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Adoption Blog: Familia Means Family

Cornrows and YouTube

After we adopted domestically and began to introduce Isabel to our friends, one of the first questions Caucasian moms would ask me was: "What are you going to do about her hair?" This question was usually accompanied by big, wide eyes and a shake of the head full of sympathy and pity. To most women who are not black, the hairstyles we see gracing the heads of small black girls seem complicated and daunting. I admit that the thought of caring for an African-American girl used to terrify me when we began the transracial adoption process. I was completely ignorant of all things related to black hair until Isabel came into our lives and, with her, her head of thick, curly, gorgeous locks.

Well, the gorgeous locks came eventually. When she was handed to me, at two months old, all she had was a tiny patch of baby-fine hair on top of her head. Piece of cake, I thought! And it was, for the most part, until her hair "came in" and, by the time Isabel was three, we were dealing with a full head of thick hair.
Being the independent, self-sufficient mom that I am, off I went to Wal-Mart to find some products to wash, detangle, moisturize, and manage her hair. But as I stood in front of the "Ethnic Products" aisle at Wal-Mart my eyes rolled to the back of my head. So many options! And so many names: grease, oil, hairdress, hair milk, gel, gro spray. All the jars and bottles with smiling little girls with perfectly coiffed hair were dizzying, and reading the descriptions didn't help much.
The next day at work I polled my black students and colleagues to find out what they used. Though they were all willing to offer advice, everyone gave me a different answer and nobody could remember the name of the product. Most gave an answer like:
"You go to Wal-Mart and you will find this blue jar of grease. I think it's on the bottom shelf. It's blue, you can't miss it."
Except for the five other blue jars, next to the green ones and the black ones and even a pink one or two. Come to think of it, I don't know the names of most of the products I use but, being a rookie, I needed specifics. At one point I had a rainbow of jars and bottles in Isabel's cabinets but could not find the right product or the right combination. Not to mention that, as she got older, her hair texture changed, which meant that what had worked six months ago didn't work today. The general consensus among my black friends was that, while they could give me advice, individual hair requires individual treatment, so I had to find my own way through the maze of products and processes.
When I don't know what to do, I research. I discovered there are many websites that sell products and I began to read the reviews. I also learned that there is a big push to use natural oils and other ingredients rather than synthetic products. I became a fan of Carol's Daughter products because, while they are pricier than whatever Wal-Mart carries, they are natural, smell delicious, and seem to work well. Of course, it took trial and error to figure out the ones that worked best for Isabel's hair. I think we have a pretty good routine now and her hair is healthy, soft, and shiny. Success!
When it came to styling her hair, however, I ran into another intimidating task. From talking to my black friends and colleagues I came to understand how important hair and its care are in African-American culture. If a child's locks look unkempt and unruly, that may be taken as a reflection of the care the child receives at home. My daughter will surely face some challenges based on the fact that she was adopted by non-black parents. I did not want her to also suffer from not looking right. I started paying attention to the styles I saw around town and asking questions about how to do them. Everyone I talked to was very kind and I quickly had several ideas in my toolbox.
I also learned that washing, combing, and styling hair is a bonding time for women in the African-American community. I did not want my little girl to miss out on this experience, so I reached out to my closest black girlfriends with small daughters. Ironically, none of them did their own child's hair. They all had an aunt, grandma, friend, or neighbor who did it for them, so they could not teach me. But I wanted to learn to do my daughter's hair myself because I wanted her to know that I took the time to educate myself on something so important in her culture. In my mind, I saw it as a labor of love and respect for who she is.
So I turned to the one place where you can find anything: YouTube. And, sure enough, YouTube delivered. There are hundreds of videos on styling African-American hair. Sitting in front of the computer screen, with Isabel at my feet, I learned to cornrow and twist like the best of them. At first it took me five hours to cover her head with two-strand twists. Today, I can do it in two hours, tops. We put on a movie and spend a morning watching, laughing, and getting beautiful. It has become a special time for the two of us and a ritual we look forward to.
There have been external rewards, as well. When my friend Kenisha, who is black, asked me to teach her how to cornrow her daughter's hair I thought she was being kind, but when a complete stranger stopped me on the street and asked me how I did Isabel's hair, I beamed as I explained the simple steps. There is a lot I will not be able to do for my daughter, like protect her from stereotypes, racism, and intrusive questions. But you will not be able to look at her and guess that, just a few years ago, her mother thought "grease" was what you fry fish in.

