Behind his loving eyes, there was a story ... there was pain.
I had been dating my now-husband for eight months, and it was our first real argument … and the first time that I really saw all of him. He often shut down when big feelings came around and, for a girl like me who grew up in a home where feelings flowed, this felt hard.
It was this tug of war that led to our first big disagreement and my leaving home in a huff for the store. When I walked out of the grocery store, I found a hand-written note on my windshield:
At that moment, I began to see the child underneath the man that I was falling for, and I felt more for him, not less. I stopped fighting his distance and began learning about the life he had led.
My husband was never taught about feelings and he didn't have anyone to model how to talk about emotions either. Instead, he grew up in a home where anger was suppressed, fear was not acknowledged, and misbehavior was met with punishment… usually a spanking.
A boy hurts, and society says “be tough.”
A boy feels scared, and society says “be brave.”
A boy feels sad, and society says “boys don’t cry.”
This has been the paradigm for centuries - boys (and yes, girls too) being packaged into a limiting narrative built out of shame that feelings are to be concealed.
This was the story being told to my husband for nearly all of his life. My husband was 32 before he heard the words “I love you” come from his father. His father wasn't being intentionally cruel. He was parenting his children the only way he knew how; passing the baton of emotional repression down to the next generation.
When a child’s emotions have been denied or dismissed, it doesn’t stop them from feeling, but it does send the message that it is not safe (or powerful) to feel. And when we feel unsafe, we do what we are wired to do - we protect ourselves. We either fight, push away, run, or shut down.
My husband grew up in a home where the men mostly ran away or shut down when it came to emotions, and when he became a father himself, he was determined to break the cycle.
Our son had just been born. And unlike his father and his father's father, he was not only in the room with me but he cut the cord. And with our newborn nuzzling in on my chest, my husband held me, leaned in, and softly whispered these two words: “I feel.”
Nothing more, just, “I feel...” followed by a silence that, for me, was filled with the deepest of human emotions.
In the days and months that followed, I watched my husband become a father.
He rocked our son to lullabies.
He showered him with kisses and filled him with I love yous.
He watched him as he slept and played while awake.
Together we danced this beautiful dance of parenthood and, layer by layer, I watched my husband evolve.
As our son entered toddlerhood, with all of the big emotions that developmentally come with being two, I witnessed my husband reverting back into his shell. He felt unsure of how to teach our son about his emotions because he was still learning these skills himself. He froze, often looking to me to take the lead.
It was about that time that I decided to purchase Generation Mindful’sTime-In ToolKit. As a family, we set up our Calming Corner, hung the feelings posters, and filled the space with calming tools for our son.
One day, I noticed my husband alone in the corner, quietly scanning the posters, almost as if it were the first time he was able to fully recognize the spectrum of emotions himself. Although he didn’t say much when our son took us to his calming space, my husband was there watching, listening, and learning.
That same week, I heard the sounds of a full-force meltdown coming from the end of the hallway. I followed the noise to my son’s room and paused at the door to find my husband and our son, together in our Calming Corner, much to my surprise, co-regulating.
My husband was eye-level with our son, leaning in close and I heard him say, “You feel so mad. You really wanted to climb up onto the bedframe and jump. I felt scared that you would fall.” I watched as they pointed to their emotions on the feelings posters, as they chose to take some deep breaths and read a book, and as they checked back in with their feelings, both pointing to 'calm' on the poster before leaving the space.
As we taught our son to name and tame his feelings, my husband was learning, too. Because of this, our marriage changed - we became better communicators. Our co-parenting changed - we became better partners in navigating the tricky parts of raising a child. My husband had shifted from a boy taught not to feel, to a man who was scared to feel, to a husband and father who was feeling. And not just feeling but sharing those feelings.
They say it is easier to build strong children than repair broken men, and that may be true. But there are many men who are taught “not to feel” growing up and are choosing another way when raising their own children. As Father's Day weekend nears, I want to celebrate those dads. Boy, or man (woman, or girl!) it goes to show that it is never too late to embrace and feel all of our many emotions.
*** Ashley is a mama to three children; two boys and a daughter born to Heaven. She is an occupational therapist, parent educator, certified holistic lifestyle coach, and Chief Storyteller with Generation Mindful.