Saturday, October 17, 2009

Afraid of Monsters -- Vignettes

1. TK runs pell-mell through the living room, paraphrasing Maurice Sendak in a loud shout: "I AM A WILD THING!" She bares her teeth and wrinkles her nose; she raises both of her little hands in claws. I pretend to be afraid. Ali always jumps up on the couch and mock-screams. Tim shrieks like he's seen a rat. Katie laughs. The Wild Thing, who never goes without her dinner, giggles and then bares her teeth at us again.


2. When I turn out the light at 8:32 p.m., TK, after an entire day of being the sweetest girl imaginable, turns into a monster, yelling "NO!" and thrashing around on her bed and screaming "I will NOT go to bed!". I calmly tell her I'm going to the living room until she becomes my sweet girl again; she proceeds to sob uncontrollably and beat her legs and arms against the bed. This continues for ten minutes (while I'm in the living room, trying in vain to have a half-way normal conversation with Tim about the Greek gods).

Then: "Mommy?"

I move to stand in the doorway. "Yes, TK?"

"I'm all done being a monster."

And I snuggle into bed with her, and she nestles close, and I inhale her non-monster scent of olive oil and almond butter lotion, of crayons and cupcake batter.


3. I burst through the door of Gold Creek, TK's preschool/daycare, and sweep TK up in my arms. We smile at each other, in love. Then I read the note her teachers have taped to her locker: "Mitike bit another child today." I read it again; I sense TK watching me read it. I meet her eyes. "You are a little girl. NOT a creature. I'm not happy." That's all I say to her, but she bursts into tears, and we walk in silence the entire way home. Her teachers told me the other child was aggressively trying to pull a toy away from TK, that TK -- who is incredibly articulate for her age -- must have panicked and resorted to biting. But I want to teach my daughter never to resort to violence. The silence is serious; it walks between us; TK keeps her little head down. She knows.

At the corner before our house, I stop and lift her up in my arms. I tilt her chin up so her eyes meet mine. Oh, her poor eyes are brimming with tears. "Mitike, my little monster," I say gently, "I love you, no matter what. Okay?"

She nods, and says seriously, "Mommy, next time I'll use my words. I'm so sorry."

We stand in the rain and hug, and then we walk up the hill singing a silly song we learned from a book about a lizard: "Zoli, zoli, zoli, rock is my home, rock is my home, zoli, zoli, zoli." And my little monster looks so happy, singing in the rain, her little arms wrapped around my neck.


4. "Mommy! There are monsters on the walls!" TK clutches the covers and points fearfully at the far wall, where her nightlight casts strange shadows.

"Those are just shadows, sweetheart," I mutter sleepily.

"They're bugs! They're bugs, Mommy!" She begins to cry, covering her head.

I stand up and pretend to shoo away bugs. "Go away!" I shout, and then glance back at TK, who is nodding solemnly. I snuggle back into bed with her.

"Sing me a song, Mommy," she murmurs in the shadowy darkness.


5. We attend the high school production of "Little Shop of Horrors," which is -- incidentally -- far more horrible than the movie version. I murmured "it's just a puppet, it's just a puppet" into TK's ear the entire show, but she seems a bit shaken when the lights go up at the end (so does our 9-year-old, Tim). "Mommy," she says, her eyes round saucers, "that plant ATE people. That's not okay."


6. "Mommy," TK asks me one day as we drive to her daycare, "when you're at work, who keeps YOU safe?"


7. TK and I chase each other back and forth across the kitchen and living room, pretending to be monsters, "rawrring each other", as TK calls it. She stops and looks up at me, sudden resolution shining in her dark brown eyes. "Mommy! We just need to stare into their yellow eyes, Mommy," she explains, quoting Sendak again. She grins and grabs the soccer ball. "No more monsters! Want to play this game now?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Discussions About HAIR (Etc.)

"Can I touch her hair?" the white middle-aged woman wearing only a pink towel asks me in the pool locker room. She stares almost hungrily down at my daughter's spiraling, sproingy black curls. I look at Mitike. "Do you want the lady to touch your hair?" I ask my 2-year-old daughter. Mitike shakes her head. NO. The stranger looks abruptly embarrassed and moves away. I lean in close to TK and whisper, "Remember: you never have to let anyone touch your beautiful hair." She nods solemnly, watching with relief as the lady moves away.

