, her pride, or her position. Whatever it might be, she will know that to cry is to show weakness. She will not want to be perceived as weak. But does that need to start now?
As I reflect on this situation, I fear that I’ve been so busy teaching my girl to be brave and strong that I don’t think I have ever let her see me cry. Sure, she has seen my tears of frustration after a long day of kids and tantrums, but she hasn’t seen the real tears, the kind of tears that don’t have a simple explanation. The kind of tears that don’t come often, but when they do I hide behind a closed door.
I want to protect her. I don’t want her to feel uncertain or scared. But, if she doesn’t ever see her mother cry, how will she know that it is okay to do the same when she is sad or scared? How will she know that tears aren’t always a sign of weakness?
My daughter spends more time than she should in a princess dress, but she is strong. She is not a damsel in distress. She runs fast, throws far, and kicks hard. But with all of this emphasis on being strong and smart and capable, and all of the times I’ve told her to “brush it off” and “you’re fine,” perhaps I have neglected an important message: You don’t always have to hold back tears just to make other people feel better.
Maybe I need to spend more time making sure she knows that crying is okay. Just because you cry doesn’t mean you aren’t brave. And no matter what, I hope she knows that when she does experience that first rejection on the playground or heartbreak in middle school, her mother’s arms will be open wide and ready to hold her while she cries.