By Margaret M. Treadwell
Question: I began thinking about the tears I experience regularly in my own life as a woman, wife and mother. Although not exclusively so, are there some tears more common to our experience as women?
“A woman’s tears express her greatest truth,” goes an old adage. The above question reminds me of a woman whose first clear memory occurred on Christmas Eve when, as a 5-year-old, she sleeplessly waited for Santa Claus. Hearing a loud crash downstairs, she was certain he had arrived. She jumped out of bed, crept to the landing, and silently watched her mother weeping as she sat on the floor next to her drunken father who had knocked over the Christmas tree. At that moment, this little girl vowed never to cry, let anyone else see her cry or appear helpless like her mother.
Instead, she spent much of her youth trying to fix her father and later worked to keep the peace in her own dysfunctional marriage. She managed her pain by staying in perpetual motion – raising her two children as if she were a single parent, volunteering, going to church and exercising – but doing little else to create and follow her dreams.
Until her son began to struggle in high school and her pain became great enough that it could no longer be denied. Willing to do anything to help her child, she finally was able to end her vow and over time let a trusted therapist see her tears. She began to realize that in blocking her tears she had been unable to fully communicate with herself and had become sick. As the sickness worsened, it had spread to other people.
The first step in healing was to allow her tears to flow freely while acknowledging that they represented huge feelings and emotions she had been unable to express in words. Gradually, she was able to ask as she cried, “What are my tears about at this moment?” At first, she was surprised to find that crying was her expression of unarticulated anger. Sometimes she raged at others who had wronged her, but more often she was furious and disappointed in herself. As she became more astute in her own diagnosis, she was able to get beneath her anger to discover it was masking the fear and anxiety she had denied in order to survive her chaotic childhood in an alcoholic family where it was dangerous to appear vulnerable.
Naming and talking about her tears opened doors of understanding and compassion necessary for her healing. As she came to respect her tears as a friend in her process of self-examination, she used them to go deeper in understanding the losses, failures, rejections and hurt in her life. Sometimes it seemed that her situation was growing worse instead of better in therapy and that she could drown in her tears. But with her faith, prayer, courage and a continued desire to change, she developed more appropriate ways to express her anger, fear and loss and then to take better stands for herself. “Who in my life am I pleasing by not doing what I want to do?” she asked.
One Thanksgiving she was able to say to her father, “Pop, I don’t like it when you drink and pass out every holiday. Are you going to stop this Thanksgiving and Christmas, or would you prefer for me not to come home?” And when he gave his promise but drank anyway, “Pop, I meant it. Are you going to stop drinking this holiday or shall my family and I leave now?” No longer the small child crying inside while observing from the upstairs landing, she said, “I always thought taking a stand was conflict I wanted to avoid, but I learned that it is simply taking a stand and how empowering that can be. I don’t think Dad liked it, but he absolutely respected me when I spoke from my heart with integrity.”
Tears can become a sign of strength when they are honored as a pathway to our deepest feelings and clarity. Jesus asks in the healing parables, “What do you want me to do for you?” And when a person wants with all her heart to be healed he says, “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10: 51-52). But sometimes work is required to obtain clarity, recognize our need for God and know that we do truly want to be healed. “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” says Jesus (Luke 11 9-10).
When was the last time you cried, and what were your tears about?
Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.