As a black single mother of three, history would suggest that I should always be strong and present myself as unbothered and unproblematic, leaving little room for vulnerability. If I wanted to repeat history, I would teach my children that expressing their feelings is a sign of weakness and to avoid hurt and rejection they should keep their feelings to themselves. I would then model this behavior by not talking about my feelings even in obvious difficult situations. I don’t want that for my children and while my childhood involved a lot of emotional strength training it was in a heartfelt moment between my dad and seven-year-old daughter that confirmed I am well on my way to raising emotionally intelligent humans.
My daughter witnessed a 6’3” black man cry because he misses his mom. I didn’t witness that level of vulnerability with my parents. The first time I saw my dad cry was when I endured third-degree burns at 6 years old and much later as an adult at his father’s funeral. I grew up believing that I had to be strong, and power through my feelings. It’s not that I was not allowed to cry, but because I never witnessed a display of those types of emotions. Sure, there were cry-worthy moments but just like their parents, my parents were indoctrinated with the idea that black men and women needed to be strong in the face of adversity and never allow anyone to see them feel ashamed, hurt, or embarrassed. This was the armor they needed to survive outside, but once inside they never took off their shield. I was often confused and honestly alone with buried feelings and thoughts. Later as an adult, I struggled with wanting to ask for help, but not knowing how. As a child, I thought my parents were superheroes, but as a mother, I learned that they are superhuman, capable of emotions that they tried to protect me from.
When my daughter saw my dad crying, he was sharing a memory of his mother who passed away before she was old enough to remember her. I was so grateful that he gifted her with that memory and moment. I would’ve fumbled a teachable moment if I didn’t follow up with her about how seeing papa cry made her feel. When asked, she said it made her feel sad. I explained to her that feeling and expressing emotion is freeing. Still confused, I asked her if she fell and scraped her knee would she tell me or keep it to herself? Naturally, she said she would want to tell me. I followed up with, “What if it didn’t hurt?” Still, she was adamant about telling me. I asked why and she said, “That’s just how I feel – I would want you to know how I feel.” I explained that owning her feelings is her superpower – it takes a great deal of strength to feel how you feel and share those feelings.
It is important to me to raise emotionally available children. There’s no way I can achieve that goal by dehumanizing myself in front of them. Maintaining a front of emotionless strength and power would cause me to miss the opportunity to guide them through moments of confusion, frustration, and heartbreak. More importantly, they will not gain a sense of empathy and compassion. My daughter saw her grandfather cry and while I maintain a position of gratitude for that moment, I am most grateful that she allowed the moment to happen. She didn’t ask him to stop crying or try to force him into being ok for the moment.
I spent years trying to sort through my feelings and not knowing how to express what I needed because I was confused about what I should and shouldn’t be “strong” enough to endure. I sat with problems that my parents were equipped to solve, but I wasn’t emotionally intelligent enough to recognize a problem as a problem. Instead, it was just another thing I needed to get over because “that’s life.” Only it’s not life. As an emotionally mature adult, I understand that both good and terrible things will happen, and all sorts of feelings will accompany those moments. I know that those bad feelings deserve the same level of attention as the good ones and that’s the trick to overcoming the next terrible thing. Like my daughter, I allow myself to feel how I feel, because that’s just how I feel.
While there are countless options when it comes to parenting books, unfortunately, there aren’t any offerings for children on how to survive emotionally unavailable parents. I understand the statement, “I did the best I can” all too well now. That’s all anyone can do. Ironically, a global quarantine provided us with a stellar education on communication and emotional maturity. We can better recognize the flaws in our best and can now do better. As a result, we see viral posts online on the topic of normalizing our best. I hope to see one more added, “Let’s normalize parents creating a space for themselves to heal so they can provide their children with a childhood that they don’t have to heal from.”
Shedelle Davis is a freelance reporter and entrepreneur. She published her first book in September 2020 entitled, “Dear You: Letters of Love, Gratitude, & Redemption.” She later published a book of affirmations, “Still” as well as a journal to create a self-help book series entitled, “Dear You: The Black Girl’s Self-Discovery, Healing & Growth Kit.” She lives in Lenexa, Kansas with her three children, Jagger Austin, Charlie Jai, and September Rein. Read her portfolio here!