Connie Earl is a family physician and the mother of two magical boys. She lives and practices medicine in Sonoma County, California.
This weekend, my son asked me to cut his hair short. He had just taken a bath, and I had washed and combed his hair out in anticipation of our routine, chin length, skater boy style haircut, when he said, “I want you to cut it this short, Mama,” holding a chunk of hair one inch out from his head. I got very quiet, thought for a few seconds and then asked, “Are you sure?”
After several clear confirmations from him, I held my breath and cautiously made the first cut. As the long hair tumbled down the sheet he was wrapped in, Jenner giggled and said, “That’s a lot of hair!” I told him that there was a lot more where that came from and kept cutting. I cut and cut, watching a whole new shape of his head form before my eyes. Soon we were surrounded by his beautiful locks – highlighted blond by the sun, some curly, some wavy – and more kept pouring down on the sheet and the floor as he laughed and batted it away from under the sheet.
At last came the time for me to check to make sure the sides were even, and as I knelt down in front of my little boy and saw his face clearly for the first time, naked of his hair, open, smiling, my eyes immediately welled with tears. I looked at my husband Russ, who saw right away that I was starting to lose it, and we locked eyes and smiled mournfully as tears spilled down my cheeks, and I went back to the task of making things even and finished the cut. He had never sat this still or handled a haircut this well before. He was downright gleeful as he shed these layers of his younger self.
When it was over, I told him to go look in the mirror and tell me what he thought. He ran into the bathroom, stepped up on the stool in front of the sink, giggled and then said, in a surprised voice, “I’m Jenner!” He told me he liked it and got ready for bed.
That night, after he fell asleep, Russ and I stared at him in his bed, barely recognizing this seemingly grown little boy, a face so open to the world now, and I found myself sobbing on Russ’s shoulder, barely able to handle the enormity of the change.
For years, we received commentary on this hair. It had been blond, and curly, and gorgeous, and down to his mid-back until a year and a half ago. He was stunning with that hair (even, in my opinion, when it was unkempt and he refused to let us comb it out). He has always had thick, grown-up kind of hair; he never had the wispy, downy hair that other babies have. It required maintenance. And he loved it, and we loved it. When he wanted it out of the way, we put it in a ponytail, “like Mama’s,” he would say. People stopped us on the street over this hair. It was the hair I always wanted, I would tell people. Some people in our lives were offended that we left it long for that much time and let it be known. Few were neutral, but just about everybody had some commentary.
When he began to outright refuse washing and brushing, we adopted the somewhere-between-chin-and-shoulder length style, and he rocked that for over a year. Topped with a ski cap, he couldn’t be any cuter. Granted, he’s far too cautious to have even stood up on his skateboard yet, but he sure looked the part, carrying it to the park. And now it’s gone, all gone.
Lest you think I’m too vain, this hair goes a lot deeper than aesthetics. This hair was his protection for a long time.
You see, Jenner has autism, and he sometimes has a hard time with close interactions. He struggles to make eye contact, and he gets overwhelmed easily in groups. He passes really well in a crowd for a while, but with time, it’s pretty clear that he’s moving to a different rhythm than his peers. When he has needed to retreat, he could hide behind that hair. We had a few teachers suggest to us in the past that we needed to cut his hair so that he couldn’t hide, so he would be forced to be more open in his social interactions. Some really felt it got on the way. But Russ and I knew him, and we knew that he needed to be able to retreat; the more space he had to retreat, the more he chose to come out. We gave him the option of long or short every haircut, and he had always chosen long. He has challenges communicating his thoughts all the time, but his preferences on his hair have always been crystal clear to us.
But this weekend, he decided he was done hiding. He is putting himself out there. He wants to be a part of things, warts and all, and he’s jumping in with glee.
And I am terrified.
Because I’m not ready. I’m not ready to let go of that protection for him. I’m not ready to see him get hurt, and I’m not ready to let go of his hand and let him try and sometimes fail in the sea of his peers. I’m not ready to watch kids try to understand his convoluted sentence structure, or patches of echolalia, repeating book and movie lines over and over. I’m not ready for him to hear the words I dread him hearing: “weird,” “stupid,” “insult-du-jour-for-odd-smart-kid.”
One particularly inarticulate and insensitive employee at the regional center where we went for services for Jenner when we first suspected a neurodevelopmental issue told us that our child would need to be in special education forever. One of her selling arguments was “kids can be mean, you know.” I was livid after that interaction. She knew nothing about my child after her 45 minutes with him. How dare she? Jenner has so far been so much better served in a classroom of his peers, and from occupational therapist to speech therapist to preschool teachers, the consensus has always been the same – he needs to be with his neurotypical peers. And so far, we have been smart, and we have been lucky. We have chosen excellent programs for him, with teachers who get him and are willing to put in the work. Yet, in my darkest of moments, I hear that repeating phrase, “Kids are mean, kids are mean, kids are mean.” We’ve already seen it on playgrounds. And until recently, Jenner didn’t pick up on it.
But now, his eyes are open, and he’s choosing to face it. He’s standing so bravely, and so vulnerably, and so lovingly, and asking to be included. And no matter what my fears are, no matter my reservations and my desire to stop time, it’s my job to stand there with him, to help him develop the tools he needs, and to let him run into that world on his own.
But I still have a lock of that hair for my own protection.