Tender. Headed.

If the word ‘tender-headed’ makes your neck tight and sends a chill down your spine, you probably could write this post as easily as you’re reading it. On the other hand, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read on.

The other night I was doing one of the things I hate the most about being a mother. I was combing my kids’ hair. This was triple hair night: Sky, Rose and Satchel all fresh out of the bath; Scooby Doo on TV in the bedroom, serving as both bait and bribery. Bait and bribery have become necessary, because for a while now, my kids have taken to screaming and occasionally running away before I’ve even touched their heads. The mere sight of a comb in their mother’s hand strikes them with terror. And as I once again wrangled one of them to the bed and slathered on leave-in conditioner, all I could think about was how many times I had sworn to myself that this little domestic tableau of black life would never unfold when I had children. If I ever have children, I vowed, I will not traumatize them while detangling their hair! And yet, here I am.

My earliest memory of childhood isn’t a place or a toy or a favorite bedtime story. My earliest childhood memory is a comb. Actually, two combs. One was a wide-tooth in tortoise-shell plastic. It always felt slippery, probably from the waxy hair cream my mother would apply to my scalp. (I have no idea how she stumbled on this European formula way back when, but after traveling back in time on the Internet, I discovered that the makers of Stilbépan Haarcrème haven’t changed their look in 35 years. You can still buy it in a squeeze tube with a black-and-orange wave design — but only from online drugstores in Germany.) The other was a black fine-tooth comb with a tail that looked like an ice pick. From age 3 to 13, those two combs were the instruments of torture I faced every morning, sitting between the locked knees of my mother, babysitter, or visiting aunt as they literally battled my hair, raking out every uncooperative bushy knot until my head was sufficiently tamed. And every morning, my piercing, hysterical screams fell on deaf ears. More than anyone walking this earth, Haitian women know real suffering; they had no sympathy for the wails of a girl whose biggest problem was getting her hair wrestled into a gumdrop ponytail holder.

There wasn’t a lot of English spoken in my house, but one night at a sleepover with some black friends, I learned there was a name for this condition: I was tender-headed. And that meant a few things. It meant that I had a sensitive scalp, of course. But more importantly, it meant that any relative or minder taking a comb to my head should ignore my sobs and pleas outright. My tears were not to be taken seriously; I was weak, puny, a little too fragile. Tender-headed. If calling your child lactose-intolerant is an informational alert, letting people know to be careful when offering food, calling your child tender-headed is more like an indictment. Somewhere in there, there’s a suggestion that she is not prepared for life in a cold, hard world, and that somebody who loves her better start preparing her, starting with the sting and yank of a hair-combing session.

My kids may not appreciate it, but generationally speaking, there’s been progress. As a daughter, my hair care regimen was akin to tyranny. As a mother, the hair sessions on Maple Street are more like multilateral peace summits. Can we watch Dora? Okay. Can I have some gum? Yes you can have gum. Anything that will blunt the pain, short of not combing their hair at all, I will do. But as sick as it may sound, when I see the extreme lengths to which parents these days go to shield our kids from — well, from everything really: bacteria, rain puddles, a skinned knee, a bushy knot, bad news of any kind, and above all, failure — the wisdom of every woman who locked me between her legs and rained holy hell down on my head becomes more clear. I’ve spent hours online trying to find the magic products that will not just manage my kids’ curls, but transform these moments into the loving, bonding bedtime routine that I wish it was. I think I’m doing the right thing. But sometimes, I see the mothers and grandmothers and older cousins of my youth like a Greek chorus. And they’re telling me, Scooby-Doo? Apa pito! (Very loosely translated from Haitian Creole: “Over my dead body.”)  I’ll give them a Scooby Doo they’ll remember for a long time! Give me that comb, and go get me the Stilbépan!
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