The Hair Issue
Sylvan’s hair… It’s remarkable. As in, lots of people remark upon it.
At birth, he had a head of dark brown hair. All the new growth, though, was light blonde. When we’re out and about, people often ask me if his dad has blonde hair. Nope, dad’s hair is boring brown just like mine, and Sylvan’s will probably get darker too as he gets older. I hear his uncle Jacob was towheaded until puberty struck, so maybe that’s the genetic blueprint. I’ve had this conversation dozens of times.
He’s often mistaken for a girl, I assume because his hair is long. Or sometimes because of the hot pink sneakers he picked out at Savers. (Last month a maybe 8-year-old kid at the playground heard me using male pronouns, looked him up and down, and asked me directly, “Oh, is she a boy?” a phrasing I found genuinely delightful.) Or it could be because I call him “Sylvie” sometimes. In any case, being read as a girl doesn’t seem to bother him, and I hardly notice anymore. I don’t usually correct people on his gender unless it’s our first meeting and we may see them again, and then it’s just because I don’t want them to feel dumb or angry later when they find out.
More than just long for a boy’s hair, though – Sylvan’s hair is also tied in knots, matted, sticking up all over the place like chicken feathers. People don’t usually comment directly on that, though I can tell sometimes they’re noticing the mess, and usually when they comment on his hair color (“it’s so blonde!”) there’s the “and unkempt!” addendum lurking unspoken. One recent remark took the high road, “He seems like a kid who knows what he wants.” That he does, yes. And at this point in time, Sylvan is quite sure that he does not want his hair to be brushed.
The tangled hair has been something of an Issue for me lately. I used to be able to persuade him to let me brush it out every now and then. He even let me trim it a few months ago. On our big road trip up north this fall, he agreed to let me detangle the mess so he could use the hair dryer on the hotel wall. But since then, no dice. I even bought him a hair dryer for Christmas, hoping the allure of electric wind would get me permission to do some regular brushing. He dried my hair with it a few times, but lost interest when he realized my ulterior motive.
So every day I stewed, and wondered when he was going to let me fix his hair. I’m sure that every day I asked him some form of that question. I snuck up on him with conditioner in the shower, which helped some, and he didn’t protest too much. But I kept wishing I’d get a chance to Fix the Issue.
I talked it through with Kaleb, to get at what the Issue was, exactly. His hair is clean enough. It does get in his eyes some, so there was kind of a pretense of an excuse there, that maybe he could see better, play easier, if it were brushed and trimmed. But really, when it came down to it, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed by the hairstyle choice of my 4-year-old son. Worried that strangers would judge me as weird at best, neglectful at worst. We make some unusual parenting choices, and I do ultimately trust our process, but I’m sensitive to judgment. I give it too much sway, I concoct imaginary defenses against it, and I feel it as a vague potential danger to our family. The word “neglectful” conjures up demons of CPS files, and while there’s currently no Hairstyle Police, the thread of fear leads me there. Following my fears to this very unlikely end did help some. But I couldn’t shake it completely.
The turning point came at a friend’s memorial service a couple weeks ago. We didn’t bring Sylvan along. It’d been years since either of us had attended a funeral, and we weren’t sure what this one would be like. We didn’t want to confuse him, or disrupt the proceedings chasing a squirrelly (unkempt!) kid, so he played with his neighbor friend and we just brought the baby with us. Almost as soon as we arrived we wished he had come, and resolved to include him more in important stuff like that.
But that’s fodder for another post. Back to the turning point for the Hair Issue: a musician stood up with his guitar to sing a song in honor of our friend. Kaleb turned to me with a quiet chuckle and whispered, “His hair looks just like Sylvan’s!” And suddenly there was revealed a possibility in living, human form: Sylvan all grown up, with a mess of brown tangled hair. We both giggled in relief as we realized the other fear that had been behind the Hair Issue: “what if he never brushes it?” Well, so what if he doesn’t? Apparently it’s possible to survive as an adult in today’s society with your hair all messed up. One could even become quite successful in a number of fields despite (because of?) such a style choice. This guy was doing all right. He was a loving enough, smart enough, mature enough human that he could write and share music with a grieving community. That’s a pretty high bar, actually. Did anyone there judge him for his “rat’s nest” or tut-tut under their breath about a lack of hygiene? Nope, at most they noticed it, as they might a jacket someone wore. I’m guessing most of them didn’t even notice, because it didn’t matter. Our friend was dead, and we were all alive, and jeez, why the heck would I ever nag my kid about something as stupid as brushing his hair?
I still occasionally catch myself wanting to mess with Sylvan’s hair, but when I notice that thought, I reply in my head with something like this:
His hair is a visible sign of our love and respect.
Makes me smile and back off every time. A couple days ago, really feeling that thought, I rested my hand on his head and asked him, “When are you gonna get your hair cut?” just as I used to. He didn’t swat my hand away, he just said, matter-of-factly, “Tomorrow.” Huh. Turns out he meant the kind of tomorrow that’s always ahead of today, not the kind where you schedule a date with a comb and scissors. But I’m ok with that.