A decade ago, a man tried to pick me up at a bris. He started the wooing by complaining about his ex-wife, who was “crazy.” (Aren’t all ex-wives?) He asked whether I was planning to have children. “You’re getting up there,” he warned. “If you want to have a baby, you should probably do it soon.”
His campaign was unsuccessful. But his 9-year-old daughter’s was working. Like her dad, she had intuited that I was the most likely candidate for stepmom in the room. She presented me with a plastic cup of red wine and brightly made conversation as if we were at a cocktail party. As the foreskin was snipped, she squeezed my hand.
It broke my heart. But hardest to see was her hair. It was a ragged mess, snarled all the way to the middle of her back. It took all I had not to guide her into the bedroom and comb it. A week later, I was still thinking about her. I had no desire to see the father again. But I wanted that girl to have someone to do her hair.
[Despite the cultural baggage, stepmotherhood has its privileges.]
Why, when we can overlook unbrushed teeth, filthy T-shirts and even general stink, is seeing a kid with uncombed hair so painful? I can’t count the number of times divorced friends have told me how depressing it is to get their children back at the end of the weekend with a head full of knots.
My own hair had a rocky upbringing. It is a common biracial texture — curly crossed with kink — but these were the days before Mixed Chicks, Miss Jessie’s and curly pudding. My mother would drown mine in Johnson’s No More Tangles, then braid it or put it in curlers, like she did with her own.
When I turned 14, I started going to salons. White stylists joked how my hair was like a “poodle’s.” Black stylists burned my scalp with relaxer. They feathered it, bobbed it, made it trapezoidal. At home, I attacked it with a straightening attachment and a curling iron.
Most of us have hair horror stories. I was 30 the first time a salon did my hair properly, and I cried. But when I look back, at least I know my mom was trying.
Hair, in our culture, is not only a symbol of beauty. It can also be a character-defining trait. Fiona Hill, a witness at the presidential impeachment trial, was introduced to the world with the story of how, as an 11-year-old, she calmly put out the conflagration and finished an exam after a classmate set her hair on fire. We have all seen the iconic photograph of President Barack Obama leaning over so a boy could touch his hair to see if it was “like mine”; and we’ve witnessed Representative Ayanna Pressley using her Senegalese twists and now her baldness to show what a black woman in power can look like.
I grew up with novels about girls whose hair was essential to the plot. Who can forget Jo March in “Little Women,” when she shears off her chestnut mane to earn money in a family emergency? Miss Swartz, the “woolly-haired mulatto” heiress in “Vanity Fair,” must pay double to attend the same school as her white friends. In the “Little House” series, Laura Ingalls’s untamed spirit is symbolized by her bonnet, which is always trailing down her back instead of on her head.
In most religions and cultures, of course, hair milestones are honored. My son has grown up watching Hindu, Orthodox Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Chinese friends have their hair sheared, twisted or styled in celebratory rituals. Other friends have gotten the secular but no less significant “grown-up haircut.”
Of course, traditional hair is not always celebrated. Not long ago, a Texas principal attempted to keep an African-American student from walking in his own graduation because of his dreadlocks.
It’s the attention to hair — negative or positive — that shows how central it is to our identity.
And that’s why a parental lack of effort brings disquiet. Because that’s what doing a child’s hair is — an effort. And our efforts are the visible, tangible proof of how much work we are willing to put into our children.
[Watching my son grow and my mom return to childhood.]
Who among us hasn’t chased down our kid with a brush, wondered if the neighbors will call the police because of the screaming, begged and bartered and threatened? Who doesn’t search for the product that will work, the brush that won’t hurt, the braids or bows or buzzcut that will release us all? It doesn’t matter if, in the final result, braids are askew, the crystal headband is missing half the jewels. It is clear we are trying.
Of course, my own son’s hair has hoisted me on my own petard. He’s a mix of Jewish, black and Latino, and, with my own hair story, I was smugly confident I was up to the task. What I didn’t predict is he would want it so long.
Now he’s 6, and has a shining tumble of blond curls to the middle of his back. Of course, since he’s a boy, it’s a frequent topic of debate. One longtime friend always greets me with, “Have you cut his hair yet?” Others ask, “Have you ever cut his hair?” Some declare, “Never cut his hair!”
“It’s his head,” I tell them. He can cut it whenever he wants. But I worry.
When strangers call it beautiful, do they really mean it’s weird? Isn’t it strange that people think I’ve bleached it? Recently, a flight attendant told me my daughter had beautiful hair. “He’s a boy — he’s just very non-gender conforming,” I told him. “We love that!” his co-worker piped up.
When people think he’s a girl, he mostly seems impatient. I don’t care, but does he?
Privately, I put a lot of effort into his hair. After all, last summer, I spent a full two hours separating a large blob of slime from the front. But I’m not sure my effort is very visible. Some days, his mop looks more chaotic than cherubic. It is constantly over his eyes. His dandruff is stubborn. Can people tell I spend a half an hour conditioning and finger-combing, that I bankrupt myself on TRESemmé? Is anyone sniffing it to make sure it’s washed?
After being told my hair was ugly in myriad ways, I want my son to have a happy experience with his chaotic, singular, untamed curls. I love that he wants to keep it long, that he lets it fly free. But when he grows up, I want him to know that the freedom I gave him wasn’t neglect. I wasn’t relinquishing my duties — just accommodating him. Whatever he thinks of his hair when he looks back, I want him to know this: Mama tried.
Lizzie Skurnick is the editor of “Pretty Bitches,” a forthcoming anthology.