Parenting Strategy # 9: Be Honest about the Error
In my last post, I said that it’s important to treat facts neutrally. Your child needs to know the basic facts about her face: you have a birthmark. The birthmark is a port wine stain. A port wine stain is extra blood vessels.
And (are you ready?): That birthmark is an error.
The port wine stain is an error. Something went wrong in utero, and the nerve that was supposed to send a signal to its related blood vessels to “Stop growing!” never did. So they kept growing, even though they weren’t supposed to.
That’s not negative commentary, it’s a fact. And we face that fact honestly and neutrally.
Let me stress that – you must be neutral when you’re honest! You don’t mope, groan, cry, exaggerate, or sigh when pointing out that an error occurred. It’s simply a value-neutral fact. It’s an error.
I can’t tell you how important this is. It is the foundation of grace. Addy knows that she’s beautiful and that she’s fearfully and wonderfully made, and that she is not perfect… Because no human is.
Let me repeat that: no human is perfect. That is the message your unique child needs to understand to the depth of their soul. We all have errors. None of us is living in the Platonic ideal of a human body. We have moles, we have quirks, we have genes, we have illnesses, we have mutations – many of them just too small or out-of-sight to notice. Someone like Addy might wear their error front & center, but everyone is flawed, somewhere, somehow.
That’s why the fact that a port wine stain is technically an error doesn’t have to be negative. I’m flawed, you’re flawed, everyone is flawed! Her port wine stain doesn’t have to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any of your features. It simply is.
We can, and should, learn to appreciate the beauty in other humans’ traits, many of which are themselves errors. (Even adorable freckles, after all, are little bits of pigment gone awry.) But remember that you don’t have to erase the fact that an error exists in order to call it beautiful.
We’re afraid that if we call a feature less than perfect, we’re somehow being negative or derisive. And so we call it perfect instead – as if anything less than perfect can’t be beautiful.
But it’s okay to acknowledge an imperfection, even to the point of working to fix it with powerful lasers, and also see the beauty in it all the while. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and.
Don’t be afraid to call that beautiful birthmark an error. It may actually, unexpectedly, feel validating for your child to know that yes, something went wrong, and that’s okay. She doesn’t have to feel ‘perfect’ about it. This isn’t a big deal. Everyone’s got something. And even while the laser surgeries make progress on fixing the error, she can feel beautiful with it all the while.
As your child understands that this birthmark is an error, she may start noticing all the other errors around her. This is healthy; she’s finding camaraderie. Addy loves knowing that my spine is shaped like a long ‘S’ from scoliosis, and that her dad has a dark birthmark on his side. She loves finding strange markings and alopecia and missing limbs around us. Because she knows that everyone’s got something a little ‘off’, and she thinks that’s pretty awesome.
So when you’re talking to your child about their birthmark, go ahead and be honest about the fact that it’s an error. It’s an error, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful; it’s absolutely beautiful. It simply means that she’s not perfect.
Which means, really, she’s just like everyone else after all.
A few other “Strategies for Parenting a Unique Child”:
Here’s one for combating a very real fear facing (no pun intended) parents of strangely-marked kids:
Parenting Strategy #6: Find Likeness
One of the fears we face as parents of odd-looking children is that our darling baby will grow up to feel isolated in their uniqueness. Marked with something like a big port wine stain, they’ll probably be the only such face in every room they ever enter, throughout their entire lives.
Being noticed is occasionally fun, like winning an award or hitting the red carpet, but the thought that your child will never not stand out can be overwhelming. And not a bit isolating; after all, we often find camaraderie in other humans who are (or look) ‘like’ us.
There are a few ways to help your child combat those feelings of isolation.
One way is to teach them to intentionally find likeness with humans who are similar in a hundred other ways. Their faces may be different, but they do have other things in common, if you know how to look. Maybe she braids her hair like that one girl from dance class. Maybe he likes soccer, just like the kid down the street. Or maybe her sneakers are green, like the kid in the grocery store aisle.
Any common ground you can find shared between your child and another person is excellent material for pointing out natural camaraderie, and staving off any possible isolationism. Teach your child the valuable skill of spotting likeness in other ways, perhaps small or unexpected. There’s always something, even if it’s not obvious to them; point it out often!
Another way is to widen the scope and find likeness in other different humans’ eye-catching features. Addy walks up to lovely bald folks with alopecia and talks about how it feels to look unique. She thinks that veterans with missing limbs are pretty much the coolest guys, ever. She feels solidarity with her cousin in a wheelchair, because he’s noticed, like, even more than she is! These other humans may not look like her, but she feels ‘like’ them in being unique.
But your child may still feel isolated at some point, knowing they’ll rarely, if ever, see another face like theirs.
So… when you can’t find their likeness in any other humans, you find it in non-human places instead! Examine your child’s unique feature, and start finding it in the world around you, even in unexpected places.
Our port-wine-stain radar picks up anything, anywhere, that might resemble a pink, red, or purple ‘splotch’ on a pale Nordic background. Here are a few things we’ve found:
Cupcakes: Addy’s birthday falls near Valentine’s day, and her classroom-treat cupcakes always bear some combo of pink and white frosting – but these were, by far, our favorite. Port-wine-stain-face cupcakes: half pink, half white!
Flowers: The kids picked out flowers for planting in our garden one spring, and the girls picked out petunias. Eloise told Addy she should get the “port-wine-stained petunia” (like this one), and so Addy gleefully planted the special flowers that ‘looked like’ her face:
Stuffed animals: Addy’s favorite stuffed cat happens to have a big pink mark, just like her face:
Sequins: Eloise flipped exactly half of her magic-sequin sweatshirt so that one half of the dog’s face is a different color than the other half, and proudly showed big-sister Addy the “face like yours!”
Addy feels a lot of camaraderie in this world. Sometimes she shares common features, clothes, or interests with other humans, even if she doesn’t quite look like them. Sometimes she just shares ‘different’ with other humans, even if they have hardly anything else in common.
And she may never see a doll with a face like hers, or a Barbie with a face like hers, or a print model with a face like hers, but that’s okay; she’s seen cupcakes and sweatshirts and flowers and a hundred other wonderful things ‘just like’ her, and that feels good, too.
