It’s been ages. So long, in fact, that I’ve had a birthday since I last posted and haven’t even blogged about it. I’m now 44 – and wondering how long I can keep blogging under the name, ‘From Forty With Love’. Clearly I didn’t think this one through! But then I reckon the title could also mean ‘from forty upwards’, so perhaps I can keep going until I’m 50.
Of course, now I’m here, I want to tell you all about my 44th, on March 13th. How I spent it with my boyfriend, eating the gluten-free, Nigella Lawson recipe cake he baked me and skinny dipping in the ice cold sea off the Dorset coast. Yes really, I went in, in nothing but my bobble hat. I even put my shoulders under. Crazy lady. I also want to share that I received some wonderful gifts – including the beautiful and entirely appropriate book Wild Swim (my friends know me well) – and sang silly karaoke songs until far too late at night in a dodgy pub by Waterloo. But all that’ll have to wait, if I come back to it at all. Instead, here’s one I prepared earlier, to quote Blue Peter.
I started writing this blog weeks ago. It was pretty much done but I didn’t post for some reason, then I got sidetracked, then I forgot about it, then I wondered if it was worth posting at all. But there’s a reason I’m moved to write about the topics I do, so I’m just going to roll with it. I’ve returned to the original, tidied it up and expanded on it. I hope to be back soon with some musings on turning 44 … or whatever else happens to be on my heart the next time I write.
It was lunchtime and I was sitting in the pretty square near my studio in the elegantly named De Beauvoir town, a suburb of East London for my faraway readers. I was being optimistic – it was mid-February but the sun was out so I decided it was warm enough to eat outside. This is the same optimism that has me carrying a bikini around in my bag for most of the summer, and sometimes the spring and autumn too, just in case there’s a chance to nip to the Ladies Pond for a dip. On the day in question, it wasn’t as warm as it looked through my studio windows, but lunching outside was still doable for hardy, northern, swim-in-the-sea-in-March folk like me.
The park was crawling with children, running in circles, on the climbing frame, playing football – it was half-term – so it wasn’t quite the peaceful lunch break I’d imagined, but there was plenty to keep me entertained.
I was particularly interested in a small group of children who were playing nearby, so close in fact that I expected their football to knock the Tupperware out of my hand. When I arrived, this group – about five of them – had just launched into a running race but the smallest child, a boy of around five or six, had been left behind. In seconds, he was in floods of tears, standing there with his head down, trying to get some words out through the gulps and sobs. From what I could gather, he was crying because the others had run off and he couldn’t keep up. Maybe he felt humiliated, maybe he felt angry – he just wanted to run fast like the bigger kids.
A woman rushed up to console him – in her teens by the looks of it, an older sister or cousin perhaps. He couldn’t expect to run like the older children, they had much longer legs, she said, steering him to a bench so he could sit and shed his remaining tears. Pretty soon, the kids who’d run ahead of him completed their circular route and arrived back at the bench.
“Why are you crying?” said an older girl in a taunting voice, leaning into his tear-stained face with her hands on her hips. “Boys don’t cry,” said the girl, who was around nine or ten, I’d say, with long slim legs – good for running.
I looked up when I heard those words and frowned. Really? Really, I thought. Boys are still being told this? Small boys are still being told it’s not OK to cry, it’s not manly to be upset? After all we’ve learned, after all we’ve come to understand about the dangers of keeping our feelings bottled up inside, about depression, about anger that comes out sideways, in the form of a thump or kick, or turns inwards, in the form of addiction and self-harm. And after all we know about male suicide rates. Shouldn’t we be sending out different signals to boys by now?
Of course, the girl was only young herself and must have picked up the ‘boys don’t cry’ message from somewhere, from the grown-ups in her life, perhaps. And while it’s not ideal for young boys, or girls, to cry over losing a running race, feelings are feelings and they’re going to come out one way or another. That boy clearly felt hurt. And I reckon he needed help expressing that hurt. Instead, he was shamed for it.
Those words, ‘boys don’t cry’, have been stuck in my head ever since.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a boy or a man. Perhaps you guys don’t need to cry as often as I do. Maybe you don’t need a support network of half a dozen close friends you can call up at any time of the day or night in tears. But maybe some of you do. Or you do at certain times in your lives. There are some feelings that are just too big to be kept inside – the death of a parent, perhaps, the end of a relationship or losing your job, your marriage or your kids. Or those times when all the unspoken feelings and frustrations that have been bottled up for years start to bubble to the surface, when the lid really needs to come off the pressure cooker to avoid an explosion.
As someone who found many unhealthy, self-harming ways to cope with painful feelings and unsaid things for years, I worry that many men out there are hurting themselves by keeping their emotions inside. I know we’re different – men are from Mars and women from Venus and all that. I know we process things differently. But we can’t be that different. Isn’t it more that we’ve been conditioned to cope in different ways?
