It’s good to be back! For the last year, I’ve been writing more for my mother than my daughter over at CaringBridge (FYI — she’s doing great!).
But Addy’s EBC speech (below) brought me back here, and I’ve been wanting to share a sweet story with you from a recent outing.
Keith and I were walking with the kids through a Macy’s department store one afternoon. We move slowly as a herd, and passing all the shiny things in the jewelry department slowed us down even more. With plenty of time to glance around at the other patrons, I saw a woman standing with her husband at the jewelry counter. As she turned her head back and forth in conversation between her husband and the employee helping them, I noticed a big, dark, red splotch on the front of her face.
I stared, like any good 5-year-old would do, but tried to be at least a little bit discreet while I determined if it was a birthmark or a burn scar or something else. With each mark being so personalized & unique, it can be hard to identify from a distance; you just know there’s something big there.
She didn’t notice me staring, thank goodness, but I quickly realized that it was because she had locked in on Addy. She was staring at Addy.
I nudged Addy to get her attention from the shiny things for a second, turned her toward me, and whispered excitedly, “Don’t turn and stare, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lady over there with the exact same stain you have.”
Whenever we encounter someone else with a unique feature, like the darkness of a birthmark, the baldness of alopecia, the stature of dwarfism, or the gap of a missing limb, I treat it like a celebrity sighting. It’s all in the attitude – a combo of “Ohmygoodness they have something super-unique too! Agh!” and “Be cool, be cool.” With that, my children have learned that people who ‘stick out’ (like celebrities, or Addy) are totally positively awesome, and that they might (like a celebrity) not want to be disturbed. With small children, one can never teach too much discretion.
So when I told Addy there was another person just like her nearby, her eyes got big and excited and she got twitchy as she itched to turn and look but knew better. She stage-whispered, “Where?” “Behind you.” Addy turned naturally as if to look at more jewelry, glanced at the woman discreetly, then played it cool, turning to me, “It’s even on the same side!”
I got the impression that the same thing was happening between the couple buying jewelry. I thought about introducing ourselves, but hesitated; this woman was a bit older than I was, which means she had grown up before the unique-is-awesome attitude pervaded the culture as widely as it has by now. People from Generation X and earlier don’t always have good memories of growing up with their unique feature; some came from families that never spoke of the birthmark at all. They’ve made reluctant peace with it, but they’re sick of being noticed in public; in their experience, being noticed isn’t a good thing.
There wasn’t much time to think about it, though, because the next thing I knew, the woman was leaving her bag with her husband and walking toward us. I turned expectantly, as if we were going to engage in the usual polite grown-up introductions, but she walked right by me and, without saying a word, engulfed my daughter in a bear hug.
Addy hugged her right back. They stayed there for a long, long moment, and I heard this stranger speak quietly into Addy’s hair: “You are so beautiful. You are so beautiful. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. You are so beautiful.”
And that’s how we met. After detangling from Addy, the woman said to us, “I’m so excited! I mean, I often see other birthmarks, but it’s really rare to see someone with a stain, just like mine, on the right side!” We talked about how pretty it is, the way it ‘sweeps’ up to the hairline. Addy told her proudly that she’s had forty-something surgeries, and the woman nodded: “I had thirty-seven.” I just about fell over – this woman’s stain was really dark! These two birthmarks were similar even in their resistance to treatment. “Keep zapping!” she encouraged. Addy told her about having a tube down her eye, and getting checked for glaucoma, and the woman nodded, “Yep! Me too.”
I’m so grateful that this woman came over. I’m grateful for her confidence. I’m grateful for her willingness to bear-hug a stranger’s kid. My daughter got to meet someone like her, someone she could identify with, someone who’s walked in her shoes first.
Addy talked about it afterward like she’d been personally approached by a celebrity.
And, in a way, she had.
Over a year ago, a gorgeous young woman from London named Millie found my blog and sent me a wonderful note. We corresponded a bit and I’m copying excerpts of that correspondence here, because it’s context for the beauty you’ll see below.
But the real reason I’m sharing Millie with you, dear reader, is her beauty, her creativity and her confidence.
(And her incredible ART PROJECT. You’ll see that below. READ WHAT SHE SAID ABOUT IT. All the rest is context.)
Here is Millie’s first note to me last year:
I’ve written out three different messages and failed to send them but I will send this one!
