My six-year-old sleeps with his tennis racket.
So we were watching, of course, as Swiss superstar Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title over the weekend, besting Croatian Marin Cilic in straight sets. But it wasn’t that history-making victory that left the biggest impression on us as we watched from half a world away; it was an unusual moment on the sidelines midway through the match.
Know this first: Marin Cilic looks every bit the part of a formidable professional athlete. He’s 6’6”—the tallest finalist in Wimbledon history—all muscled arms and powerful legs. He’s the kind of guy who looks like he could pick up a car if he got the inclination and the opportunity.
But after losing the first set and three games of the second in short order, Cilic did something that shocked a lot of people: he started crying.
As he sat on a bench at mid-court, Cilic sobbed into his hands, his broad shoulders visibly shaking. A tournament doctor and official knelt in front of him, but he didn’t appear to be injured. TV commentators were left stammering in confusion. “It’s almost as if—it does look as if he’s having an emotional breakdown,” one mused. “But, he looked fine…I think he’s just not being able to cope with the pressure, or the situation.”
It’s jarring at any age to see a grown man cry. There’s an expectation that’s been assigned to the male species since the beginning of time, right or wrong, that demands strength and stoicism. Crying doesn’t jive with the image of a manly man in your brain, right? And witnessing panic take control of a man’s emotions—let alone on a world stage like Wimbledon Centre Court? That’s tough.
“Why is he crying?” my son piped up then, as the delay and Cilic’s tears stretched on.
I told him the only thing I could think of: the truth.
Anxiety, a feeling of inadequacy, or irrational fear can grab hold of anyone—even a world-class athlete who also happens to be a man.
Of course, I’m no doctor and I don’t pretend to be a mental health expert, but I am a woman who takes a tiny pill every day to help with my own postpartum emotions. And I wonder if we’re leaving something—someone—out of our public discourse on the subject of anxiety: men.
British journalist Piers Morgan lashed out at Cilic on Twitter for his display of emotion, tweeting, “Get a grip, Cilic. You don’t sob like a baby because you’re losing. That’s pathetic.” Honestly, it’s a troubling reaction, but I wonder if it’s one a lot of us might be preprogrammed to at least partially echo. Because real men don’t cry…right?
But is that the message we want to send our sons about mental health? That they’re expected to bottle up their feelings? That the discussion is more appropriately framed around women? That crying and admitting you’re not OK is only OK if you’re female?
I don’t want my son—or my daughters—to grow up thinking that at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting the world would be a better place if we all sat around crying in our soup all day. But I think it might be a gentler place if we didn’t question masculinity when a man shows a little vulnerability.
I want my son to understand that what determines his strength isn’t how well he holds his emotions in check—but how he handles himself when they bubble over. I want him to know his worth isn’t diminished if he’s brought to his knees, maybe inexplicably in the middle of the biggest moment of his life, by what the some might label as weakness. I want him to cry if he needs to cry.
In that Wimbledon final, Cilic eventually dried his tears, picked up his racket, and stepped back on court to finish the match. Afterward, as he stood with his second place trophy, he listened to the new Wimbledon champion compliment his determined spirit. “He’s a hero,” Federer told the crowd. “You should be really proud.”
Tears and all, he should be proud. That’s the lesson we should be teaching our sons.