You may have to open your eyes just a little wider than normal to see your abnormal child’s ‘likeness’ in the world around you – but pretty soon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Point it out, often, because your child may not pick up on such similarities on their own, and you don’t want them growing up without this skill to spot camaraderie in unexpected places. Point out any shared trait, any similar uniqueness, and any inanimate object even remotely resembling your child’s odd feature – point it out, and say, “Look at that! Just like you!”
This world can feel isolating sometimes, even for those of us who don’t stand out in a crowd. The more your child learns to spot the similarities, the less likely they’ll be to feel alone for too long. Because at some point a flower will bloom, or a cat will walk by, or a leaf will fall with markings ‘just like’ theirs, and they’ll be reminded to keep their eyes open for likeness in unexpected places. There’s always something in common – even if not, exactly, their face.
Parenting Strategy #5: Teach her to Enhance, not Hide
I remember an informal debate arising among my college friends about why we women wear makeup. An answer was, of course, was never conclusively reached, but I found the arguments intriguing. They mostly seemed to agree with the premise that makeup was a shallow but necessary evil, the sad product of our modern culture’s social pressures. (One or two might have gaily dissented, asserting that wearing makeup is just plain fun.) But most of the debate revolved around why we liberated women all get sucked into wearing it anyway.
Some friends said they felt pressure to cover up their natural face, because that’s just what we all do, and they’d look ‘weird’ in public without it. Others said that men were expecting it, making it hard to navigate the single scene otherwise, and they’d never wear makeup if only women were around. Yet others said we really only wear it to cattily impress other women, never men, and there would definitely still be pressure to cover up our natural faces on a women-only desert island.
I disagreed with the premise underneath these arguments. I didn’t think of makeup as a shallow, necessary evil. And while I certainly couldn’t speak for all women, I didn’t think society pressure in whatever guise need be the primary driver behind it.
Makeup doesn’t need to hide or change us (as the debate seemed to assume); rather, it can enhance and frame the beauty that’s already there. I wasn’t wearing makeup because I felt ugly; I was wearing it because I felt beautiful.
After all, you don’t frame a work of art because it’s ugly, you frame it because it’s beautiful – so beautiful that it’s worth a gorgeous setting. Like a diamond elevated in its precious-metal ring. Can a Van Gogh stand on its own? Sure, but why not surround it with an amazing frame? A great frame doesn’t obscure the artwork; rather, it announces, “Ta-daah! Isn’t this gorgeous?”
And that, I asserted, is what makeup does. The rouge added to our cheeks isn’t unnatural; it’s an enhancement of the color already there. A line on our eyelid follows the eyelash line that’s already there. A dash of contour enhances the shadow implied by our natural bone structure.
When done well, makeup (and clothing, and jewelry, and any other enhancement you may feel guilty for using) draws attention to the beauty that’s already there.
Part of makeup’s usefulness comes, counterintuitively, from making a face look more naturally like itself. It diminishes eye-catching distractions like acne or dark circles, deviations that show up when I get less sleep and health than my skin needs, so there’s no guilt covering them up. It’s okay to eliminate those distractions and let my natural face shine through.
Right. Easy. Made total sense.
I enjoyed a guiltless makeup routine for years.
Until… Addy came along.
Suddenly, with Addy, the debate exploded into my mind all over again; because now, this little human was watching me, and she had a face with a Thing on it – a face that I wanted her to proudly show the world in full unmodified beauty someday. Why on earth was I applying makeup in front of her? What pressure was I feeling? What message was I sending?
With three children ages three and younger, the dark circles under my eyes had taken on a touring-with-the-Stones intensity, and I covered them up daily. But… why? (Other than the legit concern that I might be questioned about escaping from a rehab facility if I didn’t.) Just because I have an imperfection, do I need to cover it up? Who am I trying to impress? How dare I use concealer in front of my marked daughter? Am I setting her up to shamefully conceal her own lovely imperfection someday?
I was tempted to tell her to never ever use makeup. I was tempted to tell her that she’s so perfect, she won’t ever need it. I was tempted to tell her that it’s only society’s pressure that makes us want to wear the stuff anyway, and she’s above that.
Because I was terrified that she’d be tempted to use it someday, to cover her own face up, and that fear stopped me in my tracks.
In time, and after many guilt-ridden concealer purchases, I came back home to my original conclusion. I am the artwork; my makeup is the frame that enhances my beauty. Do I need it to ‘be pretty’? Not at all. But am I worthy of a lovely frame? Absolutely. When sleeplessness steals the color from my eyes, I can defend my face by enhancing what’s there – showing again the beauty that’s really naturally mine.
I wanted to help Addy understand makeup’s proper role (and avoid the pop-culture discomfort many of us feel around it). I wanted her to understand that she, too, could use makeup to enhance the beauty that’s already naturally on her face, if she wanted to. And, of course, I wanted her to see the port wine stain as part of that beauty – worth framing, rather than obscuring.
So I started talking through my makeup routine in positive terms when she was around. When I applied blush: “I LOVE having pink cheeks.” Or eyeliner: “It’s fun to make my eyes a little more visible.” Or eyeshadow: “I like the color of my eyes, so I pick an eyeshadow that helps bring out the color.” Or the emotionally-loaded concealer: “I like the color of my skin, so I’m using this to make it more consistent.” When wiping off an excess of any of it: “Whoops, that was too much. I almost covered myself up! I don’t want to do that.”
She now seems to view makeup as a good thing, not as a cover-everything escape. She sometimes adds blush to her other cheek before an event, so that it matches her port wine stain cheek. She plays with eyeshadows, dusting her lids and feeling glamorous. And sometimes she just slathers ALL the colors onto her face at once, because, hey, why not? Face color is fun.
Of course, the teenage years are around the corner, and I can’t promise that she won’t suddenly decide to cover it all up one day. The thought still scares me.
But I hope she will have learned by then that that’s not what makeup is for. I hope that, when she does start wearing it, she uses it to enhance, and not hide, what’s already there – including the right side of her face.
Talk your child into a healthy relationship with makeup. She will encounter it one day, whether you like it or not; by then, she should see it as a tool to enhance her beauty: nothing more, and nothing less. Provide a running commentary of comfort and confidence when she’s watching you do your makeup routine, whatever it may be. She’ll grow to see it not as a necessary evil, or a product of a deranged popular culture, but rather as something that can frame the beauty that’s already there.
