It’s my workplace and I’ll cry if I want to

Okay, I really need to read her book. Thanks Tracie Egan Morrissey, of Jezebel, for yet another insightful review and interview: Sheryl Sandberg on Why It’s OK to Cry at Work.

I’ve cried one memorable, work-related time at the office, due to immense frustration and feelings of abject helplessness and injustice.

Two colleagues (a man and a woman) and I were meeting with our supervisor (a woman) over our department’s annual review process. Individual performance reviews had been completed, and we needed to submit our plan to the HR department for new titles and amended job descriptions for our myriad public affairs functions. We were going back and forth about titles, trying to encapsulate what it was that each of us did. The man in the room said that he could be “New Media Manager” (it was the year 1999 or 2000, I think, he fancied himself an internet guru). I too, wanted “Manager” in my title, but before I could name a title for myself, the man suggested, “Oh, well she could be ‘Vice President of Good Feelings.'” I had no idea how to respond, I think my mouth probably hung open and I glanced at my supervisor, whose mouth also hung open. We moved on… in the meeting.

I, personally, did not move on. I ended up meeting with my supervisor about the episode, which unraveled into a big mess of a talk about job responsibilities and whether the man on our team was pulling his weight. (Let me be clear: he was not. Much of his internet expertise came from day trading. He left our organization within a year of all this.)

I talked with my supervisor about all of this. I couldn’t believe he thought or even joked that I was all about “good feelings” and he was all about “new media.” I broke down and cried. I was not yet 30 and felt at once brilliant and cocky while feeling stupid and insecure.

It was not pretty. It was youth.

Ms. Sandberg, in discussing the issue of crying at work with Ms. Egan Morrissey, says the following:

“Look, I’m not suggesting that the way to get to the corner office is to cry as much as possible. Nobody is going to publish the next Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and say that crying is one of them. But I am saying that it happens. It has happened to me. It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let’s accept ourselves. OK, I cried, life went on. And I think that’s part of the message of Lean In, like we are human beings, we are emotional beings and we can be our whole selves at work.”

Does crying–being yourself–run the risk of diminishing your likability? Probably. Should likability be a factor in a woman’s success? No. (Only because there is a mess of successful men out there who are utterly unlikable. Some of them are even psychopaths.)

Crying happens, it’s true. Emotions–they’re not going away. I accept that I cried at work, I don’t feel badly about myself for having done so. But I do wish that the person who drove me to tears hadn’t had the power to do so. I had given him that power. I wish I had not.

I wish I had been older.

I Was Thetis

Achilles-heel-BWYeah, I didn’t remember who that was either, till I googled it. Thetis, in Greek mythology, was a goddess of water. Her name means “disposer” or “the one who places” or “establishes” or “sets up.” She had a well-known son, Achilles.

Today, I felt like Thetis–a mother who thinks she’s done everything she could to protect her son from a certain fate… and fails. It’s the second time I’ve felt this way. And when you hear why, you’ll mock me. I need it: the mocking.

As I’ve shared, I am not a mother who pushes her children academically. Or in extra-curricular activities, like sports or science club. I do expect them (daily) to listen to me sing in the car–I am convinced that it has encouraged them to sing in the car too. I love that. They have great voices, that more than a mother could love.

When I was young, I loved to sing in school concerts. I’d get this incredible tingling in my stomach, and I’d walk with my class up to our spot on the risers and I’d smile so hard and sing so loud, by the end of that hour my face and my larynx ached from happy effort. I’d be “nervous,” but I think if I’d known what the word was then, I’d have called it a “rush.”

Back to my simile: I felt like Thetis the first time four years ago, when our daughter “graduated” from Pre-Kindergarten (with a cap and gown and everything!). She was excited, until they opened the doors to the big room and she saw all the parents looking at her… She walked out sobbing, taking her chair on stage, sulking as a class of five-year-olds sang songs and got their certificates and posed for pictures. (She posed for nothing. She. Was. Miserable.)

My husband understood. He avoids the public eye like I avoid bugs. I tried to understand, but I didn’t. I simply felt I had failed her, somehow keeping her from loving and enjoying a crowd: its attention, its admiration, its love. I felt I had somehow, in my me-ness, ruined for her what remains such a fond memory for me. (That’s ridiculous, I know. I said you could mock me.)

