The first time I saw my father cry was when I was in eighth grade. We were watching an old Bollywood movie, and I was fidgeting for the end so I could put on my own choice of entertainment. I don’t remember what it was about per se; there was something to do with court dancers and a love that couldn’t be realized, but my father started crying in the middle of the film. He did not know this himself until I pointed it out.
“Ma,” I yelled, “Papa is crying”. She came running from the kitchen. Seizing the situation, a she ordered me not to embarrass him.
“He’s a very emotional person.” She said, coming to his rescue. “He used to cry a lot before. It’s okay.”
My father quietly wiped away his tears. My mother started questioning gently as to why he was crying. Was it a remembrance of a past love? A memory of his late father? Papa shook his head, and quietly kept wiping away his tears. I stopped looking at him for he felt uncomfortable. It was the first time I had seen him in such an awkward situation. After a few minutes, the moment passed like it had never happened.
That was the first time I had seen a grown man cry outside melodramatic Bollywood movies. The typical hero in these movies, quite masculine with his six-pack and rambunctious dialogue, would cry a single tear when separated from his beloved. That was all that was allowed- a single tear with red eyes, and a swollen face.
My father’s crying was not a full realization for me. I thought of it as a freak occurrence, like a surprise pregnancy- something to be embarrassed about, and something to hidden as soon as possible, lest society should shame him. It did not occur to me that men cried but once in a blue moon.
In the macho Punjabi culture I was raised, men have strict gender roles. These roles are concrete jails from which the evocative lamp of emotion darkens with age to produce a psychologically stunted individual. My father was raised in a less lenient world than I was. He had responsibilities thrust on him from when he was young, responsibilities to be great, to have a successful career, to marry and take care of his wife and child. To show weakness was to let others win the ambitious race to riches. He struggled with the roles, under the carefree persona of striking flirt- he vowed to never marry, to hardly set foot on the career paths decided by his parents, and never to have children. And yet, here I stand, his second child, and only daughter.
I do not pretend to know how my father’s mind works, or why he does what he does. What I do know is that my father and I have had close bond, with as much love as a daughter and a father can have. He sent my brother and me to the United States when we asked to go, even when a family friend pointed out that I could be married extravagantly with half the amount of money my father was going to spend on my education. He pushed me to explore my boundaries. My father is the sort of person that laughs at everything, so when he only cracked a smile as I told him I wanted to be writer, I took it as a sign of approval.
He is a liberal in a land of conservatives, and it became obvious that our relationship was frequently misunderstood by my female peers. Some of my former classmates had a hard time understanding the bond we shared, and were quick to term it “weird”. They grew up believing that the father in a patriarchal society is a figure to be feared, to be respected. He does not ask his daughter what her views on politics are. He does not ask her who her crush is. He does not ask her why she was crying. No, the father is an authoritarian, who speaks to be obeyed, not to be consulted with. Docile children and an obedient wife are his birthright. His rules are to be unquestioned, and all the in household is to be anxious of his wrath, for that is only befitting of the master of the house.
That man was not my father. My father explained to me what periods were. My father explained to me why Russia and America didn’t like each other. My father taught me how to question authority, even if it was his. My father held my hand when I cried, and let me hug him. My father is a man, and yet he is as loving as any mother. My father is my best friend.
And yet when I was fourteen years old, I told my friend that real men didn’t cry.
She was astonished. In retrospect, she had grown up with a younger brother who adored her, and watched a lot of television with sensitive heroes. My television viewing was limited to one channel and my brother liked to tease more than talk. I did not categorize my female and male classmates differently. I did not think that men were superior to women nor did I think there was much difference between them. Yet, I couldn’t agree with her.
“Men cry, Ravneet. “ She said. “Have you never seen a man cry?”
The image of my father crying came to me, but I pushed it aside.
“No. It’s a sign of weakness.”
“No, it’s not! It has nothing to do with weakness. In fact, it takes strength to cry, to feel enough to cry, to have the guts to cry in front of people who might mock you for it.”
She was correct but my stubborn fourteen-year-old self would hardly admit to that. I insisted that men didn’t cry. They had emotions, sure, and they could cry, but in my mind, boys grew out of such feminine tendencies to become real men.
I was wrong.
Of course I was wrong. Men are complex, emotional beings with the ability to cry and care. Why did I continue to believe that men don’t cry, even after seeing my father do so? Because I was told, in every possible way, that men don’t cry. They just don’t. It’s a sign of weakness, of helplessness, of embarrassment. My father would have disappointed in me for saying that, but even my intelligent father was not exempt from gender roles. We agreed on most things, he and I, but even he would laugh at a man crying. “What use is the man that can’t stand control his emotions”, he’ll say. What is a man if he can’t cry in peace? A robot with the eyes of a dead soul. And why can’t he cry in peace? Because it is too effeminate to cry, to have emotions only females should have. And yet I ask you to look at all the men you meet, maybe the men sitting in the room with you today, that cry when it’s dark and the nightlight is out, when there is no one to hold them, when they muffle any sounds they make, because we shame them into dark corners, like harried mice escaping the flashlight, to cry without crying.
I can recall a faint memory of the first time I witnessed my dad crying.
I was six years old and it was well past my bed time, but I often insisted on sneaking my bare-footed curiosity down the stairs just for the sake of being awake when everyone else was lost in their dreams.
Upon the last step, I peered behind the shaded foyer wall to observe that there was a lamp still on.
The dusty, incandescent lit sitting room morphed my father into a shameful mirage,
With the vague light casting on his tear-stained cheeks and pained wrinkles extending off of his weary face into the room’s cradling darkness.
His glossy, sunken eyes were fixed upon a rose- painted, naively constructed page of misspelled first grade grammar.