It took me a long time to come to peace with the concealer in my makeup bag. I felt like a hypocrite. But covering exhausted eyes or irritated skin doesn’t mean I’m changing who I am. My natural features are still there. I’m worthy of a good frame. Our daughters are, too.
Continuing my last post’s theme of ‘Strategies for Parenting a Unique Kid’ (see #1-3 here):
I offer you another strategy we used when parenting Addy, in order to help her navigate the world with a big splotch on her face.
As you can tell, opening her eyes to all the beauty around her was a big theme for us…
Parenting Strategy #4: Go Beyond Features
Think of someone who’s drop-dead gorgeous. What do you see in them?
It might be certain features: sharp cheekbones, full lips, great hair, whatever.
But I’m willing to bet that something other than features caught your eye first. Poise. Posture. Carriage. Confidence. The stuff you don’t hear as much about in beauty magazines. That, I think, is what makes a human stand out to us visually.
The ‘beautiful’ that we find so attractive usually isn’t just in a person’s features. It’s in the way they carry themselves, the way they present themselves. Imagine the gorgeous person you thought of above spending three sleepless nights taking care of a kid with the flu. At the end of 3 days they’re slouching, they’re disheveled, they have dark circles under their eyes, their clothes are wrinkled, their hair is matted. If they shuffled into a room in that condition, they probably wouldn’t turn admiring heads, regardless of their otherwise lovely natural features.
I’ve seen girls who are strikingly tall and slender enough to be runway models carry themselves like they don’t matter, like they just want to disappear into the wallpaper – and, unfortunately, they too often succeed, hiding their striking features under an unconfident disguise. And I’ve seen average-featured women with stellar poise and posture walk into a room and turn heads like only movie stars can – because they carry themselves like they matter.
Poise. Posture. Carriage. Confidence. These make all the difference in the way we present ourselves to the world.
This is what your unique-looking child needs to understand. Someday, she’ll be tempted to feel that she’s not beautiful, because her features are not ‘like’ the beautiful people’s (whatever they may be at that moment in time). But if she understands that much of what we see as beautiful isn’t necessarily the features, as awesome and lovely as they may be, but rather the way we present ourselves to the world, then she’ll feel empowered to act and feel beautiful anyway.
Said another way: While we may not be able to control our natural features like height or birthmarks, we don’t have to feel ‘unbeautiful’ because of them. Because beauty is what we craft from the way we carry ourselves.
So: remember how I told you to teach her to spot the beauty in all the humans around her? With all their various features and their diverse physical traits? That’s important – keep doing it. Establish a wide definition of what traits ‘beautiful’ can include.
But don’t stop there – go beyond the physical traits, and start pointing out every instance of lovely poise, posture, carriage, and confidence you see.
Here’s what it might look like:
When you and your daughter are killing time in the dentist’s waiting room, and you’re flipping through a magazine filled with skinny women, and your daughter is looking over your shoulder, and you come across a story on Serena Williams, who clearly looks different from the print models, you point out her beauty like this: “Wow, she is gorgeous. Look at the way she looks straight at the camera. So poised and confident. That is beautiful.”
But then, don’t put down the skinny models! When you flip to a picture of a glamorous fashion model, you spot beauty there, too: “I love the way this model’s hair is swept up away from her face, up to the crown of her head! It makes a visual ‘line’ that draws attention to her cheekbones really well.”
You may be tempted to naysay the whole magazine, telling your child it’s dumb, shallow, and full of unattainable ideals. But that’s not a substantial enough response. It won’t keep her from someday being fascinated by those ideals anyway, and eventually even feeling like she doesn’t measure up to them. So meet that gloss head-on, and point to the beauty that’s there, without putting anyone down.
Here’s what this accomplishes: you’re bringing beauty out of the realm of ‘features you’re born with’ (as fabulous as they may be), and placing it solidly in the realm of ‘I’ve got this’.
Point out the beauty in every instance of lovely poise, posture, carriage, and confidence you see. It might be a bold smile. Bright eyes. Fabulous hair. An elegant gait. Even artfully-applied makeup or well-chosen clothing. Any intentional choice that enhances natural beauty is fair game. Point it out. Compliment it.
Because we can control the confidence we stand with, the way we look at a camera, the way we sweep up our hair. Our natural features, which we can’t control, don’t have to ‘make or break’ our beauty.
This will empower your child. Someday, when she’s tempted to quick-fix a single feature in a panic, like cover up a birthmark or crash-diet to skinny, she’ll already know that her whole beauty does not rely on a single feature. Rather, it is a constellation of so many things all at once, much of it beyond her physical traits, and solidly within her confident control.
Empower your child to understand this; point out the beauty you see. Help her spot it in the world around her. Don’t assume she’ll pick this up on her own. Poise. Eye contact. Posture. Relaxed shoulders. Carriage. Chin up. Confidence. Smile. All of these are within grasp.
Addy’s port wine stain will never ‘make or break’ her beauty. Because no feature can. Her beauty isn’t a hapless accident of physical traits. It’s something so much bigger. She’s got this.
How do we raise a child to love her unique face? To be self-aware, without being self-critical? Prepared for, but not scared of, encounters?
Addy’s port wine stain forced us to think through parenting moments that might have otherwise passed without notice. Getting her to a point of comfort with her face (and keeping her there) took some careful attention.
Along the way, we developed some strategies for raising a unique-looking kid. Knowing that many of you, my dear readers, are also parents and grandparents, I share 3 of them with you here.
Some of these tips might seem incredibly obvious, but they don’t always flow from us naturally.
So, bear with me if I start by stating the obvious, but here, definitely at the very most-important top of the list, is “Parenting a Unique Kid” Strategy #1:
Parenting Strategy #1: Tell her she’s pretty.
It sounds so simple.
But there is so. much. cultural noise around raising females today. And, honestly, I disagree with many of the ‘enlightened’ modern directives: “Stop telling little girls they’re pretty, or they’ll never become scientists! Just tell them they’re smart and strong instead!”
Bah, humbug. As if we’re afraid that she’ll never accomplish anything if she thinks she’s pretty. As if telling her she’s a great engineer somehow conflicts with telling her she’s pretty.
