Playing with Hair Thoughts

Written by Love Isn’t Enough Guest Contributor Thorn; Originally published at Mother Issues. Thorn provides some helpful background on this post here.

I don’t usually use disclaimers, but I’m feeling like I should go ahead and put a big disclaimer right here. The first part says that I’m just trying to write down some things I’ve been musing about and I may well be wrong and am only applying it to our situation anyway, so please don’t feel like I’m judging anyone who makes decisions different from ours. I know that all of us are trying to do what’s best for our kids and that’s going to differ based on each family’s specific situation. Part two of the disclaimer is a direct appeal to emotion. It’s my birthday, so please go easy on me if you are in fact offended or bothered! I’m happy to hear disagreements or challenges, but I don’t want people to think I’m being mean.

With that out of the way, it’s probably going to be a letdown to know that I’m just talking about hair, though that can in fact be a fairly explosive comment. After we’d done hair last weekend and ended up with a row of bantu knots along Mara’s hairline and then little puffs everywhere else, on Monday we had to deal with the reality of Mara needing to find something to do during the two hours of school naptime when she wasn’t napping. Apparently her idea was to rip every tiny rubber band out of her hair and then (she says) eat it. So now even rubber bands join fabric ponytail Os and beads and snaps on the list of things that have gone out of her hair and into her mouth and thus are on the banned list until they aren’t in that category anymore.

I’d been lucky enough to find a new parting technique on a new blog and used my version of the crescent parts to put between 45 and 50 little braids into Mara’s hair on Monday night. It took a long time — Babies and Ponyo, with many breaks included — but she’s got a solid style that I’m hoping will get us two weeks if I occasionally touch up any braids that come loose. With each braid shorter than my pinky finger, they stick up all over the place especially after she sleeps, but we’re just figuring she’s three and this is what you do with a child whose hair is less than three inches long. (And no one’s going to disagree with me when I say that it’s frustrating braiding hair that short, right? You’ve barely got any braid in when you’re running out of hair to hold and ending up with a puffy loose end! I actually twisted the ends with pomade and then left barettes in for that first night so the braids would at least be tempted to hang down, but I’m afraid to leave them in longer and risk having Mara rip them out and damage her hair. I left snaps in her “bangs” braids and those were gone after one day, so now she can’t have those either.)

This got me thinking again because I’m pretty sure this means Mara will be the only girl at the school with braids like that. All the other girls who have small braids will have them bound or adorned in some way and Mara’s version is more of a boy style, though perhaps that’s because girls tend not to spend much time with the hair length Mara has. So after saying I want to do what I can to help her look like the other kids, I’ve gone ahead and given her a style that probably doesn’t, that again (like loose hair) may look to her classmates like a “boy” style. (Her classmates generally have braided/ponytail styles that look like they’re being worn by active three-year-olds, though the “mean” girl in the class always had tiny, precise, perfect cornrows that never got mussed at all.) And here’s where I say that we’re doing what we need to for our family. I could have tried to do a whole-head flat twist style where I find ways to weave the ends into the flat twists like I did on the spiral. In fact, I think that’s what I’ll do next time it’s hair time. However, this time I wanted stability and something she couldnt easily pull, and so braids seemed like our best bet.

A post on another new-to-me adoptive mom’s hair blog got me thinking more, too. She mentioned something I really don’t see much on adoptive blogs, that her daughter’s classmates are mostly also black and that they all evaluate each other’s hairstyles. The classmates’ interest ended up undoing part of what her daughter had in, yet that was a real sign that the mom had done a good job. My impression — which I’m sure has many exceptions — is that a lot of the bloggers I read who are white moms of black kids like I am are sending their kids to schools where few of their classmates are black. That means their kids have hairstyles that are unlike what their white peers are wearing but also might not have enough black peers to make it clear what the local norms are there.