Your daughter’s confidence and smile have been the light in my life when I’m feeling low about my port wine stain (uncannily similar as mine covers also my right cheek, lip, nose and forehead slightly!).
Regrettably, I have covered my birthmark with makeup since the age of 11 (starting high school – now 17) but previously felt no real qualms about my appearance; I was a confident, happy, feisty little girl.
Hitting such a low of wanting facial reconstruction surgery a few months ago, the beauty of your daughter has been my inspiration to accept myself and use my suffering as a tool for creativity and awareness.
Turning 18 in May, I’ve decided I won’t let something which I have no control over determine my life, and have been practicing looking people straight on and in the eye (something unthinkable less than a year ago). I am trying to diagnose my reasons for hiding part of myself and my consequential shame of my appearance.
I am using my final A-level art project to look at changing society’s perceptions of physical differences. Your website and Adelaide have been a huge inspiration for this. I hope to someday meet my role model!
My sincere gratitude,
Even without ever having seen Millie, I grabbed the chance to point out the beauty in a birthmark like Addy’s (after all, I know the shape of that stain by heart):
“… Parenting [Addy], and pondering her stain, I’ve come to appreciate that every human, no matter what their appearance, struggles with their uniqueness. None among us is anatomically perfect; some simply have more obvious imperfections. Slender runway supermodels wish that they had Sofia Vergara’s curves, while Vergara-esque curvaceous babes wish they had Heidi Klum’s legs. Even the greatest beauties can point to another human’s unique features with envy.
…Or, said a different way, any beauty can point to her own unique features with contentment. I wish more would; so few do.
I want to share with you something that occurred to me shortly after Addy was born: look at the*sweep* of her (and your) port wine stain. The way it starts in the middle, then sweeps upward as it goes toward the hairline?
Now look again at all those makeup advertisements in magazines and on billboards. Look at what they tell you to do with your blush, your bronzer, your eyeliner, your eyeshadow, even your hair: “Sweep up” for the most flattering effect on feminine features.
Look for “the sweep” in other places, too – the shape of a basic Venetian carnival mask, for example; it sweeps away from the eyes, out and up toward the hairline. Instant glamour.
Everyone else needs masks, makeup and hairdos to approximate nature’s flattery; you and Addy were born with it.”
After Millie’s final art project was complete, she sent us THIS:
“…I have just handed in my A-Level art sketch book and final piece, and, as I mentioned, decided to look at changing society’s perceptions of beauty. I ended up using this as a tool for experimenting with my own appearance and difference: my port wine stain.
I played with typically beautiful images in society (BAFTA awards, the cover of Vogue, art work, etc. that we automatically accept as beautiful) to display differences. I played with the idea of symmetry, using a butterfly, and used makeup to emphasise rather than hide my birthmark.
I decided to do a final piece which celebrated my birthmark, using the artists Gustav Klimt and Chris Ofili as decor inspiration.
This was a strange, terrifying and liberating experience, but I am so glad I have done it. Your blog really was a turning point for me; rather than crying about my mark and wishing it wasn’t there, I am now seeing it as an opportunity. I think about what you said – the upward swish complementing natural beauty where others need makeup.
When I went for my last laser, I couldn’t wear makeup; so even in the car to the hospital I didn’t allow myself to make eye contact with anyone for fear of seeing them stare… Every time I do this it’s very strange but again, liberating, especially this time because I didn’t try to hide… After a few weeks (of not wearing makeup while the bruising went down) I actually went for a no-makeup run with my sister — the adrenaline made me run faster!
… I have grown in the sense that I now wear makeup for society rather than for myself… When I’ve cried to my mum, she said ‘patrons and people who change the world don’t have it easy.’ I want to somehow help society see that different doesn’t automatically mean bad.
After picking myself up off the floor at the gorgeousness of her face and Klimt-inspired work, I replied:
“Thank you so much for sending!! …I’m thrilled, inspired, and humbled to have served as any sort of encouragement on your journey! It can be hard to forge something new. So many people tie beauty to perfection without realizing it, and even those who are trying to embrace imperfections make the same mistake by hushing any admission of ‘error’; it feels quite liberating to admit that something’s an error, and still see that it’s beautiful.
I’d love to see more of your project!”
Luckily, she obliged, and explained her project in a bit more detail:
“I have [attached] a photograph of the BAFTA award I made using a cast of my face, then sprayed bronze and filled in my port wine stain with gold leaf. (I purposefully made the birthmark worth the most).