Confidence is not a zero-sum game. Building up her confidence in one area of life (brains) doesn’t take away from another (looks). So we compliment both. Profusely.
The world around my daughter will tell her, whether through magazines, billboards, TV shows, movies, fashion, petty girlfriends and rude ex-boyfriends, that she’s not pretty. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t up for debate (it’s bad). But the fact remains that there will be a hundred different ways that the world tells her she’s not pretty.
It’s my job to tell her a hundred and one (at least) that she is.
Tell your daughter she’s pretty. You’re not making her shallow, and you’re not over-emphasizing looks when you do. It’s simply an insurance policy against the jabs that this world will sling at her.
And it’s the truth anyway (right?), so speak the truth. Don’t be afraid of it. Tell her she’s pretty. And that she can run the world. Those compliments don’t conflict, no matter how much our confused culture tells you they do.
We complimented Addy’s looks all the time, from her shiny little shoes to the port wine stain splotched on her face. This girl learned early & solidly that she’s pretty. Any weird encounters over her face couldn’t even begin to burst her confidence bubble. Calling her anything less than gorgeous would be like calling Mt. Everest an anthill: simply, humorously, Incorrect-with-a-capital-I.
Yes, she also knows she’s brilliant. And funny. And creative. And empowered. We built her confidence up in all those areas by affirming them verbally, all the time.
But she needed to hear she was pretty, before the world told her she wasn’t.
So don’t worry that you’ll ruin your daughter’s brains by calling her pretty. You won’t. Tell your little engineer that she’s beautiful. She needs to hear it.
Parenting Strategy #2: Tell Her You’re Pretty
Now, take it a step further: tell your daughter that YOU are pretty.
Seriously. Look into the mirror yourself and say out loud, “I feel really lovely today.”
I know, I know – the cultural noise says we’re not supposed to. “Don’t model vanity to your child! Teach her that looks don’t matter! Focus on other qualities instead, or she’ll become a petty, vain, critical woman!”
Well, at some point, she’s going to look into a mirror. Mirrors are a part of life. And our endless human striving for self-improvement means that she will find things to improve when she does look into a mirror.
The question is, will there be any other internal self-talk running in the background that keeps that self-critical drive in check?
“I feel really pretty,” is what my daughter has heard me say for years, when doing my makeup, checking my hair, pulling on a sweater, doing anything looks-related in front of a mirror.
I started talking to my reflection like that when Addy was a baby. I realized that I would need to model a healthy relationship with the mirror; after all, this was a baby whose every glance into every mirror would be a sharp reminder that her face is not like everyone else’s around her. Every glance would show her that her face has ‘something’ different on it.
And so, I decided to vocally associate Looking in the Mirror with “Self, you’re pretty.”
Addy caught on. She began to regularly smile every time she looked into a mirror. Because as far as she knew, that’s what we women do. Her reflection smiled back.
As you can probably tell from my stories here, she is not a petty, vain, critical female, even at eleven years old. She simply knows that her reflection is lovely, and that her port wine stain is part of that reflected loveliness.
Speak out loud. Your child can’t hear your internal monologue, so say it verbally for them. And if you don’t feel pretty today, then fake it ‘til you make it, and tell your reflection that you’re pretty, because your little copycat is listening.
Can I go even further?
I also say “Cool” every time I step on a scale.
Crazy! We’re supposed to never let our daughters see us step on scales, right? We shouldn’t even own a scale, right? Otherwise, we’ll all turn into self-hating weight-obsessed confused anorexics, right?
Wrong. In my opinion, weight is a simple, factual (and sometimes even helpful) number. Facts don’t have to be scary. Checking weight is a normal part of well-child pediatric checkups, pre-op appointments, and surgeries. It’s a number. Let it be so at home. Model that.
When you step on your scale to check your weight, nonchalantly say “Cool”, no matter what the number is. Because your child doesn’t need to hear a vacuum of silence around it.
You lay the groundwork for your child’s internal monologues. These are the lines that will be playing in the back of her head every time she makes a mistake, earns an achievement, puts on a new lipstick, walks into a new lunchroom, steps on a scale, and looks in a mirror. Don’t let her inherit a vacuum of silence from you, because there are other influences ready to fill the void with commentary about how she doesn’t measure up.
Instead, equip her with confident words. Show her what it looks like, teach her what it sounds like, to be comfortable with your own self. Your own reflection. Your own body.
You won’t make her vain or shallow. It’s cool. You’re beautiful. She’s beautiful. Speak it like it’s true.
Because it is.
Parenting Strategy #3: Tell Her Others are Pretty
Are you ready? Tell her others are pretty, too.
That’s right. I provide commentary on other humans’ beauty, too.
I can already hear the chorus of enlightened shouts: “You should never comment on any other woman’s physical qualities! You’re teaching your daughter to be critical and competitive! We’re above that!”
Again: beauty is not a zero-sum game. Confidence in my own beauty doesn’t diminish my recognition of yours. Likewise, recognizing your beauty doesn’t diminish confidence in my own. It’s not an ‘either-or’ proposition, it’s a ‘both-and’.
To put it in art terms, you can admire both the clear lines of a Renaissance masterpiece and the fuzzy impressions of a Monet without diminishing either work’s value to the canon.
In human terms, you can admire the delicate lightness of an Audrey Hepburn, the glamorous strength of a Serena Williams, the stunning height of a runway model, and the voluptuous curves of an Adele – all without diminishing your perception of the others’ (or your own) beauty. Appreciating one trait doesn’t have to reduce your appreciation of a different, or opposite, trait.
But here’s the catch, parents: Appreciation doesn’t always come naturally. Visual appreciation of great art doesn’t come naturally, or children would stare at a Titian instead of a tablet for hours on end. And visual appreciation of other humans definitely doesn’t come naturally, or world affairs would look quite different. It is up to us parents to endow our children with a deep appreciation of that which is truly beautiful in the world, including other humans.
Too often, we’re told never to comment on anyone else’s looks, because that should be left to our shallow, self-obsessed, critical, vain, popular culture, and we should be above that.
But if that’s the only commentary your child hears (and until a nuclear apocalypse wipes out said pop culture, your child will hear it), then you’ve left a vacuum of silence where there should be positive appreciation.