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My daughter is 2 months old with hair that is already 2 inches long when stretched. I’m already having African-American women tell me I should start doing something with it! I hope we can have beautiful hair like your daughters in a few years!

By openhearted on Friday, December 23, 2011 at 7:07 am.

Thank you for yourcomment. My daughter wore Afro puffs until she was two because her hair just was not long enough for anything else and she would not keep a barret on! Have you found product you like? Walmart carries this line called Just For Me that is gentle for babies. Good luck!

By Gaby on Friday, December 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm.

Check out what other people over on our
Adoptive Families Facebook page  thought of this blog…

Leslie Memula Great article!

Scott Parker Sounds just like our experience!

Erin Raney We are waiting for this experience. Thank you for your article and your sharing>:)

Mindy Miller Kusbel We just experienced this last week! An African American woman just asked me (caucasion) what I use on my biracial child’s hair!! I laughed and said I was normally the one stopping random African American people for their advice!!! She made my day and made me feel that I was doing something right!!

Emmy Mason We had that same situation when our biracial daughter came into our family. Luckily we have a number of hair dressers in the family who was able to give us some tips. My advice would be to ask a hairdresser. You van make yourself crazy with ALL the products on the market.

By Danielle Pennel on Friday, December 23, 2011 at 5:50 pm.

My daughter is 4 months old and her hair varies from cute and kempt to “omg what is going on here!” She pulls at one side of it as she sleeps so we always wake up with a bit of a side afro going on. A warm wash cloth on her head usually gets it back in line but I know my days on that quick fix are numbered! I too have been doing research and have liked what I’ve seen on Carol’s Daughters. I have ventured out and bought one product (at Target) that is essentially a curl moisturizer. Smells fantastic. I was given all sorts of advice on specific products too by African American friends and strangers. Now that I’m less scared of her hair I am able to discern the advice better. One piece that made sense to me recently was “Don’t use anything with sulfates” (or is it sulfites). Anyway, I don’t use them on my color-treated Caucasian hair so that rang true to me.

I’m glad to know there’s such a resource on You-Tube. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be as dexterous as you are but I’m excited to try. And I try to remember that I grew up with a mom who had kinky curly (yet Caucasian) hair who routinely put my long thick straight hair into lopsided pony tails with mismatched bows. I survived. I hope Audrey does too!

Great blog! Great responses!

By yesimln on Thursday, January 05, 2012 at 9:18 pm.

Thanks for this post, Gaby.  I haven’t checked out you tube as an option yet.  But I guess I should.  We have done our share of experimenting and learning as my daughter and her hair grows smile


By Ellenore Angelidis on Friday, January 06, 2012 at 8:58 am.

This is not pertaining to the subject Gaby, but I think you and your daughter are BEAUTIFUL! It’s obvious that you are mother and daughter, your smiles are very similar:)...& as an african american adoptive mother of an african american daughter, kudos on the hair:)

By on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 4:49 am.

Thank you , Steph! I think she’s pretty special wink

By Gaby on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 9:04 pm.

Very well written and interesting article, Gaby. Love the picture of you and Isabel, primarily because you wear your hair wavy. I did not grow up with much support with my hair in my German family, but that was over 50 years ago. I find it wonderful that there are so many groups today that support transracial adoptive parents and adoptees. Lovely!

By Catana on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm.

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