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Mom Talk: Teaching My Long-Haired Boy Confidence

Written by Kate MacLean

Photography by Photograph by Kate MacLean

For those who may have missed the first piece in our new “Mom Talk” column, we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. In today’s piece, we discuss a predicament that, for some, is all-too familiar. Vermont mama, writer, and farmer Kate MacLean discusses raising her long-haired son, and the that stigma that coincides. -JKM

I was discreetly wedging a pouch of jelly beans between the bulk bags of rye and spelt flours at check-out when a severely-bespectacled, Joan Didion-esque woman caught my eye and smiled: “Your daughter is beautiful”. I turned from my jelly beans to study the child in question; fingers inexplicably covered in charcoal; face dressed with the morning’s egg yolk and sweater buttons askew. The combination produced an unnervingly deranged air. “Thank you. My son. Yes, he is beautiful”. I was grateful that despite her impeccable ensemble (black cashmere jumper; enviably devoid of dog hair and spit up) she could appreciate the beauty of a grubby child. “Oh, your son. I’m sorry”. She stammered. “It’s the hair.” Narrowing her eyes at me, and then at the boy, she was palpably upset we had betrayed her so.

It’s the irrepressible thing about hair; if you don’t intervene with scissors it will grow; regardless of its host’s gender and in defiance of societal expectations. As you get older, hair length blessedly matters less, but young children are expected to fall into concise boxes—blue shirt and closely cropped, pink dress with braids. As though children IRL were mere extensions of their emojis.

Like most babies, our son, Leland was born without much hair. What he had fell off after a few weeks of obsessive kissing from his Earth chaperones. What grew next was thick and dark, like his father’s before Nick went intentionally, but inevitably, bald. By the summer of his first year, Leland’s head was a mess of dense, large, blonde curls. In the proceeding years, they have begun their descent down his back. By age 2, when brushed wet, his hair reached his bum. It was, objectively speaking, beautiful.

We resolved to cut it only if 1. Leland requested we do so or 2. we failed to keep it reasonably free of tangles and food.

My husband and I are farmers, living in a persistent filth [that I imagine to be bohemian, but more closely resembles chaos]. We bathed and brushed our boy religiously, but eventually the hair succumbed to the bedlam of our daily lives. We agreed an aggressive trim was in order. He could have long hair, but we needed to be reasonable. I don’t fancy myself modern enough for dreads on a three-year-old.

Leland and Nick resolved to cut his hair together. Leland took to the front bits with dull pink scissors and a 3-year-old’s restraint. Nick trimmed several inches off the back. His hair still rests well below his shoulders and his bangs are comically Picasso in their angles. The effect is of his own creation; ridiculous and unique. Imagine the frizz and feral of Heath Ledger in The Patriot fused with HRC’s bob of the early 90s.

We have been mindful—to an insufferably righteous degree—in our desire to raise a self-assured boy. Like any parent though, we want an easy time for him in the world; to fit in. When shopping for a coat last month, I mumbled a lie about inventory when he expressed great interest in the pink/purple flowered option. How could I really give a damn? I may be open about hair length, but I shamefully hold my own biases about gender that I need to overcome.

Leland started preschool this fall. I was certain he would be mocked for his hair, or his preference for sparkly crocs or his habit of yelping like a dog when he’s nervous. Defying my expectations, the children are accepting of Leland’s oddities because, quite simply, they are 3. Each has their individual set of bizarre and wonderful quirks. Leland is Leland, as much as Aaron is Aaron and Naomi is Naomi. At this age, kids have few expectations of their contemporaries. The ones they do have are parroted directly from their parents.

Only adults comment on the discrepancy between my son’s hair and his purported boyhood. The typical encounters are subtler than that of my opening heroine. The confusion bothers me little; I recognize my own prejudices in theirs. Following these, I am diligent in my explanations to Leland’s wrinkled brow why hair length is subjective and ultimately meaningless.

It is my job as Mom to empower my kids to face the inevitable bias and bullshit (including my own) they will meet in the world. I hope, through this Exercise in Hair, to forge a few of Leland’s tools for navigating society as his true self. Ultimately, I want him to let his freak flag fly. I just need to be careful I’m not the one standing in his way.

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