So compliment the beauty in others. Freely tell your daughter what you find beautiful. I’ve complimented many different birthmarks, skin tones, heights, ages, and weights to Addy. Thus, she has learned that there is beauty in those various birthmarks, skin tones, heights, ages, and weights (including, naturally, hers, wherever she may be in life).
Your commentary allows your daughter to begin spotting beauty in other humans to a greater degree of diversity than she might otherwise pick up on her own. You just have to help her spot it in the first place. This is critical. Don’t let her get silence from you on this.
Because later, she will be tempted to feel down on herself for not ‘looking like’ the Beautiful People… a feeling that usually rests on a pretty narrow view of beauty. The more variety she sees as beautiful now, the harder it will be to peg down exactly what requirement she’s not meeting later.
Point out the beauty in all the other humans; compliment a full spectrum of diverse features, so she learns to appreciate them all. Then she’ll learn to appreciate hers, too.
Congratulations! You have welcomed a new baby into this world. You are excited, happy, terrified, uncertain.
And that baby looks nothing like what you expected.
If you, too, have been surprised by your perfect newborn’s unexpected face, I can perhaps offer some insight into the things you’re worrying and wondering about.
You already knew that you’d have to navigate the challenges of raising a child in this complicated modern world, but you weren’t prepared to do it with a strange-looking face.
You may be torn between calling your perfect little infant “perfect” and wondering what to do about this looming flaw. Should you call it a flaw? Will she think she’s not perfect? Should you mention it to her at all?
You will Google this condition, and when you see all the ways these errant blood vessels can invade the brain, the eyes, the nose, and the gums, you will start watching for every daily milestone to make sure all systems are working the way they should. At least, for now; those vessels will keep growing.
You will feel guilt at your concern over your baby’s face while other parents are dealing with issues so much more deep, painful, and immediate than this ‘cosmetic’ issue; yet, when someone else tells you to be thankful that you have “only a cosmetic issue” to deal with (and maybe even that “it’ll go away”), you’ll want to cry.
You will worry over every contact sport, every scratch, and every nosebleed, along with her eyes, gums, tongue, teeth, brain, and anything else these overgrown blood vessels touch.
And then, you will wonder what you’ll eventually say to her. How will you talk to her about it? And it will feel a lot like vanity, worrying about her looks, and surely, you’ve never been this vain before…
When it comes to her looks, you will struggle in the balance between truths – the truths that other people tell you, and the truths you discover for yourself.
People will tell you your baby is beautiful, and that’s true. They will tell you that your child will be absolutely fine sporting a birthmark in our enlightened modern era, and that’s true. They will tell you that beauty is so much deeper than skin, and that’s true. They will even tell you that people hardly notice it after they meet your child, and that’s true, too.
But it’s also true that the uniqueness of each birthmark means that your child may never see another human being like them, and that’s isolating. It’s also true that your decision to treat, eliminate, remove, or otherwise ‘fix’ this error will haunt your parenting conscience whether you choose to leave it or not, and that’s sobering. It’s also true that our human instinct to spot aberrations in nature means that your child’s errant face will never not be spotted, and that’s overwhelming.
It’s a worrisome thing to raise a child with a strange face. It’s okay that you’re dealing with those worries; it doesn’t make you a shallow person. And you may not feel validated when people encourage you with all the truths about how cool it is to have a birthmark now; they’re not wrong; it just doesn’t feel validating. That’s okay, too. Take their encouragement; consume the truth they’re giving you.
You will think ahead to the first day of preschool, and the first day of kindergarten, and all the other firsts that she will walk into. How will she carry herself into the room? What will she say?
You will find yourself noticing all the unique features in other humans now. And every time you see another human with a Thing on their Face, you’ll devour every hint that might give you clues to your own daughter’s future, all the way down to the way that one birthmarked guy orders his ice cream, and the way that one birthmarked girl slouches into her hoodie. Ashamed? Is that what your perfect, brilliant, precocious infant daughter will become?
People can assuage you all they want, but let me tell you, when you think ahead to all the things you have to prepare a daughter for these days, and then plan on having a weird face on top of it, it’s overwhelming.
You may not know what to do with all the overwhelmingness. You may be quick to feel indignance: How dare Disney not have a princess that looks like my daughter? You may be quick to feel offense: How dare that ignorant idiot ask my daughter what’s on her face?
Take a deep breath; be patient with all the other flawed humans around you. They may not validate your concerns; they may not accommodate your daughter’s face, or even anticipate it. They may ask loud questions. That’s okay.
Have grace for other humans; give them room to err, because they’re imperfect, too.
Have a sense of humor; dress your baby up as a Dalmatian puppy on Halloween and call her ‘Spot’, because you only live once.
We’re reluctant to embrace vanity, but when we’re honest, we would admit that we desperately want to conform, we want to look “like”, and we want to be seen as pretty. This is our vanity, and we feel guilty for it, and a facial mark rocks that guilt. It may feel better to preemptively blame other humans for not accommodating your daughter in their princess lineup, but I think it’s healthier to admit that a natural dose of vanity comes with being human. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
It’s okay to worry about all of this, and then it’s okay to let it all go and take “Spot” trick-or-treating.
Parenting is always uncharted territory. Every child is unique, and every day is new. I can give you advice, I can tell you what we’ve learned; but, ultimately, you will make your own path. I’ve walked some of your steps, but not all of them.
And as I learn from each of our steps, I will continue sharing what we’ve learned with you, here. But in the meantime, please know that I’ve felt what you’re feeling, and I can tell you, after more than a decade of parenting a Kid with a Thing on her Face, that it’s all okay.
Addy may not remember being dressed up as a Dalmatian puppy named ‘Spot’, but she thinks the pictures are hilarious. She’s fine. It’s all good.
You’ll be fine, too.
For Addy’s first few years of life, she lived by a cycle of monthly laser surgeries: she was at Children’s Hospital for a new surgery every month; three weeks later, she’d go to the clinic for a pre-op checkup, then go back to the hospital for another surgery the following week. Three weeks later, another pre-op, then another surgery; then another pre-op, and another surgery… you get the cycle.
The surgeries are minor, thank goodness, but many. She’s had 43 laser treatments (so far) under anesthesia beginning at 5 weeks of age, each one variously bringing IVs, yucky-tasting drugs, and masks covering her face, and each one preceded by a pre-op appointment with a clinic doctor the week before.
