I can remember three separate occasions on which I’ve cried openly in front of my father since learning the shame inherent in crying openly.
The first was the night my mother left us. I was fifteen, and he sat beside me in my bedroom while I sobbed into my pillow, hiding my face because I was so embarrassed and confused. He stroked my hair, patted my back, and asked me if I wanted to go to my grandmother’s house for the night. I told him no. I never told him it was because I didn’t want to be the second woman to leave him that day.
The second was the night before I went to jail. I was twenty-one, and he drove me from his house, where I’d gone to visit one last time, to my mother’s house, where I would spend the night before I had to turn myself in the next morning. He told me that we all had to face consequences and that everything would work itself out. It was only thirty days I had to spend away, but that night in the glow of the dash lights it felt like thirty years. I faced the window and pressed my lips together tight, but the pitch of my voice gave me away. I told him I was crying because I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t tell him that it was really because I was so embarrassed for having let him down, and disappointed in myself for having to leave him.
The third was tonight, when you cut him off in the middle of his sentence. He was telling me about his own memories of being my age. The sun had just gone down and the overwhelming humidity of the day had finally broken and I was rocking in my rocking chair and listening to him and thinking how unusual – but how thoroughly nice – it was to have him visit and tell stories and just be with me. I know you don’t know this, because you didn’t take the time to stop and wait for my attention. You burst through the screen door with that wild, pissed off look I’ve gotten so familiar with, and you didn’t yell, but you hissed, “I can take this anymore. They’re both fucking crying and I don’t know what to do.” Then you stormed back inside to sulk and pout. I’ll bet I know another thing you didn’t know. I’ll bet you didn’t know that I’d been listening on the monitor and they’d been crying for under two full minutes.
Tonight is the last night I cry in front of my father over you. Tonight, I’m going to let you deal with them the way you let me deal with them for the first three weeks of their lives: all alone. All those nights that I dealt with two howling newborns completely independently because my husband “needed his sleep for work.” All those nights, frustrated and bewildered and completely forbidden to call you downstairs from your air conditioned bedroom to help me, or just to console me while I attempted to console them. I had no idea what to do with them. I had no idea what to do with myself all those mornings afterward, when I’d had no sleep and my breasts ached and bled from my failure at breastfeeding, which mirrored what I considered my horrible failure at motherhood, and when no one was coming to relieve me of any of it – not for a shower, not to go to the bathroom, not to sit quietly in another room or have a bite to eat – for hours. And I figured it out because you gave me no other option. And I’m a god damned good mother for it now, so it’s time you became a god damned good father.
I’ll be back tomorrow. Until then, it’s up to you to figure it out. If I can do it, so can you.