[BRILLIANT, no?! Read that part again – she made the birthmark worth the most…
There is a picture of my final piece: a mixture of oil painting, collage, gold leaf and mosaic. I included the butterfly picture I worked from as well.
…The theme set by the exam board was ‘Flaws, Perfection, Ideals and Compromise’ which basically set up a stomping ground for me to play around with this, which I’ve wanted to before in my art but couldn’t out of fear and shame. This time it felt a little different…
(We’ve enjoyed more correspondence since then, but for the sake of brevity I will leave this exchange as is here.)
Enjoy Millie’s art, dear reader. She is a treasure!
In the seven years that I’ve been pondering unique marks and distinguishing characteristics since Addy’s birth, I’ve come to appreciate the simple yet profound truth: every human is unique. And therefore beautiful. And vulnerable.
Addy doesn’t hold a monopoly on being different. She may have a more obvious imperfection than you, but you’ve also been singled out, felt embarrassed, tried to hide, and wanted desperately to blend in.
Haven’t we all?
Keith pointed out to me early in baby Addy’s life that a bully will find anything to bully – in other words, even if our daughter didn’t have a port wine stain, she could be made fun of for being short, or being tall, for being outgoing and happy, for wearing glasses, or even getting the highest score on a test in school.
We decided early to find the silver lining in baby Addy’s port wine stain: knowing that any child can (and will, at some point) be singled out & made fun of for some uniqueness, we’re intentionally grateful that our brilliant daughter has a mark on her face; we would prefer that life’s bullies fixate on something skin-deep (for which we can prepare her, as you’ve read on this blog here), rather than her intellect, joy, or exuberance (which are so deeply tied to her soul).
In other words, our journey isn’t unique. And yet, it is. Addy entered the world with a giant, attention-grabbing stain on her face, and even after almost 40 mark-lightening laser treatments, it still gets questions. If a bully’s looking for something to single out, here it is. We face the challenge of building her up to be simultaneously aware of and comfortable with her flaw, both humble and confident. We must be honest with her, build her self-esteem, and prepare her for a world full of flawed, and sometimes cruel, humans.
But really… This is what every parent faces. Your challenge, as much as mine, is to launch a confident, well-adjusted, healthy-self-esteemed child into the world, while protecting them from its cruelty in the meantime. Not every child is born with an obvious splotch on their face, but every parent still shoulders the burden to guide wisely, and dances that line between shielding and exposing, protecting and empowering.
If we do our job well, Addy will know that she may be uniquely flawed, but that every other human around her is, too – and that they deserve the same grace and kindness from her that she might ever hope to receive from them.
Confession: As you’ve seen here, I get excited when I see someone else with a port wine stain. Really excited. But suddenly, I face That Dilemma, now from the other side: do I ask them about it?
Running through my head: Will they think I’m too forward? Am I touching on childhood trauma? Do they hate their port wine stain and hate their life and hate their bullies and hate their parents? Will I bring all that up by being one *more* person to remark on it? Or, worse, will they think I’m a backward hick who’s never seen someone different? Will they patronize me and give me a lecture about how we’re all alike inside in spite of our physical differences and I shouldn’t even notice differences like that?
But… I’m on your team, man! I want to know about your stain! What’s your story?? What have you learned? What should I tell my daughter? Did you treat it? Why? What was it like? Would you do it again? Do you ever cover it up? What else do you know about it?
Usually, all this panicked thinking takes too much time and I just end up casting long, meaningful glances in their general direction while we’re standing in line, and hoping they’ll look up and suddenly notice a comrade in my daughter’s lovely similarly-port-wine-stained face, but instead they pay for their latte and walk out, perhaps vaguely aware of some stalker-like presence nearby.
Maybe next time.
Okay, kudos to the parents of a Starbucks barista who was working down in Indianapolis sometime between 2008 and 2010 (and may still be there) – you did it right. Not sure what you did, because I have no idea who you are, but I know you did parenting right.
Here’s the story: a few days after Addy was born back in 2008, my uncle from Indianapolis called to tell us that he had just been served by a Starbucks barista sporting a port wine stain like Addy’s, and that she was supremely outgoing, lovely and confident. Her parents, he said, had clearly raised her to be comfortable with herself, in spite of (or especially with?) the port wine stain painted on her face. Our family here in the Twin Cities cheered – then we could do that, too!
