When a parent ponders whether or not to treat their child’s port wine stain (or any other malformation), they face a conundrum: they’re making a decision *for* their child that will have a HUGE impact on that kid’s emotional development, self-image, self-esteem, and school experience… annnd there’s a slim chance that their child will eventually hate them for it. (So, I guess it’s the same as most of our parenting decisions… Hm.)
A) If we treat this, then she won’t get made fun of as much in school – yay! But then again, maybe someday she’ll hate us for taking away a distinguishing mark that was rightfully hers…? B) If we leave it so that she alone can decide its fate when she’s older, then the damage will be done, both physical (as it may have grown too thick to treat completely) and emotional (as she will have already endured early childhood with immature classmates and the inevitable questions and teasings).
So there we are, with the fate of our daughter’s face in our hands. Obviously, we’ve decided to zap it off. (And we don’t regret it.) We’ll either get a sincere “Whew, thank you, Mom and Dad, for thoughtfully removing the mask so that people can see the true beauty of my face! I’m so glad I get to look like everyone else at prom!” …Or, we’ll get a dramatic “I CAN’T beliEVE you took away the ONE THING that made me unique! Now NO ONE will EVER notice me!” and then she’ll run upstairs and slam her bedroom door and blast whatever emo music the teenagers will be listening to at that point.
So, some of you parents might understand this: when Addy was born 5 years ago, it felt VERY weird to be head-over-heels in love with our absolutely perfect, lovely, beautiful bright-eyed baby girl… and at the same time look at her face and say to the port wine stain, “Woah, that’s gotta go!” Weird.
It brings on some mom-guilt (and dad-guilt, I’m sure). How could I not think that every single one of her features was perfect and sweet and beautiful?? I was planning to zap one of those features clean off! Telling her she’s beautiful and perfect, while removing a distinguishing mark…?
Obviously, I have no regrets for treating the stain, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. But there’s just something odd about feeling the *exact same* “Woah!” that you later dread everyone *else* feeling when they see your kid. …Anyone else know what I mean?
I almost forgot the follow-up!
After the brief Q&A with the neighbor girl (prior blog post), we got back to our house and I made a point of openly talking about the encounter to Daddy, in front of Adelaide.
I said, “By the way, Daddy, the neighbor asked about Addy’s port wine stain!” “Really? [Happily, like I just gave him good news.] And what did she say?” Addy piped up: “I said it was my port wine stain from Dr. Zelickson.” “That’s wonderful, Addy! It’s cool that she was curious about it.” To which Addy nodded slowly, processing, then agreed happily: “Yes, it is!”
Why debrief? Because I want Addy 1) to know it’s fair game for open conversation – something she can bring up casually with us, 2) to get into the habit of debriefing us after those little conversations (keeping us in the loop when any negative ones come up), and 3) to put a positive spin on it.
Did I want to? No. I feel awkward talking about it, honestly. But I don’t want to spread that feeling to Addy. So it took some effort to bring it up, but I’m glad we did. Just seeing her absorb Daddy’s enthusiasm was worth it. 🙂
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…
Last night we went out to eat at Noodles. It was dinnertime, so there were lots of families with kids. We found a table in the back, by a family with a couple of little girls who were somewhere between kindergarten and third grade. (I can’t tell kids’ ages, so that’s a guess; older than Addy, still quite a bit younger than tweens.) While we approached and were getting settled, one of the girls noticed Addy’s face, still quite bruised from laser surgery. The girl caught her friend’s attention and gestured toward Addy. They stared wide-eyed. Then they started whispering furtively together; one kept touching her own cheek while they were discussing the sight.
There was something about their manner that brought back every memory of junior-high-female cattiness – that kind of “Ohmygosh, did you SEE her outfit?” posturing, leaning forward to whisper together importantly, stopping to turn and stare, then ducking back into the gossip. And it infuriated me.
I could a) ignore them, b) obey my ursine maternal instinct and cross the eight feet between us to give each one a good smack upside the head, c) find a happy medium and just stand there glaring at them until they got uncomfortable, which would have looked weird in public but still been at least mildly satisfying in a passive-aggressive way.
Since I’m not writing this from the local jail, you can assume I went (reluctantly) with Option A.