And there are parents who don’t care about norms, certainly. I assume we all know about the white moms who just love their children’s curly hair and get comments about how it’s inappropriate to keep it loose and yet do it anyway. I get that, I really do. If Mara were wiling to keep headbands in or keep from tugging her hair when it’s loose, we’d probably do more twistout-type styles so it doesn’t shrink completely. I love the way Mara’s hair coils and want her to be proud of it, but we don’t leave it loose for more than a day or so because that’s just asking for tangling and hair-pulling.

We’ve been going to a potluck in a part of town that’s largely poor and black mixed with gay and gentrifying. It’s where the church we attend is located and also where I’ve been serving meals on one Friday a month to people who need a meal, which is a pretty big group in that area. At the potluck, the parents bringing kids fall into several loose categories — I’m focusing on the hippiesh parents with a variety of family configurations who let their kids pretty much run free and the single black moms who expect their children to obey them — and it’s not entirely clear yet where we fit. You can look at a child and know which of these categories he or she will fall into, partly because of hair. The parents who let their kids run also tend to let the kids do their own hair or make hair choices, so there are lots of lopsided ponytails and loose hair that doesn’t look well-conditioned and so on. These are cute kids having fun and it’s fun to watch them, except a few who are so out-of-control we’re considering not going back, but that’s a different story. Also cute, though, are the kids whose moms clearly have a weekly hair day the way we do. Each week, the girls come back with hair precisely sectioned off into twists or braids. Sometimes a twist will come free after a night of playing and I assume the moms just fix those up before school the way I do with Mara. I do suspect that part of the reason that group of single moms has been so welcoming to me is that Mara’s hair looks styled and they respect that.

We also see a range of hairstyles when we’re at church on Sundays, where the congregation is fairly low-income on the whole with no one I know of exceeding what I’d think of as getting-by middle class. Almost all the couples at church are butch/femme with the stud or butch partner usually having natural hair, cut short or cornrowed or in locs and the femme partner having relaxed hair or wigs/weave, though there are some locs and a few small afros in there too. The little little girls get puffs and then braids or twists when they’re big enough. Little little boys get cornrows or braids if their hair isn’t being kept short. Hair straightening tends to happen at age 6 or 7 and even some of the girls in that age range are getting what looks to me like traction alopecia. Even the straightened hair is often in cornrow/flat twist styles, sometimes with beads for special occasions up to maybe age 10. Microbraids with extension hair are common in the whole school-age range, and teens also often have either shorter relaxed hair or cornrow styles with colorful extension hair. Oh, and there are some particularly unfortunate wigs, and it particularly bothers me to see a tween in a wig, I admit.

All of those last options I just mentioned are things that we don’t want to do for Mara. We don’t think they’re healthy for her hair (on the whole; I know all can be done in better or worse ways) but they also just aren’t about who we are as a family, what our cultural and class expectations are. Now, some of that may have evolved by the time Mara’s getting to the point where she wants those styles, but at this point they’d be a clear Nope. We’ve told her it’s a mom job to take care of her hair and that’s going to be old enough until she’s truly old enough to do the job herself.

Even if we do keep going to the church, I don’t think we’ll follow the hairstyle norms of the church because they aren’t our norms. Lee hasn’t said that she thinks some of the styles signal that the wearer is lower-class, but I do think that’s part of her mindset and I do think it’s a realistic thought. Black hair sends a hell of a lot of messages, some intended and many assumed probably incorrectly by the person reading the message. I mean, Lee doesn’t have locs because she’s Afrocentric, more because she realized it meant she would never again have to comb her hair. And because it’s a fashion decision rather than a more spiritual one, we’d think and talk a lot before letting Mara have locs if that’s what she wanted. I believe in the end (if she were out of foster care; we’re not making permanent choices while she’s in care) we’d agree to let her look like Mama and it might be a good choice for her if she does end up as sporty as she seems now. But it wouldn’t be our first choice for a hairstyle unless she asked, and that’s partly because around here the only people we see whose kids are locked seem to be either white adoptive parents (signal: can’t handle the hair otherwise) and black parents who are themselves locked (signal: has some sort of cultural familial importance). Now that she has locs herself, Lee doesn’t believe any of the stigma about how locs are nasty or unwashed, but I know she doesn’t want anyone thinking that about Mara.

