A few months ago, I was sitting in a quite wonderful Relief Society lesson where the teacher was telling a very emotional story. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” she said, as her voice caught. She paused, fighting back the tears. After a moment she continued, telling the story but saying “I’m sorry” three or four times as the tears continued to fall as she spoke.

This was a familiar scene, and I’ve experienced moments like it frequently in my years in the Church. A female speaker or teacher gets emotional and starts to cry, makes a comment about promising herself she wouldn’t, and then apologizes to the room for her tears. I think most of us, as sisters, are familiar with the general tendency of women to apologize for crying in public spaces and particularly in church.

This particular moment struck me, though, because her story had really touched me and I was tearing up myself. She wasn’t sobbing or making a big show or anything else inappropriate to the situation; she just had tears falling. As I glanced around, I noticed half the women in the room were also sniffling or wiping their eyes. It was a powerful story and a great moment that was touching a lot of people. The Spirit was strong and the human connection among us was palpable. I had to wonder, what is there to apologize for at such a moment? Obviously, whatever the teacher was doing was exactly right, tears and all, and yet she felt obligated to apologize multiple times for this, completely sympathetic and also-crying, group.

The science of female crying

Researchers have found that women, on average, cry significantly more frequently than men do[i]. This is true across many cultures, not just in the U.S., and crying differences between men and women have not changed even though cultural norms related to crying have changed significantly in the past few decades[ii]. The gender differences in crying frequency (and crying style) are so significant that some researchers have argued that crying should not be considered a symptom of depression because most men don’t cry much even when they are experiencing depression, and women tend to cry more frequently even when they’re not[iii]. It is an aspect of human biology that women will cry, and want to cry, more frequently than men will, regardless of circumstances.

One effect of this biological fact is that predominantly male institutions will see significantly less crying than female groups and institutions will. In an institution like the Church, where the leadership is predominantly male, that means that Church, Conference, etc., will be (not entirely but) relatively tear-free. Add in the fact that many Sacrament meeting speakers (male and female) are nervous and less likely to tear up in a public speaking situation, and that Primary and Youth class leaders too are often focused on keeping their students’ attention and managing disciple to get deeply emotional—so girls and women don’t grow up seeing nearly as much crying in Church as they see in their homes and schools.

This likely contributes to a sense that crying is not appropriate to the Church speaking situation. It’s possible (I think likely) that women end up feeling that they are violating the social rules of the Church environment when they begin to cry while teaching or speaking.

The problem is, women are, purely and simply, biologically more likely to shed tears than men are. That means they are also more likely to cry when they are speaking or teaching in public settings—not from weakness or lack of preparation, but simply because that is how female bodies work. And although some forms of crying, like sobbing, nose blowing, or exaggerated crying “shows” are still inappropriate for Church teaching situations, a “caught” voice and falling tears do not distract from the Spirit or the gospel message. In many cases, they help unify and connect a group[iv], and can signal to children and inexperienced new members that the Spirit is present.

Feeling emotional and having eyes filled with tears is not, by itself, anything to apologize for. It is one of the things that make women more socially connected and more emotionally in tune with others, especially those in need.

As women, we tend to tear up more frequently than men do, but that isn’t a problem, a weakness, or something to apologize for. It is part and parcel with the whole magnificent range of unique characteristics we share as female spirits in female bodies.

Being a woman matters

Last summer, I attended the funeral of a little boy who had been killed in a tragic accident. He had been in the Primary where I was a first counselor and music leader, and I had loved him. Moreover, the circumstances of his passing were truly awful; he had been killed in an accident while out with his mother and two younger siblings. The others were essentially unharmed, so in the brief time between the accident and his passing, this darling boy’s mother held him in her arms. She comforted him as he was dying, telling him over and over that it was going to be OK even though she knew it wouldn’t.

Can you imagine going through something like that? Holding your firstborn in your arms as his life ebbs away, and being left with two other devastated and traumatized small children who have just witnessed the death of their big brother? Wondering “if only we hadn’t gone out today, if only we hadn’t chosen this activity,” and obsessing over each small decision that led to this tragedy? This is the kind of situation that can destroy relationships and families and devastate survivors. The wisdom of the world has nothing to say to this mother to heal her from such an unthinkable tragedy; the world names it “trauma” and declares it permanent.

Nevertheless, this powerful mother turned to the Spirit for healing.

When she spoke at her son’s funeral, she was not devastated and destroyed, but confident and strong. She spoke with astonishing calm and cheerfulness, emphasizing not the resurrection or other such expected topic, but boldly testified with incredible spiritual power that it was a sacred privilege to be a woman and a mother.