Every medical encounter, with all its variables, carried the risk that Something might happen to turn her off from medical appointments. Shots, exams, drugs, questions, strange surroundings, weird lights, being transported in a moving bed – all of these things can be painful or disorienting, and the likelihood that Addy might end up hating all things medical was always high.
So how did she arrive at her love of all things medical? Why is she so comfortable as a patient? I hope that for any parent reading this who has a child requiring a minor (if frequent) medical procedure, our insights here might help smooth the experience.
It comes down, broadly, to two things:
1) medical providers who understand children, and
2) some very intentional parenting at every single appointment.
First, those providers:
Seek out children’s medicine if at all possible. All of Addy’s surgeries have taken place at a Children’s Hospital, where every single worker is oriented to children, not just as smaller versions of adults (which they’re not), but as their own species. Their bodies are different. Their brains are different. One can’t always explain things to a kid, one usually can’t reason with a kid, and one forgets what frightens a kid’s brain, but at Children’s, all these things are on the radar of every nurse, receptionist, doctor, assistant, and specialist. That’s not to say that they’re all perfect all the time, but it’s a great place to start.
Outside of Children’s Hospital, our other providers ‘get’ kids, too. Her primary care doctor is a pediatrician. Her dermatologist, while not a pediatrician, is a laser expert who specifically treats children with port wine stains. Her ophthalmologist is a pediatric ophthalmologist (glaucoma is one of the possible complications from a port wine stain), and I can’t imagine trying to do that long, strange appointment with anyone other than a children’s eye doctor.
At these appointments, we’re just as likely to be asked about favorite cartoons as we are about recent colds. The pediatrician doesn’t just look in her ears at a checkup, he ‘looks for’ Disney princesses or Marvel characters. The ophthalmologist speaks more to Addy during her eye check than to me, and that’s perfectly fine.
With so many opportunities for bad experiences, taking your child to a provider that understands children is a great place to start.
The second major factor: the parenting.
If you want (or need) your child to be comfortable in medical settings, then you need to intentionally parent through every medical encounter, even the small ones. You’ve seen some of my specific tips before, but this provides some wider context.
Always, always, remember this: You are the parent. You run the show. Therefore, when you take your child into any medical setting, here are 5 things I want you to keep in mind:
- Choose your attitude wisely, for your child will absorb it and then reflect it. Be positive.
When you visit a Children’s hospital a lot, you pick up on certain patterns, like this one: no matter the personality of the child, they’ll always end up reflecting their parents in the waiting room.
Pre-procedure parents are either Relaxed & Happy, or they’re Nervous About What’s Coming (complete with pursed lips and bulging neck veins). They’re either smiling with their child, or tensing up like a guitar string about to snap.
Can you guess what happens to the child in those few minutes in the waiting area?
Within moments, they absorb the signals emanating from their parent, and then they unconsciously match them. Happy parents? Happy kid keeps playing. Tense parents? Kid does a double-take at the awesome toys in front of him, decides that maybe there’s something sinister about them, gets really quiet, goes over to Mom & Dad, and sits quietly, whining occasionally.
When it comes to your child in medical settings, remember that YOU set the tone. You are the sky, and your child is the lake. If you’re sunny and bright, then the water shines brightly, too; if you’re cloud-covered and gloomy, then the water is grey and cloudy, too.
You carry immense responsibility. Your child will reflect you. If you want them to come out of a clinic appointment happy, then you can’t walk in like you’re about to get that awful shot you got back in 1998. If you want this surgery to not be a negative experience, then you can’t walk into the hospital looking like you’re on your way to a funeral. If you want your child to comfortable in medical settings, then you must first be comfortable here.
And if you have to fake it ‘til you make it, then fake it, because your little copycat is taking their cue to be either happy or terrified from you. Don’t lie about anything (more on that below); just make sure that their starting point isn’t “terror”.
- Remember your child’s natural ignorance.
Look around the hospital or examination room at all the strange objects from a kid’s perspective: you may be familiar with the blood pressure cuff, but your child is not. For all he knows, it’s a torture device. Preempt his fears by telling him what everything is. Explain, explain, explain, and always with a positive attitude. Good nurses and assistants are great at this; when one of them takes Addy’s blood pressure, they first hold the cuff up and say, “Do you know what this does?” with big smile and an air of intrigue, piquing the child’s curiosity. “It’s going to give your arm a tight hug.”
There. Done. The strange object has been acknowledged and explained, just enough to reassure the child that it won’t be used for anything sinister. Can you imagine trying to get a blood pressure reading without doing that first? The poor kid has this thing strapped on his arm, there’s a buzzing sound, and then all of a sudden it cinches tighter and tighter and tighter and he’s wondering, “Where are we going with this? Give me back my arm!”
Now, this ignorance comes with a bonus: Kids aren’t born knowing that medical stuff is bad. That’s the burden we adults carry because we’ve visited hospitals when loved ones are at death’s door, when accidents change our lives forever, when babies are born dangerously early. We understand life and death, and we know that the treatment can hurt more than the disease; if we had to check ourselves in today, we’d probably freak out. So we expect the same trepidation from our children.
But to your child, all of this is new. And a child is accustomed to encountering new things every day; that’s part of being a young human. They’re constantly facing unfamiliar people and experiences and objects, whether at the grocery store or the hospital. There’s no need for any of it to be negative at the start, so don’t heap that upon them. They’re starting fresh.
Marvel at the blood pressure cuff with them – isn’t that cool how it works? Handle the mask together and laugh about how it looks on your face. Explain what these things do. Mysterious unknown objects can be scary; familiar everyday objects aren’t. Get a ‘play doctor’ kit with a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. Ask the hospital if you can take home a mask so you can play ‘surgery’ at home and have a blast. Let them be curious, help them explore, and keep everything positive.
- No surprises. Ever.
Some people want to distract a child so they don’t see a shot coming, and then they sneak it in, thinking that it makes the overall experience shorter and easier. Trust me, that only works once. The child cannot logically process, “Well, gee, that was SO much more efficient.” All they know is, “OWW!! What?!?!”, and they will never, ever, ever again trust that stranger in the white coat, or even you in that environment. Which means that the next time you carry them into a clinic or hospital, they’ll be inconsolable.