And if we do send Mara to the Waldorf school, she’ll be in class with the potluck kids with hippie-ish parents. The school norms will be kind of anything-goes (as long as there are no logos on the clothes; another point of difference) and yet just as we’d never relax Mara’s hair when she hits first grade, we’d wouldn’t start letting her styling it herself by making random pigtails and leaving the rest loose. (And I will say, the kids in this group who have black moms living with them have more of a style underpinning the freedom than the kids who don’t, though in all of this I’m dealing with a very small sample size!) Around school age, we’ll probably stop using beads in her braids. She’ll have more choice about what style she wants, but we still anticipate weekly hair time as the norm.

Basically, we’re middle-class people and trying to figure out what that means for this girl who will become middle-class by living with us. I said in the last post on this topic that I don’t want Mara to feel like she was rescued from economic or style inadequacy to join our family, silly as that may sound. I don’t want her to look down on the styles her siblings probably have (and I would guess they’re pretty much like the church crowd) but I also don’t necessarily want her to sport them herself, though we may find ways around that at times. Black culture is not monolithic at all and I’m describing the dynamic in our little midwestern city, but I think anywhere you go you’ll see some differences in hairstyle that do relate to whether a child is being raised by immigrants, African-American parents, or white parents, whether those families are wealthy, middle-class of some sort, working-class, or basically poor. I know the kids to whom I serve free dinners have their hair styled too, though on a Friday evening it’s often not fresh or neat.

I put up the disclaimer at the top because it’s hard to talk about class, and here I am as a middle-class white girl (age 31!) talking about it in ways that make broad generalizations. I realize that’s risky, but the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t make decisions about things like hair in a vacuum and I think it’s worth trying to gradually tease out how we do it, what goes into those choices. And we all know that “teasing out” is a phrase that holds a lot of meaning for people who do detangle coily-kinky hair like Mara’s, that it takes time and patience and gentleness. I’m afraid I may have failed on all three counts here, but I’m taking a stab at it.

So if you’re still reading this and you’re the white mom of a black child, don’t think this means I have some kind of magical answer about how you should choose to style your child’s hair. I’m only talking about our little bubble here, where we get to see what the professors who are Lee’s peers choose for their daughters as well as all the kids mentioned above and whatever’s on the hair blogs and what Sasha and Malia might be sporting at any given photo op. We’ve made our decisions (no relaxers being the key one) and are working out from that to figure out what we want to do. But unless you know the real diversity in your own community, you don’t know what kinds of things your child’s hair might be saying. And maybe you don’t care and just want your child to look cute by your standards, which is fine. I’ve gotten criticism for spending so much time on Mara’s hair because I shouldn’t care what other people think of it, and it’s hard to explain that to some extent I don’t care, but I only don’t care as long as I feel like I’m doing my part in the bargain and making it look like she is being cared for. She’s not a child who can be stigmatized because her hair signals that she’s not being loved, that she’s not having her blackness nurtured, that she’s getting lesser treatment because she’s in foster care. And this may seem ridiculous to people, but to me it’s meaningful and necessary and definitely one of my mom jobs.

I’m writing this now because I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep, and now it’s time to shower and wake Mara and put some leave-in conditioner on her braids and then eat one of the mini-cupcakes she and I made last night with breakfast. Then tonight Lee and I get to go out all by ourselves for dinner while Mara stays with some friends. Perhaps we’ll talk about hair. I know we’ll talk about Mara and the future and the choices we’re making. I really am so grateful I have this blog to let me figure out and talk through my own choices, but also to learn from others. This has probably been the best year of my life thanks to Mara’s introduction and I’m looking forward to more growth ahead.

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