With hesitance and threatening doubt, he murmured to himself between subtle sobs the descriptive narrative I created while at school that day about silly, old butterflies.
Did he hate butterflies so much that he started to cry? Was my handwriting so inadequate that I had failed him in his unidentified hopes for me to have respectable penmanship?
With unwarranted guilt and confusion, I could not comprehend why my dad was crying over a simple anecdote to butterflies…and since when did men cry anyway?
I was soaked with discomfort and I grudgingly yet light-footedly scampered back up the steps to be cautious that my crying father would not hear me spying on him.
I am able to acknowledge now that it was not the foolishness of the context of my story that brought my father to trembling tears, rather he was crying because he was enjoying a moment of fatherhood. He had been emotionally touched by the innocent creativity of a young child and taking a breath into the green world of a child’s mind.
My naïve appreciation for butterflies served as a coping mechanism for his aching soul, despite the simplicity of the context.
It was a break away from the existing chaos and seriousness.
Life proved to be a challenge at the time;
Many woes and financial crises, divorce and single-father parenting of two young girls.
The mere implication of the beauty of a butterfly offered him unusual comfort and his own metamorphosis into light-hearted thought and slight willingness to recognize his feelings.
I never did tell him I saw him crying.
I did not know if it was okay to see him like that...”was dad broken?”…”would I embarrass him?”
My mother fell victim to severe mental illness-the swinging pendulum of bi-polar disorder and persistence of postpartum depression after the birth of my little sister in addition to an abusive, cynical nature forced her to abandon our family.
My father, well-humored yet hardening in the face from long labor hours at work, was left to consider how to raise his daughters alone.
My mother used to antagonize my father during her aggressive, incoherent fits, accusing him of her own faults, claiming dominance with mindless, raging fists, and deconstructing and hatefully criticizing his natural masculinity through assaults of gender binary.
“You’re not a man!”, “You can’t hit me back!”, and “Look at you having a woman beat you!”
Her brutality undermined my father’s submissiveness and inability to secure his authoritative, manly composure.
This influenced his own self-doubt and collapse of feeling like a protective father figure, let alone a man.
I was not aware of my father’s treatment until years later.
He had a certain way of suppressing his emotions;
Not that he was cruel or insensitive, he just did not acknowledge the significance of expressing oneself with a swollen eyes and a tissue in hand.
In this way, my dad was a product of his environment and the traditional clay formation carefully crafted by society’s ever working hands to ensure male masculinity.
My dad’s father was not a bad father, but was not present.
My grandfather was a hard worker, away from the home sun up to sun down.
He did not engage much with my dad.
A subtle, firm handshake during holiday dinners or peering above his newspaper to remind my dad to finish his chores.
My grandfather was a marine and he consequently brought his authoritative mask home from Vietnam.
My dad was forced to call him “Sir” most of his life, catering to the “If I say jump, you say how high?” mentality.
My father become nameless when I speak of the distance between him and his father as a majority of paternal relationships resembled this detached exchange, only ever receiving an animated response in conversation if it was pertaining to how the Eagles won the game against Pittsburgh or the 1929 classic Franklin got detailed last week.
Outside of the casual realms of sports, work, and cars, there was nothing.
My father was fed the bitter spoonful of real men do not cry for developmental nourishment.
After years of being conditioned to lack an emotional response, my father felt ashamed of himself for being hurt so badly by his own wife.
It was foreign for him to feel inferior, to acknowledge defeat, and taste tears.
Despite his insecurities and concealed fear, my father knew he had a responsibility to raise my sister and me.
Judge after judge, he struggled to attain legal custody of his children.
As he would stand desperate in the court room, hands perspiring against his dirty work clothes, the judge would imply each time:
“Children should be with the mother”, “I do not feel comfortable releasing two young girls to live with a man”, and “What even makes you a fit father?”
My father was ruined in his efforts to secure his role as a father.
None of us understood how the judge could rule in favor of my mother even when she was neglectful. She was just a memory to us as she was not present in our lives.
As time passed, my father proved himself worthy enough to raise his own children.
For the longest time, I did not realize the significance in distinguishing males and females and attaching assumed traits onto their personalities.
I did not understand why my dad had such a hard time obtaining custody of his kids, why my friends’ parents would not allow for them to come over for play dates when they knew my dad was a single father, and why my father still had such a difficult time with accepting crying within the household.
Surely, I recognized my father as a man, but I did not think of defining him according to his biological traits or outdated interpretations of what a man looks like.
He was so much more than that.
My dad was the one who taught us to love and respect unconditionally,
He is the person that waited patiently in the store as I was stubbornly complaining in the dressing room about having to purchase my first training bra,
He was the person who graciously accepted hand-made, flowery Mother’s Day cards each May when we fashioned little projects together in elementary schools for the students’ moms.
Ultimately, my dad was the person in my life who was willing to step beyond his comfort zone and stoic tendencies in order to discover a way to promote the emotionally well-being of his girls and teach them that it is, in fact, normal in nature to cry, to feel hurt, and to reveal what lurks within the heart.
My father now, years later, proudly considers himself to be a feminine male as he now understands the beauty that exists in expressing self-thought and emotion through crying and does not fear to assume conventional female roles as he is personally aware of the joys, unique experiences, and feelings that emerge from gender fluidity in parenting.
I ask you why we continue to suppress, mock, and scrutinize men for crying as having sensitivity and having the ability to feel is a shared union amongst all people, both genders.
I do not wish for another man to escape to the confines of his darkened living room to silently weep in embarrassment for being human.
It cannot be stressed enough how each of us is an individual outside of our gender, that we are more than man and woman, that we are more than mother and father. Men do cry, no matter what we tell them otherwise, and it’s the man’s ability to feel that separates him from the unfeeling environment he has created or been subjected to.