Thursday, September 7, 2017

A hairy situation

One time, our family went to a graduation party for one of our students. We were sitting at a table eating hamburgers when an African American woman approached and slid into a seat next to me and Patience.

"Would you mind if I fixed your daughter's hair?" she asked.

I looked at Patience's head. It was definitely a mess...the flat twists I had put in were starting to come out and needed to be re-done.

"Um, I'm not sure we have time right now," I said. "We've got three more parties to go to today."

The woman waved my words away. "Oh, it'll only take me a minute."

To this day, the memory makes me cringe. I know this woman meant well, but I walked away from that party feeling like a failure.

You see, during our adoption process, we read numerous books and watched webinars about "how to care for black hair." It was required. These books and webinars freaked me out. I was more nervous about the hair than any other adjustment I thought we might have to make when Patience came home. The books talked about how "hair is an important part of identity for women in the black community" and one webinar I listened to even had an interview with a black woman in which she said she always checks out a black child's hair if she sees they have a white mother.

No pressure.

I never knew this until I met my daughter, but there is actually a "chart" that classifies hair. The chart goes from 1 to 4c. The number 1 is for totally straight hair and 4c is the kinkiest possible. My hair is number 1. Patience's is 4c. Learning to do her hair has been a long, frustrating, time-consuming, and sometimes painful process. And every time I go to town or to a place I've never been before, I look at my daughter's hair and think "Is it good enough?" "If a black woman sees it, what will she think?"

Then, last week, something happened. I stuck Patience in the tub to wash her hair, and it took 20 minutes just to wash the shampoo out. We hadn't even gotten to the conditioning and detangling part and we were almost out of hot water. And I snapped. Before I knew what was happening, the scissors were in my hand.

I stood over her beautiful black head and swallowed hard, wrestling with myself. Would cutting her hair be admitting defeat? Would I just make it worse? If I messed it up, where could I even go in small-town rural Montana to get it fixed?

I grabbed a clump and pulled it straight, every insecurity I have as a mother rising to the surface and causing my hand to tremble. What was I thinking? I held up a ruler. The stretched-out hair reached to about eight inches. I held my breath and snipped it at four.

Then started to cry.

The tears were about fear, that I will never be what Patience needs. They were about doubt, that maybe I was breaking some unspoken rule or violating some secret code. And they were about relief. Thirty minutes later, thick, black clumps were everywhere, there was an entire 'fro on my kitchen floor, and one thing was clear.

I should've done it sooner.

I don't know what I was trying to prove, wrestling with her hair the past year, causing her pain as I tugged at her tangles, spending hours of my time trying to tame the wild beast. I don't know why I care so much more about how she looks than how I do. I guess I just want people to think I'm doing a good job and that it's not a mistake for her to be stuck with me. I want them to think she's in good hands.

But at the end of the day, they are my hands, and I have to do what I think is best for my daughter. I cannot base my decisions about her life, our life, on other people's opinions or what I read in a book. I don't know what regrets I might have in the future. I don't know what she's going to think when she is older and has to live with the choices I've made for her, including the choice to take her from her home country and raise her in Montana. I just don't know.

All I know is that I'm doing the best I can, and I love her.

And she looks pretty darn cute with her new 'do.


  1. I think she looks very cute with her new cut. My son is African American. I'm pretty sure his hair would be classed as 4c because he has very tight curls, but it's so much easier dealing with a boy's hair. That's true whether it's super curly or "straight as a yard of pump water," as my mother used to say. The first time I got his hair cut, I took him to an African American hairdresser. I watched how she used the power shears, then did the same at home. I'm not very skilled with my own hair, so I'm glad he was so easy to please. Even now, in his early 20's, more than half the time he'll ask me to get out the shears because he doesn't want to spend the time or money going to the pro.

    I know what Patience will do in the future. She'll laugh at the stories and pictures and say, "I love you, Mom. You did your best, and I'm really glad you're my mother." And that will be the truth.

  2. Thank you, Carol. I'm inclined to say you got off easy, having a boy!

  3. Hair-wise, that's true, and our Hispanic daughter's hair is straight and easy to work with. I had to take our son to school earlier than she had to go, so it was her dad who put the spiral curls in her long hair every morning when she was in 7th and 8th grade. He got very quick and skilled with a curling iron!

  4. Love! That is all it takes to raise a child. Sounds like you got that one down!

    1. Thank you Jen! I wish love was all it took to do her hair, should see the cupboard full of hair products she has! Blessings to you!