99 Problems

Published on February 17th, 2017 | by Melissa Stephenson


This Tiny Stranger—On Teaching My Long-Haired Boy to TALK BACK

To prepare myself for the worst, I spent much of my first pregnancy inspecting baby pictures of my husband and brother. Though they’d gown into incredibly handsome men, both entered the world as bald, homely infants. When we’d first conceived, I assumed my child would look like me, down to the small features, petite build, and full head of dark hair. As pregnancy progressed, I realized I might give birth to a pint-sized Uncle Fester. I feared we might not properly bond, then my milk might not come in, and we’d all find out the hard way that I was (as my mother told me at key moments in my life) too selfish to love.

We decided to let the baby’s gender remain a surprise—a decision that outraged my Midwestern family. I knew gender stereotyping would hit hard and heavy on the child’s 0th birthday, and I wanted to delay the avalanche of pink or blue infant paraphernalia. I spent the late days of that pregnancy folding rainbow-colored onesies, testing the mobile on the beige pack-n-play, and staring at yellowed snapshots of my husband and brother while delivering an internal pep talk: You can do it. You can love this tiny stranger.

After twelve hours of a textbook labor, the midwife told me to reach down and catch my baby. I’m nearsighted and had lost my glasses during transition, so I lifted that little, wet body right up to my face. The first glimpse stunned me into paralysis: Oh it’s you, I thought. Brown eyes, a round little head, and lips the shape of a cupid’s bow— my animal. The boy with the dark, dark hair.

That night, a nurse told me as she signed off for the day, “Put him in the bassinet so you can sleep. But swaddle him real tight because he might suffocate if the blanket comes loose.”

I hadn’t held an infant in a decade, but I nodded as if I were a swaddling expert, my smile masking panic.

I am a natural born people-pleaser. This life-long tendency has cost me time, fair pay, and both armrests on every airplane ride (for starters). I solved the swaddling ordeal by holding my child and watching him breathe all night long. This seemed a better choice than bothering a busy nurse with my miles-long list of questions. Near dawn, my breasts began to fill with milk.

Our midwife visited late morning. She watched me carry my son in one hand—his head in my palm, his spine along my forearm.

“You’re handling him with so much love and security,” she said. “He’s going to be confident.”

If I hadn’t been so punch drunk on adrenaline and oxytocin, I would have cried from relief. I’d birthed a healthy child with a full head of hair, adored him already beyond measure, and I’d kept him alive through his very first night.

My son, it turns out, has a primal thing about hair as well. His and mine, at least. During his first year, we moved from Kentucky to Texas where I juggled full-time care for a colicky infant with adjunct teaching. By the time he turned one, I accepted a full time office job and put him in daycare. Office culture was entirely new to me. I went through of series of increasingly shorter haircuts in an attempt to find a style that would make me appear savvy and well-rested when, in fact, I woke with my son before five each morning and only sometimes managed a shower.

When I came home with the shortest cut yet—a pixie of sorts—my son regarded me like a cracked open door in a haunted house. I sounded like his mother and smelled like his mother. I even looked like his mother, but I wore the hair of a stranger. Three days passed before he could look me in the eye again and call me Mama.

In 2009, during my son’s third year, his father buzzed his locks with clippers, giving him what we jokingly called “the Great Recession haircut.” His best buddy did it too. I have a picture of them—one dark-haired, one blond—sitting on a bench in our backyard with popsicles and shaved heads. Though my son pretended it a funny joke, he was devastated after. He wouldn’t look in the mirror, and he wore a hat through most of a triple-digit Texas summer.

“Why didn’t you say something before I cut your hair?” his father asked. “You should have spoken up.”

The two of us were so deeply connected that a major visual change for either of us rattled his foundation. We let our locks grow long after that. By his first day of kindergarten, we’d moved to Montana, his father to Oregon, and our hair grazed our shoulders.


Knowing what was coming didn’t make it less painful for either of us.

“Mom,” he said to me at the end of the first week of school, “People are saying I look like a girl.” His chin quivered—a strained levee.

He’d heard this in preschool but it tumbled right past him like a train in the night. This was different. This was real school, and these were big kids.

