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Karin Kasdin

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What Have You Done To Your Hair? A Question Only A Mother Dares Ask

Posted: 12/11/2011 10:48 am

I cried when each of my boys had their first haircut. Because they were growing up. But also because their hair was just so dang gorgeous, and I knew this was the end of its baby splendor.

Yes, I needed to get a life.

That is Karin Kasdin's conclusion in this essay, about why mothers seem to take their children's hair -- or lack thereof -- so very personally. Karin had her first grandchild a few months ago, and will be writing regularly over at HuffPost50 about the particular joys and challenges of watching your children have children. But we also plan to welcome her here often. Because grandparents are parents, too. -- Lisa Belkin, Parentlode

*****

My resplendent four-month-old granddaughter is as bald as a marble egg, and everyone just loves to comment about it. "Tell her to grow some hair," were my mother's parting words to me as I left for the airport to visit my new little love who lives on the opposite coast.

Several times over the last four months we have held her perfect head to the window to scrutinize her follicles. No sign of action. Our family has speculated about her hair color with the zeal of a fantasy football league analyzing their odds. My mother hopes the baby has inherited our family's redheaded gene. I say she'd make a magnificent blond like her mother. Are we all insane?

What is it about mothers and hair?

Last year, when I visited my own mother who lives a mere 300 miles away, she greeted me by reporting that my hair was maroon. Ten minutes later she changed her assessment to burgundy. By the time I left for home she had decided my hair was purple. "Whatever it is," she said, "It isn't the lovely shade of red you were born with."   Well, no it's not...perhaps because I wasn't born with DYE in my hair.

When I was 10 years old, Mom began to warn me that no colorist would ever be able to match my natural hue, and she continued to warn me intermittently for years.  More than the driver's license test or the SAT exams or even the gum surgery I had in the eleventh grade, I dreaded the arrival of my first gray hair.  When it arrived, along with a few hundred steely friends, I wandered from one salon to another in a desperate search for a colorist who could make me look like I wasn't seeing a colorist. Finally, after that deflating visit with Mom, I met Robin. I brought her a photograph of the young woman I was before Mother Nature spat on my head, and Robin matched my original color perfectly!  I look mah-ve-lous. I may walk the 300 miles to show my mother.

It seems we start to obsess over our children's hair even before their bilirubin test results are in. "Wow, what a great head of hair," we say, or "Look at that cute little baldy." 

I was 15 before I was allowed to wear my hair the way I liked it, long and blown out stick straight with a part down the middle like all the other girls in the school and in the world in 1969.  I'm 56 years old now and still avoid the color red like the plague because mother always insisted redheads look ridiculous in red. Tell that to Nicole Kidman who wears red frequently. Trust me, if I could bring myself to dress in scarlet, I'd look like her twin.

My mother is by no means an anomaly. When groups of women friends get together they often talk about their mothers, and the subject of hair inevitably pops up.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and author of You're Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, says "Women have told me of their mothers criticizing almost every aspect of their lives: weight, home decoration, how they raise their kids-plus trivial things such as how much salt they put in the soup. But the topic I have heard more than any other is hair."

She adds:

Mothers and daughters agree on what the hurtful conversations are, but disagree on who introduced the note of contention because they have different views of what the words imply. A daughter may interpret a hair comment as criticism while her mother feels the same comment indicates how much she cares. She was just making a suggestion, trying to help. Isn't that a mother's job?

I swore to myself long ago that if I ever had daughters, no matter what it took, I would refrain from commenting on their hair. When my third child turned out to be a third boy I was relieved to have been spared the whole hair thing. What a shock to discover that boys can also have some pretty serious hair issues. I am sorry to confess to a stray critical hair comment now and then. When my redheaded son, Dan, dyed his hair blond in high school, I verbalized my derision. When the youngest one's spikes get too high, I suggest a trim. For a while, my middle son wore his hair very short. You just don't do that to a mother who came of age in the late sixties! 

I don't want to be the old woman Tannen wrote about in an LA Times< article a few years ago. The woman was in the hospital on her deathbed, hooked up to numerous tubes and enduring a raging fever. When her daughter leaned over the bedrail to kiss her mother's forehead, the old woman's first words were, "When was the last time you did your roots?"

So as for my granddaughter, bald is beautiful. Bald is magnificent. When her hair does come in, be it red, blond, blue, or chartreuse, she will be no more beautiful than she is right now.