I fell in love with a photo I snapped of my daughter at a Christmas day wedding just a month after she’d turned four. I printed the photo and it now sits on a shelf above my desk, framed in silver. It’s difficult to describe precisely what the image suggests to me, but a lot of it has to do with her hair. It’s shaped into a silky confection of a bob, some platonic ideal of how hair should look: neat but glamorous, the light sumptuously dancing in its waves, controlled, sporty, elegant. It is swept back on one side with a barrette, and her face looks up toward the light. She is wearing a frock of tulle and taffeta- she might be in a fairy tale, or a moonlit bay in Maine, or an A.R. Gurney play.
My daughter used to love having her hair cut. She developed an obsession with scissors and their potential relationship to hair when she was only two. She would place her dolls side by side on wooden chairs, drape them with dish towels, and manipulate her father’s long and very real scissors with preternatural dexterity. We told her the hair would not grow back. She was indifferent to this; she just wanted to cut hair, any hair, all hair.
After the bath she would ask me to trim her hair. She’d sit on a towel draped on my bed and I’d begin the haphazard process, cutting along the bottom of her curls. Her hair was wavy enough to be forgiving of my reckless, uneven intrusions. It would fall in satiny clumps around her and she’d squeal, then run through the apartment spinning her head to feel the lightness of her curls.
Then came the bob I captured in that wedding photo. A professional had cut it this time, and my daughter hated what she saw in the mirror, deeming it severe and somehow too deliberate. She didn’t use those words, but I knew what she meant when she complained.
With that, she never wanted to cut her hair again. For a long time, I didn’t worry. I assumed she’d forget the trauma of the salon cut and long for the thrill of scissors in her hair once more. But as that adorable bob grew out, her resolve only hardened. And I began to fret.
Why is her hair such a big deal to me? Why do I want my daughter to hew to the image in the silver frame? It’s been two and a half years and in that time a struggle has played out between my child and me. She will not submit to a trim. She now looks more Haight-Ashbury than A.R. Gurney.
I have imagined cutting it when she falls asleep. It’s a terrible thing to consider, much less admit to. But—her hair. The curls are gone, the weight of two years’ growth has pulled them out. It lies flat; it does not frame her face. So what? She looks different. She looks older. “Can I comb it into pigtails?” I beg. “What about braids? Or ribbons?” No. She likes it down, untended, wild.
“If you won’t trim it,” I say, “then you have to let me condition and comb it at night.” My daughter accepts this, as a way to ward off more demands that she visit the hairdresser. It takes a while to tease out the knots and the rapid motion of my comb slowly working its way down the hair shaft makes her nervous. “You aren’t cutting my hair back there, are you?” my daughter asks. I assure her I’m not, feigning shock that she would think I could commit such treachery; nonetheless, she knows my heart telepathically.
It isn’t just the hair. Something is shifting. Last weekend we received a box of hand-me-downs and before I’d had time to vet them she was gleefully sorting her favorites—”Look Mommy! It says “Star” in sparkles!”
No, no, no! I wanted to scream. That is not what my daughter wears! But it is now. This morning she went to school in a t-shirt studded with sequins and a dung-colored pair of slim-fit pants, her unruly mane cascading down her back. She knew I silently disapproved, and I considered this a personal failure, but slim-fit pants strike me as both confining and too mature. I see in my mind’s eye a Bonwit Teller dress from my youth, something A line and tailored, maybe it’s one I saw my mother wearing in a photo circa 1946. Maybe I’d like my daughter’s clothing, even the very impression she makes, to work as a time machine, forging a connection with a grandmother otherwise lost.
I don’t think she wants my approval; I think she wants me not to care. She doesn’t want me to have a vision of her that does not agree with her own, as if my fantasy could coopt her singular vision of herself. Perhaps it can. When she was a baby, I loved choosing the hats. I put her in sun bonnets, the jauntiest caps, knit beanies with ears. But I knew how important separation and differentiation was, and I prepared myself to let go.
Yet here I am, tangled up in her hair.
I wrote to a friend about it and she wrote back, “Mothers care a lot about hair.” I don’t think I see my daughter as an extension of me, but perhaps in presentation I am unable to fully separate from her. If she is messy, I look messy too. I know a mother who called her pediatrician about her daily battle over clothes with her six-year-old. The doctor asked, “Do you think you look less in control if she leaves the house in a tutu?” “Yes!” the mother replied. Is it simply about control though? I want my daughter to wear clothes that match her youth, her freshness, her recent arrival in the world. If she wears trends, she seems prematurely self-conscious, whereas timeless clothes suggest a freedom from worldly preoccupation.
Maybe that’s what it’s about—time. The longer her hair grows—the more I don’t recognize the clothes and the affect and the expressions she brings home, the more immediate is the sensation of time overcoming me like a riptide. I don’t want the photo under glass; I want the whole child imprisoned there.
They say you must remind yourself that your children do not belong to you.
The truth is more complex. She is more my little girl now than she was as a less formed four year old. Together, we peruse the shelves of the local bookshop, delighting in the first edition Narnia books. “It has to be Pauline Baynes, Mommy.” She knows who illustrated the original Narnia; she is very much my daughter. I recognize the inside of her more and more.
This weekend, I have a haircut appointment. I asked my daughter if she’d like to go, because she still loves watching haircuts.
“No thanks, Mama,” she said.
Then—”I wish you wouldn’t cut your hair.”
We are forever snarled in each other’s hair, my daughter and I, invested in the consistency of the people we know best and need most.
I wish you wouldn’t cut your hair. Oh kid. It cuts both ways.
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