I never knew -- before I became the mother of an Ethiopian girl -- how much attitudes about hair can reveal our culture's attitudes about race. As I google new hair products to make TK's tangles easier to comb through and to make her curls bouncier and shinier, I find a raging debate in the African American community: should black hair be left natural or should it be straightened chemically? Which style shows the most pride in being black? Which style shows submission to dominant white culture? A recent Time magazine article (Sept. 7, 2009) recounts the rampant discussion about Michelle Obama's hair -- the black community argues about what style exhibits the most pride; the white community marvels "How does she change its length and its waviness all the time like that?"

I live in an Alaskan community that, while diverse, has few African or African American people. Mitike's hair is rare, and a curiosity. Other children reach out to touch it; adults behave the way the woman at the pool did. Mitike looks at me with her brow furrowed and says, "Mommy, how about you are the only one who touches my hair?"

But my own fingers barely know what to do. Before TK's curls began to grow long (and tangle), I read and read on blogs and websites -- and even in books (proof of my quest to know!) -- about how to care for African hair. I bought organic products that contained olive oil and honey, shea butter and cocoa butter, lemon grass oil and coconut oil. I followed prescriptions from strangers -- spray with water first, then put some olive oil in, then follow with a leave-in conditioner; wash it with shampoo once a week. I was determined not to be like the white mama of a little African American girl in TK's daycare, who was stopped in the Seattle airport by two well-meaning African American women who shook their heads and said, "You do NOT know what to do with that girl's hair."

I've had moments of pride: a woman in Denver stopped us on the sidewalk (my heart caught) and praised TK's "natural" hair; an Ethiopian woman in Seattle nodded at me with approval and then greeted TK with "Look at your beautiful hair!"; a presenter on racism at an August inservice shook her beautiful dreadlocks and told me her pride in her skin color has come partly from the decision she's made to have natural hair -- she complimented the way I nudge TK in that same direction.

Thank you. But what do I do with the way her curls knot and tangle together when she wears her beloved purple stocking cap all day? And should she cry as much as she does when I do the weekly combing of those lovely curls (with half a bottle of the supposedly magic detangler worked into her hair)? And if I let her hair dread, how do we return to curls eventually -- cut it all off? And what will I do if -- like one of my middle school students, who is also adopted from Ethiopia -- she succumbs to the perceived standard of beautiful hair and begs me to let her straighten those beautiful curls chemically? How can I get support for her hair in a community that doesn't even sell shampoo for her (I have to order everything online and pay to have it shipped to Alaska)? How do I counsel her to believe her hair is beautiful? How can I teach her to respond politely to the people who want to touch it -- even if it's out of well-meaning curiosity?

I know it may seem strange to spend so much time thinking about hair. . . but this white mama is beginning to realize that hair discussions are the surface conversations on a vast ocean of discussion about race. In this community -- a community of "white" hair, Native hair, and Filipino hair -- Mitike's sproingy curls are a beautiful curiosity. In other communities, her unstraightened wild locks shout pride in her African heritage. In still other communities, her unruly black hair represents ugliness or -- worse -- inferiority. The presenter on race -- the one with the beautiful dreadlocks -- smiled at me gently and said, "Her hair will be so important." I'm beginning to understand what she meant.

This morning, as I sprayed TK's hair with water, then worked in organic olive oil leave-in conditioner (made by Africa's Best, sold by for $4.99/bottle), then hydrated the back curls -- the ones always submerged under her stocking cap -- with Olive Oil and Honey Balm (made by Quemet, sold by that company for $14/container), then used TK's favorite dark purple sparkly headband to keep her curls back from her face, I whispered -- as I do every morning -- "Look at those beautiful curls!" She smiled at me, and then bared her teeth and yelled in her best imitation of Maurice Sendak's Max (from "Where the Wild Things Are"), "I'M A WILD THING!" and leapt off the stool.

For now, I think, our conversations about hair will be mostly about what color of sparkly band she wants to wear each morning. I'll guard these deeper topics in my heart -- for when my beautiful-haired little girl is ready.

Thursday, October 15, 2009