In this corner, the defending champion, weighing in at 32 pounds, is my daughter, dressed in a menacing Princess Tiana shirt, jeans, and pink boots.
In the opposite corner — the challenger — is me, the mom, weighing in at 127 pounds, in a gray bathrobe from Target and old pajamas.
We’re surrounded by a jar of leave-in conditioner, a set of combs all sizes and shapes, a two-sided brush, child-sized scrunchies, duck-bill clips, and rubber bands. We’re ready to for a battle. We’re ready to do my daughter’s hair.
I’m hoping to get her to sit still long enough to section and braid her hair into four ponytails — the simplest style I can do for a three-year-old with a thick head of hair (short of cutting it off or allowing her to grow dreadlocks). I fear the de-tangling, combing, and brushing that lies ahead.
The clock starts at 1:07 p.m. I make the first move: “If you’re good, you’ll get a treat when we’re done,” I tell my daughter.
The bribing starts early. It has to. (Bribing is what got us through the first part of the struggle: washing her hair.)
And so the battle begins.
Everything was fine with my daughter’s hair — until she turned two. One day, while watching Barney, she started screaming when I tried to part her hair. My husband came home and couldn’t understand what was going on. “I’m just trying to comb it,” I said in my defense. He lay down on the floor to distract my daughter with silly faces and every toy in our apartment. When she continued to yell at the top of her lungs, he got irritated and gave up. We took a break.
This continued every day when it came time to tame my daughter’s thick tresses. From the outside, her hair looks like it wouldn’t cause a problem. But in reality, it’s much like trying to comb an SOS pad with a needle. She freaked at the sight of a comb — only a soft brush would do — but her hair had lost its baby-fine texture, and a brush just wasn’t enough. I tried to maintain simple styles during the week, making it easier for the both of us until the dreaded Sunday wash. (Yes, that means a weekly washing; my daughter and I are black women. Some of us don’t wash our hair as often as other women of different cultures since it doesn’t get oily or dirty in the same way — or at the same rate.)
But what really gets me about all this is that when all is said and done, someone will look at my daughter’s hair and say, “It took you three hours to do that?” All I can say is, “Wanna have a go?”
I spent a year and a half listening to my daughter scream, yell, and cry, and so did our neighbors.
Once we moved to West Point I feared the military police would come to our house when it came time to do her hair. Later on, I prayed that they would. I wanted a witness to this, documentation that our daughter was a drama queen and I wasn’t simply going crazy. As she grew, she started kicking me and eventually running away when I approached her with the comb. I asked my own hairdressers for advice and was told that most kids tend to act up around their mothers but wouldn’t do it with someone else — and my daughter was somewhat better when her locks were in the care of a professional. We didn’t have the money, however, to keep bringing a three-year-old on twice-monthly salon visits. Plus, they said most girls went through a phase of tender-headedness but grew out of it eventually.
I came to assume that I passed on a tender scalp to my daughter, if that were even possible. The truth is, I wasn’t — and still am not — much better about my own locks. Unlike many African-American women, my hair resisted a perm; I was forced to wear it natural. Thus, everything, including air, was its enemy. Braids became my best friend. I, too, was extremely sensitive to pain when I was younger and used to cry the entire time I got my hair done. My mother used to put up with it until I was eight; from then on she sent me to the hairdresser because I acted up so badly.
I suppose my daughter is behaving similarly (despite the fact that even my mother says she takes it to a whole different level). But if we do follow the same hair trajectory, the antics will lessen over time as they did with me. I learned how to manage the pain. I had no choice. She will have no choice. Plus, I know she likes the way she looks once her hair’s up when all is said and done.
It’s now 4:02 p.m., and my opponent doesn’t seem to be losing her fight. I turn to give my husband the look. The don’t-you-go-anywhere look. My corner needs help, my corner needs reinforcement. I need him close by, just in case our daughter bolts for the door.
“Are you cwazy?” my daughter screams.
I turn around to my husband. “Did she say what I just think she said?” he asks.
We both start to laugh hysterically — and so does our daughter. Things have been so tense in the house, and all for the love of hair. It’s either laugh or cry. My daughter repeats this question over and over, until I almost pee my pants. Just one ponytail to go — and things are already looking up.