A version of this essay originally appeared on MUTHA Magazine.
“Mama, I want one of this!”
My daughter Free spoke around the bubbles and suds tumbling out of her mouth, the toothbrush poised above her lips.
“One of what?” I answered, mentally preparing some more creative version of “no” to her desires that magnify by the day.
She pushed her pinky finger as far between my lips as she could, into the gap between my two front teeth.
“I want one of this!” She looked so serious.
“You want a space between your two front teeth?”
“Yes!” she said, finally having been understood. I pinched her cheek as she tried without success to stick the same pinky between her own front teeth.
“No, you’re perfect!” I said, replacing a more meaningful response with cheerfulness. No one takes me off guard like this, indeed perfect, 2 year old. In how many other ways does she measure herself against me, adjust her image to fit mine, without saying anything?
Gap-toothed-ness is a flaw many spend thousands fixing. My husband also had a gap between his two front teeth as a child, but thanks to a good orthodontist, no longer. Somehow Free has escaped the gap-tooth fate.
I want her to love every flaw, every fear, all up and between the gaps…
I used to play in my gap. I’d stick straws and such in it. Spit water through it at my siblings like a sprinkler with a single spout. As I grew bigger the gap appeared smaller, and I stopped noticing it. That isn’t to say I liked my gap, or that I found it sexy as some do. I never hated it, but also never saw it as a desirable trait. As something someone could want. Then here comes Free.
We don’t fight to brush her teeth this morning. I tell her she can’t wear her blue tutu dress with Frozen characters on the front for a second time this week. It doesn’t send her spiraling into a tornado of toddler emotion. It must be the sweetness lingering between us that’s ameliorating a normally highly contentious decision. We’re out of the house and off to preschool without incident.
I’m left thinking about empathy. About the ability to put yourself into someone’s shoes. Share in another’s feeling. And then the part that so many of us miss—to act from that place. Treat that person, or that situation in the very manner in which you’d want to be treated. Knowing—in an ethereal, “Golden Rule” kind of way—how it would feel to be on the receiving end of your own behavior.
“What Happens When Kids Heal Us”
It’s a parsing that’s much easier to articulate than execute. Especially when it comes to our relationships to our children. We tend to view their need for reciprocal treatment as less necessary than our own, or at least secondary to learning to say thank you, washing hands, and not jumping on the couch with shoes on.
An article made the social media rounds a while back about how being a good parent literally kills you. How the level of empathy required, of putting yourself in your kid’s shoes—if not putting yourself dead last—leads to emotional self-neglect, which then has real physiological results. Tiny humans equal death, or something like it.
The article doesn’t get into an alternative. No one’s yet written the sequel, “How to Survive Being a Good Parent.” (And for the record, this is not that.) The gap-tooth situation has me thinking more about what happens when kids heal us. About how sharing their feeling becomes a direct benefit to our well-being. She wants to be like me. And now I, just a little bit more, want to be more like me, too.
I knew I was pregnant on the eve of the year Free was born by the way my breasts filled out my little black dress. I drank champagne and danced with my soon-to-be husband on a rooftop in Berlin’s city center. We watched fireworks boom and sparkle over the TV Tower. I hadn’t told him the news as I hadn’t peed on a stick yet, and I don’t believe in “‘I might be preggers” announcements. So I worked the room, chatted with his friends, and inwardly toasted my unborn baby. Two tall, pretty, light-skinned women pulled me into their conversation.
She wants to be like me. And now I … want to be more like me, too.
“We’re talking about hair!” they said in introduction. (Like, I’m Black, that’s all one needs by way of introduction. I didn’t learn their names until months later.)
“Of course you are!” I played along.
The one wearing a bright red shade of lipstick kicks it off. “It takes me one hour every day to straighten my hair!”
“I’ve just braided mine, that’s allllllll day in the salon!,” the other said, like they’d rehearsed this.
When it was my turn I went with, “I know! Twisting my dreads takes FOREVER!”
“I mean, my mother is WHITE! Why do I have such nappy ass hair…?”
I don’t remember what Red Lippy Chick said after that.
What I still can’t figure out is if I was supposed to commiserate with her. If she’d meant to say that out loud. Oh, but it was difficult not to let my light dim. Here she was putting “us” down, in front of “us.” I knew what this was intellectually—“mainstream” beauty standards powered by white supremacy run amuck. But emotionally, it took a second for me to find my footing, flip my dreads, sip my booze, and say, “What’s wrong with nappy though?”
Perhaps it’s possible for someone to love themselves unconditionally and hate something so fundamental about themselves in one go. That kind of constant disgust towards something so basic as the hair that grows out of one’s head would certainly color one’s perspective on everything else. It’s surely been proven that hate cannot be contained or isolated. It swells, skewing the lens with which we view the world.
Learning To Like Myself More
I think about what it would take to live there, what it would take to look in the mirror everyday and think “ugh.” It’s only a matter of looking back. Almost two decades of braids and weaves found me crying into a mirror because I didn’t know what my hair looked like. My own hair. Me. Without a weave, a straightener, or a fake ponytail.
I became obsessed with knowing myself in that way. But also, scared of it. What if I couldn’t live with myself in my natural state? What if I hated myself? How could I live with myself if I didn’t like me? How could I live with myself not knowing?
So I did what’s known as “The Big Chop” before natural hair blogs came to make the term popular. Cut my straightened hair out and went natural. Short, black, nappy. I liked it. It felt like an act of bravery, taking off the wigs and uncovering my looks.
That connection set things in motion. Once I knew myself in that way, I was determined to know myself in ever more intimate ways. My first therapist’s name was Sophie, and she knew things I hadn’t told her.
I got the chance to ask a famous life coach what exactly he told the Black South Africans he lectured about the connection between systemic oppression and personal development. He said he’d tell them they could use the latter to overcome the former. Then he’d duck.
I moved to Spain. Learned meditation in Kathmandu (my guru called me “New York”). The term “hair journey” is inadequate here. I met my husband and the father of my children in an airport.
That day in the bathroom Free reminded me of the last time I craved to come more into myself. To know and like myself better. On the impossible, extra cup of coffee, multiple tantrum, and sore nipple days when I haven’t had a moment to myself, I try to remember crying into a mirror, wondering what I even looked like.
Motherhood—parenthood—is a meditation. Or, it can be, continually reaching beyond the conscious mind to where instinct resides. Motherhood asks of us the same as meditation: through the chaos, be still, be clear. Sometimes that clarity just springs forth from the day-to-day, like a lotus from lake. Like love and suds bubbling out of my little girl’s mouth.
Perhaps there was more than a gap between how those two women looked that New Year’s Eve and what they thought about how they looked. There are so many forces aiming to tear us down from the inside. I’m much more afraid of the world tearing my girls apart than our relationship deteriorating me. Much more afraid of Free in 20 years standing at the center of the city of her birth, flawless on New Year’s Eve, explaining to strangers the ways in which she is not good enough.
I want her to love every flaw, every fear, all up and between the gaps, every single hair on her head. Even in the face of hate. Even when every ad, every look tells her she’s worth less. I want the same radical self-love for her, that she inspires in me. And if getting her there is going to kill me, it’s the least I can do—to be able smile at my reflection on the way out.