Pink rainbow panties over her diaper and a huge hair flower: That’s what passes for a swimsuit (or “smimsmoop”) for Jelly Bean and watching her frolic in the end-of-summer 93-degree weather it seemed perfectly appropriate. Diaper and undies — who says you can’t have it both ways? In an attempt to make our last day before school starting even more Rockwellian, I brought out a big bowl of watermelon and the kids and I sat on the edge of the garden wall and ate it. But all was not as sweatily serene as it seemed.
Jelly Bean has always been a child with an eye for detail and so I wasn’t surprised when she pointed to my leg and said “Mommy yeg shiny!” (Too true. I sweat like a dude.) But then she pointed to her own “yeg” and mumbled something. I leaned in closer. “What did you say, sweetie?”
My heart stopped. “Did you just say your leg is too big?!”
“No,” she shook her head adamantly and I sighed with relief. “I say STUPID!”
Oh well that’s better.
“Mommy yeg shiny. My yeg STOOOOOPID.” As I looked closer I noticed she was covering up a birth mark with her wee hands.
“You don’t like your birthmark?” I said, trying to ignore the absurdity of comparing thighs with a toddler. She nodded. Round, brown, flat, about the size of a dime — she’s had it since, duh, the day she was born. I don’t remember ever talking with her about it; it’s just kind of a large freckle and never seemed like a big deal. But apparently it was to her.
“Go away!” she replied, almost pleading, as she tried to scrub it off her leg. “UGLY.”
“But honey, it’s not a flaw – you were made that way. It’s part of you and part of what makes you beautiful!” I exclaimed.
My husband, working in the garden nearby, added dryly, “Maybe mommy should listen to her own advice.”
I glared at him. “That’s different. She’s absolutely perfect! But I’m …”
He silenced me with a stare. “You’re what, exactly? And remember, she’s listening.”
I never did finish that sentence.
We’re all born with some kind of “birthmark,” something that makes us unique, something we can’t change even if we wanted to. Whether it’s the visible kind (like my double ankle bones- creepy!) or something less immediately obvious (like my anxiety and depression issues — I always say my family tree is a weeping willow!), our birthmarks make us, well, us.
But acknowledging that something is unchangeable is not the same as accepting it as part of yourself. I’ve spent a large part of my life hating things about myself that not even the best surgeon could excise. And of course, even in the midst of my hatred, I realize that these things make me who I am. (Let’s be honest, if I weren’t nuts I pretty much would have nothing to write about.) These two facts, taken together, have made for a tumultuous relationship with myself. How do I change a lifetime of low self-esteem? Strangely I’m learning a lot about this from my kids – the very people I’m supposed to be teaching this stuff to…
My son was born with eleven fingers. He had two fully formed thumbs on his left hand — a condition I’d never even heard another parent talk about, despite it being relatively common, until the sister on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras spinoff Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo had a baby with the same (dis?)figurement. The new baby’s family was at first reported to have mocked the infant but they recently released a statement saying, “We have embraced [the abnormality]. It makes Kaitlyn more special to us.” (Also, just for the record, I have never watched either of these shows. Not that I don’t have my own crap TV I’m addicted to, just that these shows aren’t one of them…)
I can understand their ambivalence, honestly. I still remember the shock I felt when I saw my infant’s strange hand. Despite conventional wisdom telling new parents that the first thing you do is count your baby’s fingers and toes, my husband and I didn’t notice until he was two days old. (In my defense, babies keep their hands in fists all the time!) And when I did notice? It was a full body shudder. But very quickly we grew used to it (it helped that I found him utterly adorable in every way) and the only time I even remembered that he had it was when I noticed a stranger’s eyes widen in shock when they first saw it.
By the time he was a year old, we had an important decision to make. The doctors told us if we were going to “fix” it we needed to do it while he was still very young so his nerves would regenerate properly. So we did it. I took my baby in with eleven fingers and after a seven hour surgery that I can only imagine was like playing Operation on a board shrunk five sizes, he came back out with ten. Just like everyone else.
I don’t know if we made the right decision.
At eight years old, he doesn’t know either. Just a couple of months ago he came running up to me crying. “Why did you cut off my magic, mommy?!?” For a brief panicky second I thought he was referring to his circumcision but then he continued. “My bonus thumb had all my super powers! And now I’m just a MORTAL!” As I comforted my crying son, I remembered our decision process. My husband and I didn’t know if this little person would be the type to love his differences or to be embarrassed by them and it seemed safer to just make him “normal” in this one regard because surely life would find plenty of other ways to make him different.
Truth to be told, I kind of miss his bonus thumb. Today he’s a child with a huge personality. I think he would have handled it well. Maybe it would have made him a basketball superstar or a genius pianist. Perhaps in trying to shield him from the cruelties of life, I only maimed him. Even though I did it out of love. Or perhaps someday he’ll thank me. (Did I save him from a lifetime of being The Six-Fingered Man for Halloween every year?) Maybe it’s both. Like so many parenting decisions, I’ll probably never know.
But I do know this: I love all the “birthmarks” my children have been born with. I love them because of their uniqueness, not in spite of it. And I need to learn to love myself with the same eyes.
Do you have a birthmark — either visible or not? Have you tried to change it? Cover it up? Ignore it? Flaunt it? What would you do if you had a kid with eleven fingers??