We talked about ignorance. We talked about how people are free to choose whatever hairstyle and clothing they like. He nodded and smiled, but I could tell from his slumped shoulders and the curtain of hair eclipsing his face that he was still feeling Eeyore about the situation. I went to work on the computer, making a virtual pin-board of photos called “Long Hair Is Not Just for Girls.”

After school the next day, he sat on my lap and looked through photos of Gandalf, Kurt Cobain, Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Kiss, Chewbacca, his grandfather, my brother, and him. His face relaxed back into the boy I knew as he scrolled through the pictures. He returned to that collection regularly and showed it off to friends (friends who grew their hair out on purpose, to look like him).

I felt like I’d shot a parental three-pointer in overtime.

We live in Montana now and my son is nine with hair that hangs Marsha-Brady straight down to his mid-back. He just got braces, which he makes look hip in his nonchalant Fonzie kind of way.

On our monthly trip to the orthodontist this week, the receptionist greets us. “You ladies take a seat and we’ll be with you soon,” she says.

I look at her, my face tense as a fist. My son doesn’t correct such mistakes, but I do.

“He’s a boy,” I tell her. I take hold of his hand.

The receptionist focuses on us for the first time—a pair of obstacles in her smoothly flowing day. My son wears sneakers, jeans, and a Seahawks jersey. He smiles and shrugs, as if to say, People do this all the time, Mom.

She should know better. It’s our fifth visit in six months, and she’s holding the chart that lists his name, age, and gender.

“Oh, Yes. Of course,” she says.

The billing clerk sitting next to her comments on my son’s glasses, to break the tension I’m guessing.

“Those are so cool,” she says. “What a hip little lady you are.”

My eyes go wide as spotlights. “Boy,” I say. “He’s a boy.”

The billing clerk does a double-take. “Goodness—I’m going to need a second cup of coffee this morning! Of course you’re a boy.”

We take seats and I breath deeply to still the wild animal in me with her hackles up. Caitlyn Jenner’s face stares back from the glossy cover of a magazine. I wonder how these full-grown adults, raised on Woodstock, Glam Rock, Janis, Jagger, Prince, and Bowie, can make such a mistake. How can they not know better?

The receptionist walks us back to see the orthodontist. He has a gentle voice, oversized hazel eyes, and khaki slacks. A giant wall photo shows his wife and six children—all with long, blonde hair. He motions for my son to take a seat in the exam chair.

“Glad you could make it in so early today,” he says. “Ladies.”

My son lets loose a nervous giggle, his eyes a pair of exclamation points.

On the drive home I ask if it bothers him when people think he’s a girl. He touches his long, chestnut hair as he thinks.

“I guess not,” he says. “They don’t know better.”

“Does it bother you that I correct people?”

“No.” He gives me a smile that tells me he likes it.

“You can correct them too. You don’t have to if it makes you feel weird, but it’s okay to correct people.”

“Ok Mom.” He looks out the window, done with the topic.

I want him to know he can speak up, to practice at ten what still gives me pause at forty.

Growing up I’d ignore it when an adult called me Melanie or Michelle. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, a loud mouth, boat-rocker, rabble-rouser. When a coach told me I had an innate hand-eye coordination deficit, I switched to drama. When my sixth grade teacher told me I was too bossy, I got real quiet for half a dozen years.

Because of my son and his hair, I’m learning how to speak up for myself as well, to say, I’m Melissa, not Molly. Or, I’m a solo parent, not a tragedy. Or, Turns out I’m good at loving people, Mom—you included.

I have no idea how far into the future my son will choose to be a long-haired boy. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a long-haired man. Maybe not. No matter the style of his thick, brown locks, or any other detail about his identity, my wish for him (my wish for us all) is the courage to say calmly and clearly:

I’m a boy, not a girl.

I like X, not Y.

I’m ____, not ____.


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About the Author

Melissa Stephenson’s fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as New South, Memoir (and), The Mid American Review, Passages North, The Barrelhouse Blog, The Washington Post, and New Letters. Her first book—a memoir about cars and her brother—is forthcoming from Harcourt. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

3 Responses to This Tiny Stranger—On Teaching My Long-Haired Boy to TALK BACK

  1. Pingback: Melissa Stephenson – Writing on the Air

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