Then there are the biggies -- the ones that break your heart, sometimes at the exact same moment that you are slightly irritated with the child.
We are traversing one of those lessons right now -- the one about loving who you are as you are. To my daughter's credit, I am pretty sure I have only fully grasped this lesson within the last few years. Still, why, oh why, can't she learn it now, when she is at such a tender age, when it would do her the most good?
The symbol of this lesson unfolding is her precious hair. It is the one that tangled me up when I was her age as well. Maybe that's why it hurts so much -- because I know how long it might take before she finally reaches a point of coming to terms -- maybe even loving -- her hair -- and all that this lesson envelops. It took me until I was about 22 and my very curly hair was finally long enough and crazy enough to satisfy my obsession with the musical Hair.
But she doesn't even have the example of my hair to move her along. Her curls, a glorious gift from her birth parents, grow from an entirely different ancestral tree than mine. She cannot relate. Or, rather, I cannot relate, if you ask her. And she is right. When I hated my hair at her age, I at least had several siblings and a mother who shared the same exact texture, varying only in color.
My daughter has her brother, who intentionally balds himself bi-weekly to avoid ever having to comb any hair. Her sister's hair, like mine, has yet to curl (it will, like mine, when she hits puberty). Nobody else in the family has to go through an excruciating routine to comb through their hair, and then spend hours getting it braided, only to have to remove those braids and do it all over again in a few weeks.
So she wanted me to blow her hair out straight. I explained that a blow-out would not give her straight hair, just a different type of curly.
"But I see lots of African-American girls with perfectly straight hair."
"You do, but they probably get it chemically relaxed and I am not willing to let you do that."
"Why not? "
"I wish I could help you love the hair you have. The style you want is really expensive, difficult to maintain, limits your activities, destroys the hair and YOU ARE ELEVEN! If you want that when you are an adult and can handle the maintenance and cost yourself, then that will be your choice."
So then we returned to the blow-out question. I explained how long it would take, how much it might hurt, how it would not look like Michelle Obama's, how it would curl right back up if she so much as thought about humidity, and how, if she wanted to maintain it, she could not do things like swim (a regular Saturday activity for our family).
She begged me to do it anyway -- because she hates her hair, her shiny, black, luscious Haitian hair.
It took three hours. It hurt like hell. We took breaks for her to cry. She does not look like Michelle Obama. She looks more like Diana Ross, circa 1976, but shorter. It started curling back the moment she stepped outside of the house. She chose not to swim today to maintain it for as long as possible. She looked miserable there sitting by the pool reading, but she won't say as much.
The thing is, as hard as I try, I truly cannot fully understand her version of this issue. It is so much deeper than a hair style. It is the lesson the adoption agency tried to teach us adopting parents through books and clever anecdotes, but that we have to learn ourselves -- sometimes at the expense of our children. It is about the fact that she cannot look to me, her mother, to mirror an exact solution to this struggle because I don't have the same struggle as her. It is about the pictures that paint her sister as an exact replica of me, while the one picture she has of her birth mother shows a tired woman worn by poverty -- not at all the vibrant, bright, energetic child searching for some resemblance.
In the end, I can continue to remind her that her hair, her brilliantly silky hair, tells an important story about who she is and from whom she came -- in hopes that someday she will grow to love all that that encompasses.
And maybe every once in a while, I can scream and curse while combing my own hair to offer at least a pinch of solidarity.