When I was a child, I was a patient in a hospital that wasn’t a children’s hospital. No one there knew how to handle kids, and they administered shots by the ‘distract & surprise’ method. It didn’t take long for me to distrust every white-coated person I encountered thereafter; I even freaked out if I saw a white winter jacket outside the hospital.
Do not let anyone (nurse, tech, or doctor) surprise your child with something unpleasant. Take an extra moment ahead of time to warn your child what’s coming. Note the word, ‘moment’ – no need to linger on the idea, just a few extra seconds to clearly, openly, and (most important) matter-of-factly tell your child what’s coming. (Remember, if you freak out, they’ll freak out.)
Keith was the master of this disclosure. Knowing we had a long medical road ahead of us, he left nothing to chance, even seasonal flu shots and routine blood draws. Whenever a procedure came, here’s how it would go down:
The tech would prepare the shot.
Keith would turn to little Addy and say:
- “Sweetie, you’re going to get a shot now.” [tell ‘em what’s coming]
- “It might hurt, and that’s okay.” [matter-of-fact warning, NEVER negative]
- “We’ll count to three,” [a consistent system she can rely on each time]
- “…she’ll poke you once, and then we’ll be all done.” [finite ending – the light at the end of the tunnel]
He’d nod to the tech; they’d gently anchor her and count to three together, and the tech would poke Addy on “three.” Addy might cry for a moment, but Keith would immediately scoop her up and affirm her: “There, see? All done! All done, just like we told you.” [Remind her that it went down exactly as you said; she can trust you.]
“Now, tell the nice lady ‘thank you’.”
That’s right, he made her politely thank every tech and nurse who took care of her, even those who administered shots. An attitude of thanks may sound crazy, but for a little toddler, the effort of articulating polite words of gratitude provided enough of a distraction (after all, that’s a lot of work when you’re two) to get her mind off any lingering pain from the quick shot. And it fended off any possible “poor me” wallowing that could creep in among her many medical visits, to acknowledge the role of all caregivers around her, even those stuck doing thankless tasks.
Sniff, sniff, “Tay too [thank you].”
And with that, the event is done. Your child knows that you’re trustworthy, consistent, and dependable. We haven’t been allowed to wallow. The pain is disappearing. What were we crying about again? Now, go get a sticker, and the day is made. (If we’ve gone under anesthesia, then go get a popsicle, and the whole WEEK is made.)
No surprises. Medical procedures don’t have to be pleasant, but they definitely should not be a surprise. Ever.
- Be your child’s activist when it comes to details of treatment.
Even in these great settings, we occasionally encountered providers who weren’t perfect. One clinic nurse was so nervous around kids that she clumsily administered a “surprise” shot to the leg really hard, without giving Keith a chance to count Addy to three. Bad idea. Addy felt shocked & betrayed, it took Keith over an hour to calm her down, and the poor kid limped for a week. Not a good thing when we were bringing her in for a medical appointment or procedure every 1-3 weeks.
Needless to say, we were more demanding of procedure thereafter. We had a lot grace for the nice nurse’s nervousness (after all, no sweet soul actually wants to administer shots to children), but we did discreetly discuss the event with the clinic, and they were awesome. They understood that we couldn’t afford to have Addy not trust us, and they helped ensure that all shots thereafter followed a trustworthy procedure.
Remember, again, you’re in control. Your child takes their cue from you, and the providers take their cue from you; if you’re not comfortable with some aspect of treatment, they’ll probably work with you until there’s some resolution. But they can’t read your mind, so speak up. Be kind and courteous, and they’ll work with you.
- Empower your child to do things themselves
I was surprised one morning when a nurse at Children’s Hospital offered to let Addy take out her own IV after a surgery. Taking out the IV has always been a nasty moment, mostly because of the adhesive sticking to the skin. (The needle is nothing compared to that sticky hand-hair-grabbing tape!) Addy was always apprehensive about getting the IV out.
But then the nurse showed Addy how to pull it out herself, and it turned that moment from one of apprehension to one of empowerment. Addy learned exactly how the IV worked, where the line was, and how fast to pull off the tape. Altogether, it made her feel awesome. No more tears.
Expect great things of a kid, and they’ll rise to the occasion. I’m grateful for that nurse’s wisdom; she knew Addy could handle the task herself, even if I didn’t.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to let your child do things for themselves in medical settings; ask the provider if a task can be done or assisted by the patient herself. The IV task has been rather empowering for Addy, and there might be others. The providers can help you find ways to empower your child to do things themselves, especially if they’re used to working with children.
Yes, perhaps you’d rather be at a tropical beach than at yet another procedure, but honestly, it could be worse, and in the grand scheme, it’s really not so bad. So enjoy the little stuff; get excited about stickers and pumped about popsicles, because then your kid will, too. Savor the time with your child (and a good book during those precious quiet minutes when they’re under anesthesia). Life is beautiful, this laser treatment stuff isn’t so bad, there’s a whole team of people taking care of your offspring. And with luck, your offspring will realize that it’s all quite lovely, too.
**Post script: I will never forget the evening we went out to dinner to celebrate Addy’s 5th birthday. By chance, we ended up seated in a booth just behind Dr. Steelman, the pediatrician who has seen her through all of her medical ‘stuff’ since she was a newborn – and therefore a provider she could either love or loathe. When Addy caught a glimpse of him out of the usual medical context, her face lit up like a Christmas tree and she stammered excitedly, “Uncle Steelman!”
Parents, if your darling new baby has a red birthmark, you will want to know the difference between a port wine stain and a hemangioma, two common types of vascular birthmarks, and what some of the related complications might be.
I can tell you what I know – which, admittedly, isn’t much, and is, I’m afraid, heavily anecdotal. But, no matter; I’ll still share it.
Port Wine Stain vs. Hemangioma
A port wine stain, which is what Addy has, is usually flat at birth, but then it grows over time. That growth means that a port wine stain will often become raised & nodular, especially if left untreated.
A port wine stain is a proliferation of blood vessels associated with a particular nerve. That nerve, otherwise responsible for telling its partner blood vessels in utero to “Stop growing!”, missed giving that critical signal at some point during development – so the blood vessels kept growing and growing. (In Addy’s case, the error is associated with the middle branch of the trigeminal nerve, on the right side of the face.) As a result, the capillaries are abnormally wide in diameter (like, over 40x wider).
