Skip to main content

Mendo Lake Family Life

It’s All A-OK

By Carolyn Jabs

Today is Crazy Hat and Hair Day at our middle school. This is a big deal for my daughter. At 13, she’s become self-conscious about things that never bothered her before. She’s angry about being deaf, something that’s been true since she was born. She’s exasperated by blemishes, which became a problem only a few months ago. And she’s unhappy about her voluminous, naturally curly hair, which her peers have called crazy when it wasn’t Crazy Hair Day.

Last night, we conferred. My daughter instantly rejected my idea that she liberate her hair for a day, and let it follow its wildest inclinations. Instead, she asked me to braid a skinny strand so it could be wrapped in red, white, and blue thread. When I finished, the wrapped braid, complete with a moon charm, flopped over her forehead and hit her in the nose, but she seemed satisfied.

This morning, when I went to wake her, she was already standing in front of her mirror scrutinizing her visor, which was festooned with decorative buttons. Her hair was slicked back into its customary ponytail, but the wrapped braid hung over the top of the visor at a jaunty angle.

I offered to put glitter into her hair, and she said, “Sure,” the most rousing endorsement I’ve been able to get from her lately. We headed outdoors. I made her hair gooey with gel and then sprinkled her with all the glitter in the craft box—blue, silver, gold. A sparkling ring formed on the driveway around her feet. For a moment, I was tempted to tell her it was magic, but my sensible daughter was skeptical about such things even when she was little. I’m the one who wants to believe that there really are charms and incantations that will protect her from the world’s perils. I let her step out of the circle without comment.

Inside, a smile spread across her face as she examined herself in the mirror. When she turned to me, she said simply, “Mom, I didn’t know you were so cool.”

My first reaction was a “Yes!” of triumph from the 13-year-old girl still living deep inside me. That girl used to study the popular kids in the class wondering how they achieved cool without apparent effort. Now it turns out what I suspected all along was true. The secret to middle school success is glitter—the surface shimmer and flash that has almost nothing to do with durable happiness. Even knowing how little it matters in the long run, I can’t help feeling pleased that I’ve finally achieved middle school cool.

The second feeling is an almost irrational happiness that my daughter is the source of this compliment. Lately she’s been increasingly critical in her appraisal of me. Like most daughters, she assumes that I can’t possibly understand her. She’s often wrong. I remember perfectly well the other side of our battles about bedtimes and boys, movie ratings and tight tops. But she’s right about one thing. I don’t understand what it’s like to be her partly because I’m not deaf.

When she was little, I used to wish I could live inside her head for a day. Like all families in which the parents hear and a child doesn’t, my husband and I have had to make challenging decisions about what’s best for our daughter. We’ve made each one knowing that, in crucial ways, we really don’t know what it’s like to be her.

That’s true for every parent, of course. Much as we want to believe our children will benefit from our experience, a huge amount of what each of us knows matters only in the context of our lives. All the tricks I’ve learned for coaxing curl from my stick straight hair don’t help my daughter with her corkscrews. Much of what I thought I knew about communication and relationships has been challenged by her experience as a person who doesn’t hear.

Like all adolescents, my daughter is becoming aware of the gaps in my wisdom. I know this is inevitable, yet I often find myself missing the little girl who laughed without condescension at my goofiest faces and trusted my judgement even when she didn’t like it. The child I live with now can be downright vicious when I need to exercise parental authority. “You hate deaf people,” she’ll shout as she heads for her room. “I’ll never love you again.”

The fact that she often appears 30 minutes later cheerful or even apologetic doesn’t blunt the trauma I feel. I find myself bruised by our encounters even though I know the intensity of her feelings is necessary and even healthy. I understand that the gravitational pull of loving parents is often so powerful that a girl can’t sense the uniqueness of herself unless she exaggerates the extremes.

And I know, perhaps more clearly than other moms, that my daughter will not replicate my life. Her deafness is not her destiny, but it shapes her experience in ways that I often glimpse but cannot inhabit. One thing will, I hope, be the same. Eventually I learned to love the wistful middle school girl who longed to be noticed by the popular kids. In time, I trust, my daughter too will love the hair—and the ears—she has.

I know her volcanic eruptions are part of the process. I recognize and even respect that. But it’s hard to enjoy it. So, this morning, I bask in my daughter’s glitter. As glad as I am to have achieved belated cool, it is nothing compared to the gratitude I feel for this charmed moment when she is as glad to be my daughter as I am to be her mom.  

Carolyn Jabs, MA, is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Find her at Copyright, 2015, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.