Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Heather Freer Kurut
A few years ago, when our twin girls were just three months old, I took advantage of their then-predictable afternoon nap time to watch the Chris Rock documentary “Good Hair.” I sat with rapt attention, equally fascinated, moved by and, at times, horrified by the lengths we will go to in the name of cultural ideals of beauty.
The irony of a white woman with thick, straight hair – who has donated her own quickly-growing braids multiple times – watching and being moved by Chris Rock’s film was not lost on me. But I am a mommy, too, to two beautiful brown girls with heads of coily curls who arrived to our family through adoption. They share none of my genetic material; not surprisingly, their hair and skin share none of my characteristics.
After finishing the movie, I pledged: “I will spend my life assuring our girls that their skin, their hair and their shape are all perfectly beautiful and exactly as God intended.” (And I put it on social media, so you know I meant business).
I agreed whole-heartedly with Chris Rock’s parting words of wisdom: “What do I tell my daughters? I tell them that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as the stuff inside their heads.”
Then (in hindsight, and much to my chagrin) I simply ignored that stuff on top of their heads.
After all, I assured myself, I had grown up loving to style hair, and eagerly learned tips and tricks at every opportunity. I could French braid with the best of them, knew how to cut hair with scissors and with clippers, and could do “period” hairstyles for theatrical productions – French twists! 1940’s up-dos, with snoods! Pin curls and finger waves! Braids and buns and wigs galore!
I had even earned college credit and been employed doing hair design for shows. So, I did what I knew to do with kid-hair – I shampooed their hair daily with baby shampoo, and combed it, and then just kind of let it be. Even now, as I write this, I cringe.
My husband and I have a running joke: that our girls will, during their teenage years, look back upon photos from their first two years, see the state of their hair, and immediately stop speaking to either of us. (My darling girls – we are so sorry. We simply didn’t know.)
The first time someone addressed the state of their hair in public was at a restaurant. A lovely older woman approached our table to say hello. She smiled at the girls, who promptly smiled back. She remarked that we made a beautiful family. We beamed. After all, this was a welcome change from the strangers who’d tried to figure out if we were biologically related.
A few minutes later, I ran into the same woman in the ladies’ room. “You know, honey,” she said to me, gently touching my arm, as I eagerly anticipated more compliments, “those babies’ heads are DRY. You’ve got to start getting some moisture to that hair.”
I went back to our table, red-faced, and a bit indignant. She was a stranger! She didn’t know me! I shared the bathroom interaction with my husband, liberally peppered with lots of “can-you-believe-its” and a few “I-would-NEVER…s”. To his credit, he gently asked, “Well, should we be doing something different?”
What I was too proud to realize, of course, is that she may not have known me, but she did know their hair.
A few weeks later, in a hair care aisle at Target, I spotted a woman with hair just like our girls, only her coily spirals were shiny, and defined, with tell-tale healthy bounce. After staring for a little too long at this stranger’s magnificent crown of curls, I glanced past her to her cart and spotted an adorable little girl, with hair perfectly parted into two round, springy puffs. Same curl texture as our girls. Same shiny bounce as her mom.
“Pardon me…” I opened, “Can I ask you a question?” The woman shot me a sideways glance, perhaps unsure if agreeing would open a proverbial can of worms. After a hesitant “okay,” I asked for haircare guidance, explaining the similarity of textures, yet the noticeable difference in condition of our respective children’s hair.
“You’re not using baby shampoo, are you?” she asked, her raised eyebrow and side-eye as defined as when I initially approached her. “Not anymore!” I confidently responded. She spent the next several minutes showing me different types of products while I eagerly took notes on my phone. She talked about the importance of moisture, explained the benefits of going sulfate-free, and shared a phrase that would later change my life: protective style. I thanked her for her advice and filled my basket with products she had recommended.
I came home from Target a bit overwhelmed with information, but equally motivated to learn. That same afternoon, I ordered two books (Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care by Rory Mullen, and Come Rain or Come Shine by Rachel Garlinghouse, both written by mamas through adoption). I found the blogs Mixed Family Life and De Su Mama, and pored over their haircare tips and tricks.
In hindsight, I only followed some of the recommendations. When washing and styling the girls’ hair, there was a lot of trial and error; mostly error. The condition of their hair was improving, for sure, but they still had a lot of dryness and breakage. Though the books and blogs were (and still are) tremendously helpful, I knew I needed more help. We signed up for a haircare class, sponsored by ORS Olive Oil products, at our adoption agency. I was invigorated, and ready. I clapped victoriously when we completed the class registration form.
