Fathom Mag

Intermittent Crying

I cry more readily than I ever have.

Published on:
June 20, 2024
Read time:
6 min.
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It’s two-thirty, which means it’s time to leave to pick up the girls from school. On the way to the car, I see the aquamarine ceramic pot full of dirt and a dead plant. For months, I’ve been meaning to dump into the compost pile. I tried saving the dying dracaena, scorched and baked brown on an unexpected, record-breaking hot day in April last year. What should have been a gentle transition into the yard from wintering indoors ended in crunchy leaves curled under after one afternoon in the sun. I had failed to sustain the plant’s life, and a single, three-foot, naked, ashy stalk projected awkwardly upward. The skeleton of the once-healthy plant haunted me. I hoped it would return to life after cutting back its deadness and leaving it on the deck all summer. Every time I passed by, I found myself caught between avoidance of dealing with my inadequacy and an idiotic persistent hope for a miraculous revival of the stump. 

I gave up after seeing nothing happening.

I cry more readily than I ever have, and I think it has something to do with how raising kids has put me in charge of so much but has shown me that, ultimately, I am in control of so little.

On the short stone path from the base of our back deck steps to the driveway, I have just enough time to check off one thing on the neverending chore list. Ready to rid myself of the evidence of my failure and move on, buy another plant, and do better, I lean over to pick up the pot. Two small shoots are growing at the base of that stupid stalk.

Without warning, I begin to cry. 

But time’s up, and I have no more minutes, no more seconds to decode the liquid spilling over my lids and onto my cheeks. 

That’s the kind of thing that makes me cry these days—dracaena pups showing up unannounced and back from the dead. In the car, I don’t have enough time to think about how I may have turned into one of those people who cries at wedding ceremonies or when I say goodbye to family. Still, I cry more readily than I ever have, and I think it has something to do with how raising kids has put me in charge of so much but has shown me that, ultimately, I am in control of so little.

As I was preparing to have my first child, I read women’s magazines and health websites warning me about the uncontrollable leaking I might experience after bearing children. None of these articles ever told me about the frequent seepage I should expect coming from my face. After I had my daughter, almost overnight the flow in my nasolacrimal plumbing changed. Almost nine years and another kid later, after wading through every advertisement for repairing my pelvic floor and core, I have yet to find a personal training program or class that will fix my ability to hide sudden, intense emotions that burst through my tear ducts at the most inconvenient times. 

My impromptu crying situation is serious enough that I’ve begun to wear waterproof mascara and expect people will eventually catch one of my brief and unplanned spills of emotion while we’re out for coffee, driving around town, or pulling weeds on the walkway to my front door. Without expecting it, maybe mid-sentence, I feel my throat swell and my airways tighten. Without warning, I choke and cry for a few seconds until I push through to the task at hand or topic of conversation. The tears will spill or gush, and then it’s over as quickly as it began.

Before I had children I cried. I cried a lot. In anger and grief, in disappointment and with a many-times broken heart, I wept. The highs and lows of my twenties were extreme. Although I’ve leveled out and matured since, I don’t think I feel less acutely, but I don’t have the same time to offer to sorting my emotions either. Now, I cry more frequently but the duration is much more truncated. It’s not because I am any sadder or less stable. On the contrary, with kids I laugh harder and more frequently. My husband says I should make “intermittent crying” a trend on social media explaining and demonstrating the benefits of having a 10- to 30-second sob before moving on to the next thing. He is not making fun of me as much as he is joking about how I’ve evolved. He knows I’m the healthiest and most honest about my needs, limitations, and pain points than I’ve ever been. 

The problem is that with children in grade school, I find myself responsible for managing, directing, and empathizing more than I can bear some days. I do not resent the role or the people who have made me a mother. The root cause for my tears is simple: caring requires a lot of energy, and when I care about everyone and everything, it’s exhausting and overwhelming—especially when I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Some days, I might feel so inadequate or ugly that I’m not sure I can get dressed or breathe, but I do it anyway, every day. Without time to give words to the electric currents shooting through me, I cry.

So what gets the waterworks flowing? Anything, and usually not what you’d expect. Sometimes, it happens because I finally have some alone time to think and feel feelings I have to compartmentalize and rarely get to process because the time I once found to journal or catch up with a friend is spent reviewing schedules or folding twice the laundry I once did. In the last year, I was journaling in a coffee shop, and a few tears rolled down my cheeks as I wrote. Nothing out of the ordinary was going on. I wasn’t writing about a dire situation, but I was crying nonetheless. None of the dozen or more people who saw me told me that my mascara made two black tracks down my face as I walked to the bathroom. No one asked if I needed a tissue or how I was doing. The assumption must have been that I was going through something exceptionally difficult, not that I needed release. 

Another type of spontaneous discharge of feeling comes when I see something so beautiful that it’s beyond words. Seeing plants and bees in my garden gives me pause, and I have no other response but to cry sometimes. When I started finding bees napping in my cosmos and dahlias last year, some were sleeping, but by September, many of them were tired, dazed, or worn out with ragged wings. My daughters and I concocted elixirs of sugar water to nurse them while they convalesced in a garden that I had dreamed up, designed, planted, and tended. What a gift to provide shelter in a place so sublime, so mine. 

However, when I’m honest, I know that whatever joy I find among my flowers I can treat less like an undeserved favor and more like a reward for putting in the time and care into the lawn. It’s still about what I can do to produce a result. Making time to shove my hands into the dirt to bring forth life and beauty still costs me something. My youngest recently accused me of only caring about myself and my flowers and that I never play with her. Even though I play, drive her and her sister to piano lessons, make dinner, sit and read with her, and comb and braid her hair before bed, I was not measuring up to her standards of being a good enough parent that day. I left her disappointed. I could not do enough to make her happy.

This is why when I see a plant come back to life not after the third day but after a half-year ignored, I cannot articulate that I’m trembling from embarrassment, and it’s not merely about the plant. It’s because I’d given up, told myself I’d failed, tried to remedy the problem, and my best couldn’t cut it. Yet the plant surprised me by living anyway.

The only credit I can give myself is that I hesitated.

In the seconds it takes me to reach for the keys at my side and put them into the ignition, I am crying about my loss and restoration of faith and how I must be missing out on so much more because I have come to believe more than ever before that everything is up to me. Doing so has crushed my sense of wonder and gratitude in addition to sending my adrenals into fight or flight mode. Signs of rebirth like this one become talismans or echoes of promises that I once believed more readily—the most important one being that God is still there, working regardless of my input or setting aside time to think about my faith. 

Something concealed in that dracaena’s design allowed it to live again, and it’s uncertain how much I had to do with providing the conditions. Its resurrection took place without my permission or special attention. Its newest version of life, to some degree, depended upon my failure, but it didn’t have to survive. The only credit I can give myself is that I hesitated. My faith, which I have considered to be burned out or worn down, has survived enough to continue waiting and hoping that God will show his face. 

Every time I’m surprised by life persevering, my tears testify to faith returned, renewal over entropy, rest over toil, and, ultimately, grace over works.

Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund
Jen Ditlevson Haglund is a writer with a diverse background, having worked in news, education, marketing, and modeling. She holds a BA in English and Journalism from Ashland University, and an MA in English from Baylor University. Her work has been published in Refinery 29Christianity TodayChrist and Pop Culture, as well as local newspapers and short story collections.

Cover image by Christian Gunn

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