A hemangioma, on the other hand, is raised at birth – you can feel it if you run your finger over the skin – and it may grow a bit in the first year, but then it will recede or ‘implode’ on its own.
A hemangioma is a cluster of blood vessels by the surface of the skin, sometimes medically referred to as a benign ‘tumor’ of blood vessels. It’s often very bright red. These are the common “strawberry marks” we all know on babies. They usually fade on their own.
I can’t tell you how many birthmark misdiagnoses I’ve heard. Many of them were directed to us by well-wishers, including nurses who told us “Oh, that’s just a hemangioma, it’ll go away!”; others have been directed to some of my readers by aloof primary-care doctors who weren’t familiar with port wine stains. Get your child to a specialist who understands vascular malformations (a good dermatologist should know the difference), and get the right diagnosis.
Here’s why: if your child has a hemangioma, it will probably disappear on its own, and if it doesn’t, well, you can cross that bridge when you get there. But they usually go away without intervention.
If your child has a port wine stain, though, it will not go away on its own; in fact, it will grow with your child. And as your child develops, their blood vessels and the skin above them will only develop & toughen, making it harder to eliminate the stain later. The worst medical advice in that critical first year is “Ehhh, let’s just see if it goes away on its own.” It won’t. It will only toughen. We were lucky – Addy went in for her first surgery at 5 weeks old, and had 9 more before her first birthday.
Complications can arise depending on how ‘deep’ the birthmark is, and where it’s located, which are determined by when the error occurred in utero.
If the error of a port wine stain occurred earlier (i.e., the nerve missed giving that critical signal to “Stop Growing!” to its associated blood vessels), then the port wine stain will be deeper in the skin, and wider on the body. For example: Addy’s stain covers much of the right side of her face (along the V2 branch of the trigeminal nerve), and is relatively difficult to treat, hence the 43 surgeries so far. It’s deep.
Meanwhile, her friend has a small stain along the exact same V2 branch of the trigeminal nerve, but it’s the size of a half-dollar coin on her cheek, and it disappeared after a half-dozen laser treatments. That’s because the friend’s error occurred later in utero, while Addy’s occurred earlier.
Other kids have massive vascular malformations that erred even earlier than Addy’s; one young woman told me that her brother was born with a large one that totally covered one shoulder and down onto his back, and it was so large (and deep, and thick) at birth that the doctors weren’t sure if he would be okay. He avoided contact sports, but otherwise has been living a healthy life.
Depending on where the stain is, a port wine stain can cause other complications. For example, if the stain is on the V1 branch of the trigeminal nerve (the optical branch, along the forehead), the risk is significantly higher for Sturge-Weber syndrome, which is a constellation of issues stemming from having malformed blood vessels in the head, including calcifications in the brain (which can hinder brain development) and seizures. An MRI helps diagnose Sturge-Weber issues in the brain.
Since Addy’s port wine stain touches onto her forehead, she had an MRI at 5 months of age, to make sure that there were no vascular malformations in her brain; all was clear.
But glaucoma is definitely a concern, since the proliferation of blood vessels can also cause undue pressure on her eye. She is checked for glaucoma annually.
Of course, glaucoma isn’t the only eye issue; as you’ve read here, Addy’s tear drain was pinched off by the pressure of all the encroaching blood vessels around it. She had a tube put in a few years ago to try to prop it open. Even though it fell out shortly afterward, it did successfully open up the plumbing for a while, and it bought her some development time. Unfortunately, she’s been tearing up again in her right eye, so we may have to do it again.
The port wine stain is also in her mouth. This is fascinating! As the right and left sides of the head develop in utero, they ‘meet’ in the middle; thus, any error tends to only show up on one side of the face. Addy’s face is split down the middle, even down to her tongue and uvula! If you ask her to open up her mouth, you’ll see her tongue is half red, half pink – and if you look farther back, even her uvula is precisely half red, half pink.
The extra bloodflow to the right side of her mouth meant that her teeth developed earlier, and popped out of her gums earlier. (And, luckily, they popped out fast. Teething wasn’t so bad!) As a baby, she had an adorably lopsided smile for a short time until her left side came in.
But now, all that extra bloodflow and tooth development means a lot of crowding; the well-populated, well-nourished right side of her mouth is crowding out the left, and an extra tooth is popping in above the others (affectionately called ‘The Snaggletooth’), because it doesn’t have any place to go. So, we can add significant orthodontia to our 2019 budget.
When she brushes her teeth, bleeding from the right side isn’t uncommon. In the wintertime, she gets one-nostril nosebleeds on the right side. We try to minimize all possible injury to her face, gums, nose, and scalp on the right side, because she bleeds more than the average bear in those places. And, if you look closely, you’ll see that her bones are actually a bit bigger on the right side of her face, due to the extra bloodflow. It’s not actually a problem (or even noticeable) for Addy, but I know another little girl with a port wine stain who had to see a craniofacial surgeon to see if anything could be done about some too-fast bone growth along her stain.
So, there are complications to these port wine stains. Hemangiomas probably bring various complications, too, especially very large ones, but my experience is limited to port wine stains on the face. These are simply some of the things we’ve watched & worried over with Addy. Each birthmark is unique, so please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions and pictures if you want a mom’s advice. I’m not a doctor, and I will tell you to ‘get thee to a dermatologist’ if you haven’t yet, but I’m happy to navigate these waters with you.
For the sake of trivial interest in birthmarks, I can tell you that there’s another type of birthmark called a nevus, which is a proliferation of skin pigmentation, rather than blood vessels. (Have you ever seen someone with a really dark brown or black birthmark? Sometimes hairy? That’s a nevus.) We know a little girl with a nevus on her forehead, and the complication her parents have to worry about is skin cancer. Their pre-emptive treatment is skin grafting. (I’ll take lasers any day!)
Also, among blood-red marks, there’s even a third type after Port Wine Stain and Hemangioma: Hematoma. In short, a hematoma is a red spot that looks like a hemangioma, but it usually comes about by injury or disease. Clarence ended up with a small hematoma on his face after an injury, and he got to have a laser session with Dr. Z., but I’ll tell you more about that in another post.
So, there: you’re ready to win obscure trivia questions about birthmarks! You’re welcome.