“Did you wash your hair?” I asked Elias as he walked out of the swim team locker room last Tuesday night. Turning away because my eyes were watering from holding back a chuckle. Biting my lip so I didn’t laugh out loud. His tiny ponytail rested slightly mangled at the base of his scull and the rest of his chlorinated mop rose up like a porcupine’s quills. There’s no way he washed that!
He hesitated. Scanning my face. Wondering if he could pull this one over on me. Noticing that I was leaning in closer to him and knowing that when I suspect they are fibbing, I smell their heads to confirm they’re telling me the truth. “I didn’t want to be late for baseball!” Was his answer as he hopped away from me before I could take a whiff. Which means, “no.” Then he shrugged and smiled and said, “It’s f-i-i-i-i-ne, Mom. Let’s go! I don’t want to be late. Remember?!”
I was on to him though and threw out a last ditch plea as we headed to the car, “You’re going to fry your hair if you keep not washing it! It’s going to dry up and break and then you will have to get it cut short and it will never be long enough for you to wear it in a man bun!” He looked at me, letting that soak in, reflecting upon his coveted man bun. As he did this, I wondered for the hundredth time, “What is it with the ponytail?”
Elias started second grade in September and out of the blue he insisted that I pull his hair back on the first day. It has become his thing. At the time, only a sprinkling of hairs were long enough to collect at the nape of his neck. The rest ballooned out like a strange bob-type-thing. I remember hesitating. My stomach flip-flopped because I was afraid he’d get teased. I didn’t want my worries to influence him so when I asked, “Are you sure? You really want me to pull it up?” I tried to keep a neutral tone. I’m sure I didn’t though. He looked at me as if I had nine heads. “Yes, Mom! But make it a low ponytail not a high one.” And so I did.
A week or so ago, our dry cleaner commented that she didn’t know I had three girls. A few years back she tailored my boys’ suits for my brother’s wedding. This time we were getting Zoe’s pants hemmed. While measuring, she looked at me a little perplexed, and in her broken English — while scanning my three children back and forth — kindly said, “You have three beautiful girls.” I tried to explain that two of the three were my sons but she just smiled and nodded “yes” and said again, “Beautiful girls. Yes?” There was no point in pushing. My children stared at me watching how I would react. I nodded, “Thank you … Yes, I do have three beautiful children.” I patted them on their long-haired heads, looking into their eyes, uncertain and worried that they’d be devastated by her comments. Afraid that I didn’t handle it in a way that they’d hoped I would. Did I not protect them enough? Should I have kept trying to explain?
Once outside, Elias and Brayden stood looking at me — waiting. Zoe seemed annoyed and protective. We stood on the sidewalk and I began explaining that the seamstress wasn’t coming from an unkind place. She wasn’t trying to be unkind. To which Brayden clearly stated, “We know that! But seriously!? She didn’t know we were boys?!” “Apparently not,” I said, breaking out into a smile. They burst out laughing and clamored into the car in hysterics. Surprising me by how unfazed they were with her comments.
It didn’t really matter to them that she mistook them for girls. I didn’t make a big deal about it because she wasn’t being cruel. Had she been, I would have wanted to launch into my protective momma-lion-gear and seriously taken her down with some sharp-witted zinger. It’s hard not to feel angry or frightened when we feel judged or criticized by others. My first impulse is to defend and attack right back. But then what? How would I explain that behavior? And furthermore, who would I be protecting? Would I be protecting them? Or would I be protecting myself and my own discomfort?
Most of the time my boys don’t care what people think about them. I love that they don’t care. They like who they are and are comfortable with themselves. I often wonder how long it will last. Will peer pressure or too many questions make them get their hair cut shorter? I like to doubt that this will ever happen. I hope it doesn’t. I hope, if they ever do get their hair cut, they do it because they want to. Not as a response to other people’s reactions to them. I take pride in their uniqueness. If I’m honest, it makes me think I’m doing a good job. Raising children whose values stem from their inner truth rather than material possessions and conforming to society’s narrow idea of “normal.”
“There no such thing as normal.” I tell them every day. “Or perfect!” they often chime back. They know me well. And yet more often than not I am the one who waivers and second guesses these beliefs when I try to apply them to myself.
Who knows which way life will take them. I have to be self-aware and watch that my wishes for them do not quiet their own hearts’ longings and truths. I also have to be mindful that my strong desire to protect them doesn’t prevent me from allowing them to be their own people in the world. I didn’t have to put Elias’ hair in a ponytail. In fact, I also don’t have to let my boys grow their hair long. I could say, “no.” But that feels inauthentic. That would be fear-based me influencing who they want to be in the world because I am afraid of the world’s response to them and because I worry about their emotional well being.
I want all three of my children to feel solid, whole and unbroken by narrow-minded thinking and cruelty. I also have to step back and trust that they will be able to negotiate the world and how they feel about themselves on their own. I can give them as many tools as I can to wear on their life-skills tool belts, but I can’t protect them from the world. I also cannot ask them to be something that they’re not under the veil of protection. I don’t think that’s protection, I think that’s stifling their self-discovery and self-expression because I’m afraid of them getting hurt.
The best way to honor their whole-person well-being is to celebrate who they are as unique individuals. And to model that for them as well. We are all different and I believe that this is a good thing. This is how it should be. But I struggle with this for myself. As adults we grapple with being different but we need to celebrate ourselves too. We also need to recognize and embrace that we are always changing.
All I can do is hold myself open and remain unwavering in my unconditional love for them. I also have to practice self-love. I hope that this will be enough for them to feel brave and safe enough to celebrate themselves. No matter what life throws at them. They are good. They are whole. And hopefully they won’t be afraid to continue being their unique authentic selves. Always.
Categories: Tri-Umphant Living