Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of role models – specifically, how vital good parents are to a child’s future. If you’re like many of my friends, you grew up with at least one supportive parent. You were loved. You were well-guided through your childhood as your parents displayed a variety of positive behaviors, and chances are you became a good person as a result. I can’t tell you the number of friends I have who cheerfully reflect on the great pieces of wisdom passed on by a parent. I admire that they can so easily recall such memories, yet I cannot ignore the sharp stab of jealousy in my gut.
You see, my upbringing was nothing like that. Maybe this describes you too? You might have been ignored, neglected or worse. You might have had a dad like mine, who told you flat out he didn’t love you. Or that you were worthless. Even made a big deal about it – professing it to the entire family as they sat motionless around the dinner table.
As I grew into an adult, I had a lot of anger issues. I swore I’d never have kids, terrified I’d repeat my father’s behavior; that I too would destroy a child. Eventually, I did have children, and even somehow managed to do a good job raising them. I was loving, creative and silly. I read to them at every chance I got. I championed their differences and interests – all things my father never did. Most importantly, I was successful at keeping my father’s words isolated in my head, always vigilant to block his ever-present anger from escaping out my mouth. But there were times when things got rocky, particularly when my daughters became teenagers.
There was one instance I’ll never forget. One fall afternoon, my then 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, returned from a sleepover and stood in the living room, red-faced and silent, hiding her hair with her hoodie.
“You okay, honey?” With two teenagers at home, that question was always on my lips. Every day the news smothered us with tales of girls being abducted while jogging, drug and alcohol overdoses at unchaperoned parties, teen depression and suicide. How were we supposed to keep our children safe?
Elizabeth met my gaze and slowly removed her hood. My head swirled with dark thoughts as I took in the sight in front of me: globs of thick, blonde curls stuck out like bushy, wild islands in a sea of uneven, scissored scalp. What had she done? And why?
Instantly my anger swelled, escaping in a wretched searing of syllables unlike anything I had ever uttered in her presence, with perfectly spaced pauses between each word as if I had been rehearsing them all morning long. “What a stupid, stupid thing you’ve done! What the hell is wrong with you?”
My head filled with dark shadows from my past. My father standing over me, a belt in his hand. His taunting smirk, a mask that meant it was punishment time. Then came his heart-stopping words, the very ones I had just uttered to my youngest daughter.
No! I sucked in my breath, stunned by my own outburst. My beautiful Elizabeth gasped and turned away, covering her face with her hands. Why had I said that? Those were my father’s words, not mine. I thought about the truckload of stupid things I had done at 16, the tears I had cried at Dad’s berating responses.
I won’t be my father. I won’t. I stepped forward and hugged Elizabeth. “I’m sorry, honey. Please forgive me.” She relaxed in my arms and began to tell the story of her botched haircut.
She hadn’t planned to cut her hair that day. She had just been complaining about her hair for the hundredth time, and one thing lead to another: scissors were located in a drawer; her friend’s bedroom door was locked; their voices hushed.
“And then she freaked out and refused to finish the job,” Elizabeth moaned, pulling at her remaining hair. In that moment, I saw her clearly, no longer my angelic child with the halo of curls. She was ready to be someone else. How had I missed this?
I thought about the hair on that bedroom floor, imagined the curls slowly falling to the carpet like petals. Memories of a younger Elizabeth filled my head: her running through the house as a toddler, her first word on her lips, like a treasure, “button!”; a barefoot three-year-old standing on her daddy’s new surfboard as it lay on the carpet, arms out, feet in perfect formation as if she were already catching a wave; a kindergartener confidently grinning into the camera astride a massive Palomino mare.
I looked at her again. My breathing slowed. What was the big deal? We walked into the bathroom. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, I said, “Let’s call a salon. I’m sure they’ll– ”
“No! You do it. Shave it all off, Mom. Please!” I imagined a razor in my hand, drawing blood at my first attempt. No way. I couldn’t do it.
“You can do this Mom, I know you can.” Oh Lord, she was giving me a pep talk! Motherhood is such a delicate balancing act. One minute you’re guiding a child, the next you’re her student. Sometimes motherhood squeezes you into tight, uncomfortable places you never imagined possible. It brings up old wounds, and all too often leaves you wondering if life will ever be normal.
I could dig in my heels and risk the chance of making everything worse or decide to stop the chatter in my head and listen.
I listened. My hands shook, but I snipped off her remaining locks of hair. Then came the first tentative razor’s pass. My confidence grew with each stroke as Elizabeth hunched over the sink, hands splayed on the tile countertop, peeking into the mirror at my progress; trusting me.
When we were finished, we laughed, and I told her that one day I’d write a book called Hair Grows Back. The images of that day will be forever with me: the shape of her beautiful skull. How her eyes seemed bigger. Bluer. When dressed up, how elegant she looked without hair. More importantly, I’ll never forget her trust and determination; the intimacy of sliding that razor over her beautiful scalp; the rejecting of my father's words; the choice to be a good parent.