Randomly, two years later, my husband’s mother’s cousin (seriously) traveled through Indianapolis, stopped at a Starbucks, and saw a lovely barista with a booming personality and a distinct port wine stain, who clearly loved herself and her face. Cousin was so impressed, she just had to tell our family. And we cheered again.
So, well done, Starbucks barista – your beautiful personality and confidence in yourself have inspired our family. And kudos to your parents, whoever they are, for whatever they did to raise you well. You’re lovely and you know it. Keep it up.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that Kindergarten has been kicking my butt. (*My* butt. Addy’s been doing great. I’m ready for afternoon naps again.) Over a month since my last post? Yikes…
I’ve been thinking about an evening a few years ago when Keith and I went out to a restaurant for dinner. We spotted a young couple at a nearby table that intrigued us. The girl (maybe late teens or early twenties) had her hoodie pulled up so far on her head that she practically created a tunnel to her face. Her shoulders sloped down and she looked uncomfortable with herself, shrinking from view. She chatted quietly with her boyfriend across the table. This was a girl who clearly wanted to not be seen. (So, naturally, I stared, but I’m a bit of a voyeur anyway.)
After a few minutes of watching her out of the corner of my eye, I finally saw the cause of her discomfort when she turned her head to talk to the waitress: a big, bright port wine stain shaped just like Addy’s, right there on her face, splotched on her cheek (and, if I recall, up onto the forehead) like spilled paint. Ah-ha!
I met Keith’s eye to see if he had noticed it, too. He had. We silently nodded to each other (the annoying way married people do, covering a whole conversation in a single look, but for once we actually shared the *same* conversation, a rarity). Anyway. One look, and we solemnly understood that this girl in her hoodie represented everything we DID NOT want for our baby girl: embarrassment, shame, and a certain… defeated comfort in her slouched posture. She had lost, and that was okay with her. As long as she could hide that face.
Interestingly, this young woman’s hide-from-the-world posture is precisely what attracted my attention in the first place and made me want to look more. Her defeated slouch made me wonder what her story was. Meanwhile, many people have told us that they hardly notice Addy’s stain because her personality is so grandiose, so immediately engaging that they simply don’t have time to wonder about her face while she’s telling them about her favorite movie and favorite princess and inviting them to sit down and be comfortable while she talks (and talks, and talks, and talks…).
So I wonder if that young woman had been ashamed of her face her whole life (with lax parenting), or if she learned to be ashamed later by the reactions of life’s trolls and bullies. And, if it was the latter, how can the parent of an innocent, confident kid like Addy fend off that impending shame?
Certainly lots of truthful affirmations, honest compliments, and confidence-building habits all sound good for sculpting a kick-tushy confident kid, but will it be enough, when the trolls come out, to prevent that kid from shrinking into a sloucher in a hoodie?
A few weeks ago I took my two youngest kids on a routine trip to Wal-Mart. (Don’t judge – as soon as Trader Joe’s offers carts with locking straps for multiple kids and enough inventory to render further errands unnecessary, I’ll be the first one in the door; until then, it’s Wal-Mart.)
As I was saying – I took the two little kids shopping and, as usual, one of them had to go to the bathroom halfway through the shopping trip. So we made our way alllllllll the way to the back of the store, past the bikes and kid toys (seriously, I know your game, Wal-Mart), to the Family Bathroom right next to the employee break area and the “Apply for a Job Here” kiosk. While I was unloading my offspring from the Awesome Multi-Kid Cart, I noticed that the guy at the computer kiosk applying for a job had a port wine stain JUST LIKE Addy’s. But darker. It was pretty cool. And I wanted to know more.
But wait… I don’t dare ask about it. But, man, I WANT TO. I really want to know about this guy and his port wine stain, and on a scientific side I’m FASCINATED by the resemblance to Addy’s – this must be what Addy’s would look like if it was never treated… and it’s dark… really dark… which means it was never treated… So, I wonder if he suffered through it before treatment options were available, and therefore hates the very mention of it… or if he chose to keep it even after treatment options became available, and therefore loves it…?
Ahh, crap. Never mind, kid’s gotta pee; we disappear into the restroom, and when we see him sitting there a few minutes later, I still have no idea what to do, so I just keep walking and say nothing, leaving him there to click away at the kiosk alone.