I confess there was a time some years ago when I found it hard to see the men close to me cry, particularly the man I was in a relationship with. I needed him to be strong, perhaps because I felt weak on the inside, even if I pretended otherwise.
His tears unsettled and unnerved me. They provoked strong feelings in me. I’m sad to say I felt almost repelled. This was my stuff – nothing to do with the man in question. It was a combination of a few things: the fact I hated the weak, vulnerable side of me so I couldn’t bear to see it reflected in someone close to me, someone I was attracted to; and that sense I had at the time that my man had to be strong for me, for the both of us.
These days, I feel differently about men’s tears. I’ve done a lot of personal development so I now accept my weaker, vulnerable side and am more able to accept that side of someone I love. And I don’t need a man to be strong for the both of us anymore. I’m stronger and I’ve developed my support network so there’s always someone I can call – and generally there’s someone I can call before my boyfriend. This is good because my upset isn’t always entirely rational, or it’s associated with deep pain from my past and has little to do with my present. I can work through this much easier with my girlfriends, many of whom are on the same journey, or with my therapist. The man in my life doesn’t need to hear all the emotional ups and downs. I can share them around!
But the bottom line is I do need to share – and maybe there are men who need to share their feelings too and don’t feel they’re able to or don’t know where to turn.
In fact, I know there are men who need and want to share their feelings because I’ve heard them speak. I heard a men’s panel at the Women of the World festival a few weeks back and a similar panel at WOW last year. And I heard a panel on Crash and Burn – what happens when your life hits a wall – at the Being A Man festival in 2014 (see the Telegraph’s write up here). Being a Man is back this year, 27-29 November, 2015, by the way.
Last year’s men’s panel at WOW was particularly moving. Many of the panellists shared how they felt they had to keep it together, primarily for the women in their lives. They felt an expectation to be strong, not to fall apart, that weakness wasn’t allowed. Fortunately, these men could talk openly about that expectation and they were also part of a men’s group – they met regularly to share their feelings and offer mutual support.
I’ve heard men share in other forums too that they’ve felt scared to be vulnerable with their wives or girlfriends. But the same men have also shared that these women have truly fallen for them in that very moment when they’ve been most vulnerable, when they’ve expressed their true feelings, when they’ve cried. I can relate to this. These days, I’m moved by a man’s tears.
But I know I need to continue to work on myself so I can be comfortable with my own weaknesses and therefore be accepting of his vulnerabilities too. And I can continue to develop my support networks so I have plenty of people to talk to when I’m feeling blue. If I can do this, I can avoid burdening the man in my life with the pressure of having to be strong all the time and I can avoid burdening him with all my troubles.
I can also send a message to all the men I know that I’m not only ready and willing to hear their vulnerabilities, but I’d be delighted and honoured if they’d share their true selves with me.
This level of openness, I hope, is possible in all our intimate relationships but what about at work? I think we particularly need authenticity in the workplace – it’s where many of us keep our true feelings inside and put on a front. I recently filled in a form for some work with a university and decided to omit any mention of my eating disorder or experience of ‘mental health issues’. I didn’t want the hassle of explaining myself. And I was wary I’d run into some form of prejudice. Then, a few days later, I changed my mind. I sent off a new form that told the truth. How could I write about authenticity and vulnerability or try to encourage others to share their stories and then hide it from my potential employers? I feel much more comfortable being true to myself. But I know this is tricky territory. (And I wonder, after all that’s been written about the GermanWings crash, how many people will want to write ‘depression’ on a disclosure form at work).
I feel strongly that men and women need to talk about their feelings and be authentic at home and at work. And given women tend to be better at this than men, we need to give the guys plenty of encouragement. After all, it could save lives.
A few days after hearing that little girl say ‘boys don’t cry’ in the park, I heard a moving programme on Radio 4 about men and suicide. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online to link to so I’ll have to summarise from memory. The host was speaking to a man who a while back had been stood on top of a building, preparing to jump off. He’d lost his marriage, his job and was sleeping on his son’s sofa. He’d lost his self-respect, he felt ashamed and he couldn’t see a way back. He had called the Samaritans a few weeks before but hadn’t said anything when they answered the phone. But as he stood at the edge of the building, he scrolled through his recent calls, to remind himself of the names of friends and family he’d be leaving behind. The Samaritans number caught his eye. He called it, got through to his local branch and they convinced him to come down and head to their offices for a cup of tea. He talked through his troubles. Maybe he cried. And he survived.
So boys, teenagers, men – please talk to us and please do cry. We can take your tears. We can more than take your tears. We love your tears. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.