It was one of the most powerful and inspiring things I have ever seen. This woman knew both the intimacy of giving life to her son and of escorting him through death, and gained from the experience a unique insight into the blessing of womanhood. She stood tall and proclaim the sanctity of womanhood.

You see, the tendency toward tears is just one of many biological differences between men and women. And yet we live in a world where those differences are under attack.

There are those who believe, and would have the rest of us believe, that men and women are essentially the same. Not equal in value or worth, not merely entitled to the same glory, but literally interchangeable. There are those who believe that male and female are not biological and spiritual divisions but are purely artifacts of culture.

This idea threatens to undermine the doctrine of the eternal family and the glory of the sealing power. But even worse, it threatens to steal the very value and worth of womanhood. But women have a particular role to play in the last days, and it is a role they will play precisely because they are not men.

The prophet Spencer W. Kimball prophesied: “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.”[v]

We cannot fulfill this prophecy if we are exactly like the women of the world.

When I imagine the kind of women who will be seen as distinct and different in happy ways, I picture the mother of that little boy. Facing an unimaginable trial and letting the gospel lead her through, triumphant, to the other side. Standing tall and unafraid to testify that there is something sacred about being a woman.

We will fulfill this prophecy by leaning hard into our unique feminine strengths and standing proud in them. We are not strong, accomplished, and valuable merely to the extent we enter a man’s world and mold ourselves to it. We are strong, accomplished, and valuable to the extent we uncompromisingly embrace our femininity, womanhood, the sanctity of motherhood, and the importance of women’s influences on children and youth in a Zion society. We will draw the women of the world to the gospel not by acting more like men, but by acting more like the mother of my little Primary boy:

Confident, cheerful, proud of our womanhood, and able to overcome all things by the power of the Spirit.

Let’s stop apologizing

This is what I mean, sisters. Let’s stop apologizing for our tears when we are sad, moved, or feeling the Spirit. Tears are precious. As long as we are otherwise behaving appropriate to the situation, we have no reason to feel awkward or ashamed about the tears that well up in our eyes.

It’s not so much about the crying, as about unapologetically embracing the things that are unique about women, and standing strong in defense of them and the gospel. As women and mothers we have incredible capacities for feeling, compassion, service, and nurturing, and that are particularly needed in our fractured world.  I would argue it is time to stop adapting ourselves to what spirituality looks like for men, and start embracing what spirituality looks like for us.

I suspect it will look a lot like a woman crying when the spirit moves her, and not feeling she has to apologize for it.

[i] Lombardo, William K., et al. “Fer Cryin’ out Loud — There Is a Sex Difference.” Sex Roles, vol. 9, no. 9, Sept. 1983, pp. 987–95. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00290058.

Peter, Mathell, et al. “Personality, Gender, and Crying.” European Journal of Personality, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 2001, pp. 19–28. SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.1002/per.386.

De Fruyt, Filip. “Gender and individual differences in adult crying.” Personality and Individual Differences 22.6 (1997): 937-94

Kraemer, Deborah L., and Janice L. Hastrup. “Crying in natural settings: Global estimates, self-monitored frequencies, depression and sex differences in an undergraduate population.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 24.3 (1986): 371-373.

Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., and Jan Scheirs. “Sex differences in crying: Empirical findings and possible explanations.” Gender and emotion: Social psychological perspectives 2 (2000): 143-165.

[ii] Fox, Kate. “The Kleenex® for Men Crying Game Report: a study of men and crying.” Social Issues Research Centre, September Notes (2004).

Lombardo, William K., Gary A. Cretser, and Scott C. Roesch. “For crying out loud—The differences persist into the’90s.” Sex Roles 45.7 (2001): 529-547.

  van Hemert, Dianne A., et al. “Culture and Crying: Prevalences and Gender Differences.” Cross-Cultural Research, vol. 45, no. 4, Nov. 2011, pp. 399–431, doi:10.1177/1069397111404519.

[iii] Romans, Sarah E. MB, MD, FRANZCP; Clarkson, Rose F. BA, BA, (Hons.) Crying as a Gendered Indicator of Depression, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: March 2008 – Volume 196 – Issue 3 – p 237-243

doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e318166350f

[iv] Gračanin, A. S. M. I. R., Lauren M. Bylsma, and A. J. J. M. Vingerhoets. “The communicative and social functions of human crying.” The science of facial expression (2017): 217-233.

[v] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball (2006), 222–23.