I wonder what his story was.
I took my kids to the doctor’s office for a checkup recently. While I stood at the desk (in the super-quiet lobby area) filling out forms, Addy suddenly turned to me and asked in a loud voice “Mommy! Why that girl not have any arms?” I froze. She jabbed her arm out to clearly point: “Right there! Why she not have arms?”
Well, this was a completely new experience for me. Ever since Addy was born, we’ve experienced staring kids, curious adults, and parents’ awkward reactions when their kid asked them loudly “HEY! MOM! Why does that girl have a RED FACE?” No problem; until recently, Addy was too young to hear the inquiries, and we know little kids are curious. We often just reassured the other parents with a smile, not sure why they felt so awkward around us. It’s okay, we’re cool with it.
But that day in the waiting room, the tables were turned; suddenly, I was the parent who was terrified that my curious three-year-old’s questions would be overheard by the girl who was, in fact, missing both arms, and I wanted to do anything to shut her up before I was branded as some backward, insensitive, ignorant lazy parent who can’t even teach her kids to accept other human beings for what they are in our postmodern hypersensitive age of diversity! (*gasp*) What would people think?! ?
I halted her questions with an awkward combination of The Mommy Death Stare and a loud “shush!!” (yeah, smooth), muttering something about needing to sit down and wait “very, very quietly” for the appointment. Go figure – the only place to sit down was right next to the young girl who, sure enough, was using her toes to leaf through the pages of the book she was reading, as there were no arms beyond the shoulders.
Then the girl looked up from her book with a soft smile and said quietly to me, “It’s okay, she can ask me anything she wants. I’m used to questions.” [“PHEW! So she doesn’t hate us. Good.”] I smiled and thanked her. She continued, “I don’t mind it when little kids ask me. It’s the older ones who aren’t nice.”
Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I’ve never minded kids’ questions; until recently, it’s usually just been the young ones who have noticed and asked about the stain. So before I label us as the ‘confidently proud and matter-of-fact’ modern parents I thought we were, I have to admit that we’ve never really been the target of any malicious teasing. Maybe there’s an inner ‘shaken and insecure’ parent waiting to emerge with the right prodding? Probably.
At least now I understand better why parents silently freak out at their kids’ noisy observations – they’re afraid they’ll be branded as terribly incompetent parents. And, like the graceful young girl in the waiting room, I’ll reassure them that it’s okay to ask. No, I don’t think you’re backward or insensitive or a bad parent. Even the most hypersensitive, postmodern parents have curious three-year olds…
There’s a certain Dr. Ward, born in the 17th century, who appears to have been known as “Spot Ward” due to the great “claret stain” on the side of his face. From my completely un-academic Google-scanning, I’ve learned that he was considered a bit of a quack, and there’s an engraving by Hogarth in which his stain is emphasized, along with his quacky reputation.
If you click on either of these links, scroll down a bit until you find the engraving “The Undertakers” – he’s the guy on the top right with half of his entire face shaded.
I’m fascinated by this! Know of any other historical figures with stains?
We recently took a daytrip to a historic small town about an hour away. After walking around on Main Street for an hour or two on a ridiculously hot day, we popped into the local confectionary for ice cream. It was crazy busy in there, and while we were focusing on keeping the kiddos away from the colorful displays of treats, I heard the guy next to me in line say “Ah, she has a birthmark!” I cringed slightly, pasted a smile on my face and looked down at Addy to see if she had heard. But before I could do or say anything, the guy continued: “Just like me!”
My head snapped up to look at him, and sure enough, this guy in his mid-thirties had a dark red stain on his face, and it was even bigger than Addy’s, wrapping around his shaved head. I broke into a smile: “Port wine?” “Yep!” “Ha, that’s exactly what she has! Did you ever do any treatments?” (No questions are ‘too personal’ after finding common ground like that!) He shook his head: “Nah. I did one treatment when I was older, but that’s it.” Then he smiled: “Now I really like having it on my face; you know, it’s something different, no one else has it.”
So here’s a guy with a deep-red stain on his face, darkened a bit with age, wrapping around his skull, and he’s saying he likes it. Awesome. I wish I’d had time to get tips from him on how to encourage that kind of confidence, but we were too rushed. Oh, well. He still made my day!
Have you ever run across someone who shared a particularly odd trait with you? Were you as excited as I was to find them?