There were three factors that caused me to pick ‘self-control’ over ‘mother bear’:
1) The girls’ parents were sitting right there, and would have noticed me. Darn it.
2) Addy was completely oblivious, so… if I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit… no harm done there.
3) There’s a solid possibility that these were actually, truly, good girls. Girls who would never in a million years intend to hurt anyone’s feelings. Girls who are too little to understand that their innocent whispering could be noticed, let alone misconstrued. Girls who have never seen a half-purple face before and are simply trying to figure out what might have happened to it by talking about it together. Girls who are just old enough to start innocently adopting those chattering female mannerisms that carry such baggage for those of us who survived junior high.
So, I sat down at our table and ate dinner like an adult. Every once in a while I glanced over to observe the girls, and they seemed to be normal. I’m not sure exactly what that means (like how nasty the normal ones can get), but at least they weren’t running around hitting old ladies or laughing at people in wheelchairs. So, maybe I can give them some room to be curious.
I guess I’m learning that it’s a lot easier to handle the questions with humor, than with grace…
Okay, I chickened out.
I was going to talk to Addy about her stain, in order to preempt any comments from the other kids at preschool. (“Why is your face pink?” “What’s on your face?”) But, when I’ve seen her get questions in the past, she has generally just looked blankly at the interrogator and kept playing… so I figured I’d just see if we could keep that ‘blissfully ignorant’ stage going for a while longer.
As far as I can tell, she hasn’t received any comments or questions at preschool – yet. But she had a laser treatment on Monday, so the stain is looking mottled and dark purple. (When the laser kills blood vessels, they get temporarily darker, leaving the stain noticeably darker and bruised for a few days.) She’ll probably get questions today.
So, last night we decided to put it on her radar, and Keith had a “big-girl talk” with her at dinner. “Addy, you know how you had a laser surgery on Monday?” [she nods enthusiastically – she really likes her hospital visits] “Well, you know how your port wine stain is darker now? Like where it’s usually pink, and now it’s more purple?” [she nods blankly…like, what pink?]
So they go to the bathroom, where he holds her in front of the mirror. “See, Addy? You know how normally your port wine stain is a little bit pink? What color is it now?” She lights up like a Christmas tree: “PURPLE!!”
I had forgotten… purple is her second-favorite color. “And, and, and, my nose is PINK!” Pink is her absolute favorite color, ever.
“So you know the other kids at preschool? They – ” “They don’t have purple.” (She says it with sympathy. Poor kids.) “Well, they might ask you why you have purple. Do you know what you’ll say?” “It’s from my laser surgery with doctor Zelickson.”
Okay, so the kid’s picked up more than we’ve given her credit for. She knows and understands that the laser treatments lead to some bruising (about as much as a 3-year old can, I guess), and she knows that other kids don’t get the privilege of sporting pink noses or purple cheeks.
Can’t argue with that, I guess. We’ll see how it goes today; I’ll probably linger over the drop-off, just to watch the other kids’ first impressions, and to see if I can overhear any questions and watch her respond. Given her ‘big-girl talk’ with Daddy last night, I’m not too concerned… just really curious!
Addy has officially started preschool! And aside from the normal mom-isms (“how did she grow up so fast?!”), I’m wondering: how should I handle her stain? She never seems to notice it; she never talks about it at home, she’s never asked us about it. She’s very matter-of-fact when it comes up indirectly (like putting cream on that side of her face after a treatment).
So… do I a) bring it up with her to pre-emptively deal with any potential classmates’ questions? Or b) do I stay mum and just wait for her to ask me?
I’m mildly concerned that if I say nothing, then I’m not preparing her well; after all, I don’t want her to be suddenly surprised by a barrage of questions without warning. (Fast-forward 15 years: “You threw me to the lions that day!”) On the other hand, if I do try to prepare her (like how? role-play? she’s 3…), then am I just planting seeds of worry, making a bigger deal of it than her classmates would?
When she started last Monday, I opted to stay mum. And after two days of preschool (she only goes twice a week), she still seems happy and well-adjusted. Excellent. But… should I still bring it up? After all, aren’t parents supposed to be the first ones to talk to their kids about stuff? “When they offer drugs, just say no.” “When they ask about your face, just say __.” Or does that just give the kid fodder for discussions with their therapist in 20 years?