And then, as happens from time to time amid the busy-ness of parenting and working and spouse-ing, I goofed. Though I had the class scheduled in my calendar, I had forgotten to set an alert. When I realized that we had missed it, I cried. Cried as though I had committed some egregious criminal act against our children.
My mama-guilt at an all-time high, I wept to my husband. “What if they go to Middle School having to ask friends’ moms or, worse yet, their teenage friends to fix their hair because their mom is clueless? What if they resent me for letting their hair get so out of control? What if they are ashamed of me?”
My level-headed, stoic husband – my voice of reason when I am creating catastrophes out of conflicts – gently asked:
“Why don’t you ask people who love you for help?”
Tucking a teeny bit of pride away, I sent a Facebook message to a group of strong, loving African American women I feel close with, each of whom has beautiful, natural hair. “Hi ladies,” I wrote through tears. “I am writing to ask you for some advice.”
My former student Jessica (now an accomplished adult) responded immediately: “What’s up”… and I launched right into it, sniffling as I typed. Within moments, I also received responses from a classmate from undergrad (Nikki), and three other former students (Ivory, Marcia and Sharice).
In several paragraphs, I sheepishly admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing. I, who, for a lifetime, had prided myself on being a good student, had read books and blogs and tried things, and still felt lost. I felt like I had failed.
Without an ounce of judgement or condescension, they each offered input and made suggestions. They shared details from their own natural hair journeys, and asked what we were doing that had been successful. They recommended products and styles, video tutorials and continued support. Though this group message thread was two years ago, I routinely re-read much of what they wrote.
I follow their tried-and-true guidelines for cleansing, and caring for these precious curls. I will forever be grateful for both their patience and their sage advice. Likewise, I am grateful for the stranger who approached me with gentle concern, for my husband’s careful prompting, for the woman in the Target haircare aisle, and for the online and print resources available to parents whose children have hair texture that differs so vastly from their own. The combined efforts of the people who helped us have resulted in phenomenal hair growth, and shiny, happy, curly heads of hair.
Though it has been over two years since our family’s hair care journey began, I continue to learn as much as I can about braiding, gentle cleansing, preventing breakage and protective styling. As is the case in many other families’ homes, hair washing, moisturizing and styling is a weekly event.
Our girls can relate to the main character in the children’s book I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; they identify with both her impatience at the time it takes to detangle, wash (or co-wash) and style, and the pride in the shiny, braided product. In what I consider to be the ultimate compliment, a co-worker recently referred a woman to me for haircare advice for her multi-racial family. In talking with her, I realized how very much I have learned… but I’m not done learning yet.
Most recently, we took our girls to Aishia, an African American stylist, for an end trim and consultation. Hearing her remark that their hair is healthy and strong made me beam with pride. Her confirmation of our hair care routine was reassuring, and her suggestions for products were spot on.
She recommended another stylist, Lauren, for a braided protective style. Our girls were champs for a whopping three hours (total) in Lauren’s chair, during which time I asked what must have been hundreds of questions about comb tails and parts and non-tearing elastics. While at the salon, an older woman approached me and said, “What a beautiful family you have. Their hair looks fantastic.”
I recently watched “Good Hair” again, and found it as moving as my first viewing. I agree that what’s inside my daughter’s heads is far more important that what’s atop their heads… and yet, I know that how I treat their hair is pivotal on the path to helping them love all of themselves. And after all, that’s what I pledged to do.
This time around, my favorite moment from the film was from Chris Rock’s interview with Maya Angelou. Dispensing some of her trademark wisdom, Dr. Angelou remarked: “I would say that hair is a woman’s glory and that you share that glory with your family.” Ultimately, styling and protecting our girls’ hair is an act of love, and we do it gladly.
To our darling daughters:
Daddy and I are in awe of the glory of your hair. Your curls could run the world.
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When she’s not hanging out with her family, Heather Freer Kurut works as a Middle School Principal and a Yoga teacher. She volunteers as a speaker for the Cradle’s Adoption Education program. She and a colleague created a workshop to help schools craft curricula that works for families formed in all types of ways. Heather Kurut has written previously for the Portrait of an Adoption series.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter