Hair is always at least a little bit symbolic. Remember in early pandemic-times when everyone suddenly wanted to shave their head, or grow a beard? It’s like the world was going through a dramatic breakdown or a traumatic breakup or both at once. People needed to mark the change somehow.
I’m still a little stunned at everything I’ve been through over the past year, although out of laziness I haven’t gotten my hair involved. But my tween daughter, whose waist-length golden hair had been her lifelong trademark, went for it. Who can blame her? She started middle school remotely, a pretty anti-climatic way to embark on what’s meant to be an exciting new chapter in a kid’s life. Virtual classes render it near impossible to make new friends or get to know your new school, but at least she could develop a new look, and recently she got a very French-film-star-style bob. (It’s so cute! Not the point here but it really is.)
Before this, H had always had the longest hair possible. It was very blonde and very irresistible: People would stop us in the street to talk about it; when it was in a side-braid toddlers would yell “ELSA HAIR!” from across the playground.
While her long hair was her idea, it was my part time job. In kindergarten H sat in front of a friend who loved to swirl his hand in her hair, and she would come home with an hour’s worth of detangling for me to process. Unfortunately, she did not enjoy having her hair combed. Once she yelped so dramatically while I was trying to work through a snarl that I suggested (ok, threatened) cutting her hair short so it wouldn’t get as tangled in the future.
She responded to this so piteously that I suddenly flashed to the hair-cutting scene in the Elizabeth Strout novel Amy and Isabelle, a great and disturbing book about a troubled mother-daughter relationship. I read this novel while H was an infant, often while nursing her. I remember very distinctly holding my tiny daughter, in a daze of hormones, as I read the harrowing scene where an enraged Isabelle cuts off all of her teenage daughter’s beautiful golden hair. The meaning of the scene is clear: the mother is terrified of her daughter becoming sexually active and making the same mistakes she herself did and thinks, in a terribly backward way, she can protect her daughter from her own beauty. Did I sob and sob as I read? Of course I did. Our relationship wasn’t fraught then, but I knew mothering a daughter would be a crucial and complicated job.
Weirdly, though as an infant her hair was dark red, soon H was a very gorgeous little person with the aforementioned striking golden hair, just like Amy in the book, or any Disney princess worth her salt. People would compliment me on her hair, in that way people compliment mothers on traits of their children that they have no control over (and, less fun, blame them for the same). I’ve always tried to resist these sorts of compliments, especially when they concern my daughter’s beauty. “She’s really smart and brave and kind, too!” is my general response — yes, of course I’m one of those.
But still, it seeped into my consciousness that H’s hair was a reflection on my parenting. When she was in first grade, I went back to work full-time. It was the start of a painful-but-crucial period of inching away from the physical intensity of the way I parented when I was a stay-at-home mom and there to manage every last detail. I wouldn’t be greeting her after school with warm cookies (ok I’d probably done that like once, but still), I wouldn’t be volunteering in the classroom every week, and I wouldn’t be there to brush her hair every morning, because our plan was that I would go into the office early and H’s dad would take her and her little brother to school.
Okay, but her hair! My working-mom-guilt gnawed at me — I knew her dad wouldn’t deal well with her hair, and that she would be walking around looking every bit like a motherless waif, and that we’d all be judged. Roll your eyes all you want, I was dealing with some Feelings. I started plaiting her hair into very tight French braids every night before bed, so that no one had to think about her hair in the morning. And you know what? People would compliment me on these lovely braids, so I was right that they were judging me based on my child’s hair all along, weird but true!
A lot of time was sunk into all that detangling and braiding. A few years back my children and I spent a week at a family-friendly writers’ residency, and at one breakfast another resident (the father of a tween) said, “Wow, you spend every evening brushing and braiding all that hair? That must be such lovely time to spend together!” I think I laughed — lovely? all of her squirming and complaining? lol, sir! — but it’s true that it was something of a touchpoint, a set time for the very animal art of grooming the young, for the head-smell-huffing that I never expected to be such a key part of motherhood.
Now my parenting has out of necessity gotten even more hands-off. Since my husband and I split, H and her brother go back and forth between my house and their dad’s. Yes, this same girl-child who I once wore all day in a sling, who I nursed all night, who I attachment-parented not because I even knew that was a thing but because it just seemed to work and I was going by instinct — now there are days when I don’t see her at all. It’s pretty weird, to put it lightly.
But at least she’s finally old enough to be the mistress of her own tresses. Her current cute bob needs so much less laborious detangling than its past iterations. Hair changes your day, your routine, your life. I’m relieved that her hair is now something she can deal with herself, and that she feels the freedom to experiment with it, releasing herself from the requirement to look like a princess, and from needing, essentially, a lady-in-waiting to help manage.
Parenting a tween in a pandemic is an interesting experience, and coparenting with an ex adds another wrinkle. As I write this, H is mad at me and I can’t hug her; she’s at her dad’s for a longer stretch than usual while I await test results after a potential Covid exposure. I know that even in non-pandemics, being mad at your mom is part of being a girl. I know that we aren’t going to veer into a terrible Amy and Isabelle territory. I know I don’t have to be in the same physical space with my children every second in order for them to know I am always there for them and that I always love them. I mean, if nothing else, the pandemic has trained us all in the strange art of loving from afar, of connecting without sharing air, of how, in fact, sometimes we have to be apart from someone to best care for them.
I miss my kids a lot right now. But it’s a weird small solace to know that H’s hair is okay. She doesn’t need me to detangle it or tame it into braids. She can handle it. And if she gets tired of her new hairstyle that’s okay too. Everything grows out eventually.