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Adoption Blog: Melting Pot Family
Does Good Hair Equal Good Parenting?
Before our daughter, Leyla, joined our family from Ethiopia, an African-American family friend informed me, "Our hair and skin is not like yours. You try to take the oils out. We work to put them back in." Many of my friends and acquaintances of color told me I may be judged as a mother by how well I took care of my daughter's hair. I admit, at first I was a bit skeptical. But then I began noticing writing reinforcing that view. I saw comments in blogs critiquing Angelina Jolie for not taming her Ethiopian daughter’s hair based on one or two pictures. Another one applauded the neat braids Madonna’s Malawai-born daughter sported. Would I be judged? And if so, how would I react to it?
When we first met our daughter, I guiltily was a bit relieved she had large, loose curls. I thought—as someone with naturally wavy hair that tends towards frizzy in humidity and two sons with straight hair and odd cowlicks in the back requiring either quite short or quite long styles—I should be able to handle them. Then an African-American woman at Leyla's daycare burst my bubble as she cheerfully proclaimed, "Her curls will get much tighter as she gets older." Sure enough, as my daughter’s lovely black hair grew, it became curlier and curlier. Taking care of it became proportionately more challenging for a novice in the intricacies of curly hair like me.
When my daughter was nearing 1 year old, I attended a high school basketball game where many of the fans were African-American. One of the mothers, a redheaded Caucasian woman married to an African-American ex-pro football player, approached me. She said some of the players’ moms asked her to tell me which conditioners I should use on my daughter’s hair since it looked quite dry.
The wind was knocked out of me. I felt I'd been judged as a mother and found to be completely lacking. It stung more than I cared to admit. I relayed the exchange to my husband, trying to keep my voice light because I was not sure I wanted to share how much it had cut me. Also, at some level, I knew I was probably overreacting. When he responded, “She owns a salon. I am sure that is the reason she approached you with some advice,” I felt a bit foolish. But the feelings of inadequacy lingered.
Determined my daughter’s hair would reflect my intense and enduring love for her, I dug out materials from a hair-care class I took through WACAP, our adoption agency. I tried a number of products and hair utensils recommended for African-American hair in my research and by the salon owner from the basketball game. No brush I tried seemed to get through her hair without difficulty and tears. The wide-tooth combs were no better. And although the leave-in conditioners recommended for African-American hair I bought helped a bit with the tangles, her hair was usually frizzy by midday.
With no real sign of improvement, I abandoned the research and just experimented with products I knew from my hair-modeling days years back. I ditched the combs and brushes and just used my fingers. I loved playing with her hair as I gently detangled and massaged her scalp. Success ... finally!!
From that point on, once I've attended to this hair-care ritual for the day, my daughter’s little ringlets bounce and gleam. The added bonus? We both enjoy it. We begin by wetting her hair with a large spray bottle—with Leyla cautioning me, “Not too much, Mama!” (she doesn’t like the cool water to trickle down her neck)—and I then cover my hands with leave-in conditioner and rub it into her hair. My fingers gently work to get out the "yuckies" (Leyla's word for tangles). Finally, I pull her hair into long spirals, which I keep off her face using a soft headband or by pulling it into one or two ponytails.
Before bedtime, she will often bring me the spray bottle and shriek, “Get the boys!” After we switch the nozzle from spray to stream, we chase her brothers around the house and hit them wherever and however we can. Their laughter and excitement bounce off the walls and send warm ripples through my belly.
Not too long after we began our ritual, we were in the crowd watching my son's soccer game when a mother whose son has thick, tight curls like Leyla's walked over to me. She asked, “What products do you use? Your daughter’s hair looks so healthy.” Though I don’t subscribe to the idea that good hair means good parenting, I did feel, in some small way, the effort I took to learn to care for her hair was being acknowledged. I was filled with both a sense of accomplishment as well as of irony. Little did she know how far I had come to be able to answer her question.
But the acknowledgement I value the most came later from a beautifully coifed Ethiopian woman we met at our local cultural center. She said simply, “You are doing a good job with your daughter’s hair.” I could have cried right then and there. Because, regardless of the complex emotions I had about being judged for how well I keep up my daughter's appearances, through the process of my hair-care experimentation, I realized there is more than a superficial or even competitive parenting element at play: Good hair is a cultural issue, too. And hearing these words, I no longer felt I was failing my daughter in this important part of her identity.
Of course, Leyla has her own unique take on everything. I recently took her hair out of what she terms a "pony tower" (any ponytail placed high up on her head). We chuckled together as we gazed in the bathroom mirror at her tiny face surrounded by the full, untamed glory of her extended curls. She looked at me, with a mischievous twinkle in her black eyes and a giggle in her voice, and said, “Let’s pop it, Mama!” She had recently learned to pop balloons from her brothers. I didn’t know how to explain to her that we could not elicit the same sound from her hair. So instead, I just followed her lead and threw back my head and laughed out loud!
How have you learned to care for the hair of a child with a different hairstyle than your own?
More on Transracial Parenting From Adoptive Families Magazine:
- Transracial Adoptive Parenting Guide
- Resources for Parenting African-American Children
- Transracial Hair-Care Tips
Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle
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