The next year, when she was in Kindergarten and her teacher told me she’d invite our girl to have a speaking part on stage during the Valentine’s Day concert, I warned her, “Our daughter seems so shy, she hated her graduation ceremony, blah blah, worry, worry, panic, panic.” The teacher, Mrs. B., told me to relax, that our daughter would only do what she was comfortable doing.

Well, that Valentine’s Day, she had a great time. Nailed her line on stage. Sang every song from her spot in the front row, waving at us. I was overcome with relief. She looked happy. She looked as happy as I did when I was her age, on stage.

As for our younger son: Last year at his PreKindergarten graduation, he waved at me from his perch on the risers, me in the front row, recording him on our iPad. He had a blast. Grabbed his certificate with a big grin, posed for a picture. He was happy. Like me.

Today, Thetis revisited. It was our son’s Valentine’s Day concert. He’d been singing all those songs for a week, he knew all the moves, he was excited for the show, he couldn’t wait for us to see him. And see him we did, from the front row, just as he expected. The curtains opened, and my husband said, “He looks like he’s going to cry.” And he did look like that, a little. But he held it together and did well… he seemed very serious, and not quite as animated as his classmates, but the lights were bright and he yawned a few times… maybe he was just tired, since he and his sister were up giggling too late the night before?

And then… something happened. With about 15 minutes left in the show, he started to cry. He tried to hold it in for a few minutes, but then he just couldn’t. His friends near him tried to comfort him, but he just couldn’t contain it. He’d calm down for a minute, but then start again. He. Was. Miserable.

His Kindergarten teacher (our daughter’s same teacher, Mrs. B.) had an opportunity to get up on stage and free him, and brought him to me for a hug. He fell apart. I buried my head in his neck because at this point I had tears in my eyes. I just felt so badly for him, having to stand there and cry, feeling sad and alone.

As the concert ended, he just wanted to come home (it was 10:15). My husband talked to him and calmed him down, but then he had to leave for the office: more tears. I held him, hugging him in the auditorium, reminding him of all his Valentines that he would give and receive, all his treats, and the Valentine presents that he and his sister would get after school. That seemed to flip some sort of switch. He marched right to his teacher, holding my hand of course.

I left as quickly as I could after saying “See you in car circle, buddy!”

I. Was. Miserable.

I re-thought every move I’d made about that concert and every word I’d uttered. Should have, could have, better if I had… etc. He wanted to come home last week, too, for perhaps a performance-anxiety related issue. Was that it, or was he just crying for attention? Is he too dependent on me? Am I raising a fearful boy?

Good God what had I done to him? (Why didn’t I let go of his heel just once in that river, let him float in it, and then scoop him back out?)

I called my husband (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve called him in the middle of a work day in the past ten years). I asked him how he thought we should deal with the morning’s events. He suggested not mentioning the morning at all. Just to see what happens, just to see what our son would do. (My husband thinks that perhaps our son gets a bit too much positive reinforcement when he cries… from me, even from his sister.)

Just under five hours later, our son got into the car in car circle. I greeted him and his sister enthusiastically, they “ooohed” and “aaaahed” at their Valentine gift bags.

He told us, unsolicited, that he had “an AWEsome day with NO problems.” I just kept saying, “that’s great!” (I was stunned.)

We got home, and he got out of the car and asked, again unsolicited, “Did you know why I was crying?” I said, “No, I didn’t know. Why were you crying?”

He explained, “Because I was so happy. I liked the song so much. I saw you with the iPad.”

I said, “Is that okay that I had it? I wanted to record you so that Grandma and Nani could see you since they live so far away.”

He said, “Yeah… Can I see it???”

He was really, really, ridiculously happy. I don’t think he remembered that he cried for ten solid minutes on a stage in an auditorium filled with 300 people. (It felt like an eternity to me.)

And/or: Mrs. B. worked some kind of teacher magic on him. She knew it wasn’t a big deal to him, that he’s five and a half. She probably reminded him of all the fun he had in the concert. She probably focused on the majority of his experience, not the minority of it, since ten minutes do not a day make.

She knows that he is He, and not Me.

I am not Thetis.

My heel is healing nicely, thank you.