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The First Haircut

My son was busy prying his fingers – and his grapes – from his nemesis, the Snack-Trap. I stood behind him, ready to trim his hair just enough to stop it from relentlessly tickling his eyeballs.

Then he saw the scissors. He bucked. He arched. He used his snack container as a weapon. He made it impossible for me to get at his hair without taking some skin with me.

At least he was certain that he did not want his hair cut. Me, I was torn. It was the first time that the act of making a decision for my child threw me straight into an existential crisis. Suddenly I doubted not only my skills as a parent, but also my very character and the beliefs that I always thought I held so strongly.

My husband and I are both Sikh – a monothiestic religion born in India’s Punjab region. We have simple tenents: meditate on God’s name; work hard and honestly; share what you have with others. You can generally recognize a Sikh by a few symbols; one of the most visible is a turban, worn most commonly by men, which conceals uncut hair. We keep our hair as a symbol of respect for God and the gifts he’s given us.

Cutting our son’s hair doesn’t necessarily mean we disavowed our religion, because uncut hair isn’t essential to the practice. But it is an important statement that we make to the world. It is our way of showing pride and strength. Here I was in the midst of an act that made me feel weak in my resolve and embarrassed of my faith, when I like to believe that I am neither.

Never mind about me – what did this whole dilemma say about my parenting skills? Parents are really important in Indian culture. They make weighty decisions that can include things like who their children will marry. If my parents or my husband’s parents ever doubted their choice on anything, including what to do with our hair, they never told us. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to know. I like feeling that they are omniscient beings who know themselves and their children better than anyone else and therefore know what’s best for them. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my share of doubts about their decisions and spent much of my teenage years yelling out “You don’t know anything!” before slamming the door for punctuation. But their calm resolution always prevailed.

I didn’t have that same sense of security in myself at all as I stood there with those scissors. Imposing what my husband and I believe onto our child seemed unfair because we were making a choice about his identity without his consent.

I get that this is parenting. The day-to-day things like nutrition or how and when we impart discipline, those decisions I can make without any hesitation. But with things like beliefs and values, those I imagined we would craft together. During pregnancy, I envisioned us evaluating our moral compass as a family and holding long, spirited dinner discussions about culture and society. But I had conveniently factored out the many years that he wouldn’t be able to reason for himself and that we’d make the decisions for him.

The day after our son was born, my husband and I had a talk. What would we do about our son’s hair? We had no idea.

On the one hand, we have this problem: my parents decided to cut my hair when I was born and my husband’s didn’t. In my family, my parents ditched their long locks when they immigrated here. In my husband’s family, many of the men wear turbans. Whichever decision we make, how would we explain why our son looks so different from his own father or from my father?

You’d think that the difference would mean my husband and I had strong opinions about what to do. Nope.

Our indecision was the bastard child of cultural standards – our Indian one and our American one. Uncut hair is part of a Sikh legacy that we would love our son to contribute to. What happens, though, if our son feels differently and buys into an American aesthetic? If we keep his hair and he was to cut it in the future, even if it was his own choice, I’ll selfishly feel like a failure. I’ll feel as though we didn’t give him a strong enough support network. And he’ll undoubtedly feel the dismay of his community.

Of course, I don’t want to open my son to the possibility of being bullied. Around the time we were making our decision, the news had been flooded with reports of a high school boy in Queens getting his turban ripped off and his hair forcibly cut by a classmate.

I was paralyzed by the sheer enormity of what I was doing. Boys with uncut hair stand out. They wear their hair in a top knot, covered by a handkerchief until they are older and then wear a turban. My husband now is proud to sport a turban, but growing up, he said it felt alienating to be the only one who looks a particular way. That is a lot of pressure to put on a kid, he says.

Just after his first birthday, our child’s hair had gotten long enough that it was falling into his eyes and bothering him. We had gone in circles around the question until we couldn’t anymore. So we decided on a stall tactic. We would trim our son’s hair just so he could see but not enough that anyone would notice.

So there we were. Me, frozen with scissors in hand; my child flailing like a rodeo star. Never mind that it was unsafe. Never mind that I would probably screw up the haircut the same way I screwed up my college roommate’s by taking off a little too much and turning a simple trim into a bob. I just couldn’t. I was paralyzed by the sheer enormity of what I was doing.

I put the scissors away that day without making a snip.

That night, after I put my son to bed, I remembered a gift someone gave us that we’ve stored in the closet of my son’s room. In a blue plaid gift box next to a ceramic piggy bank are two smaller containers, each pig shaped and lined with blue satin, one for his first tooth one for his first lock of hair.

We still don’t know how we’re going to handle the hair situation. If we cut it, I’m sure we won’t want to commemorate that. But I imagined that night what it would feel like to open a keepsake with a lock of hair in it decades later. In my mind, I would have forgotten how I lost sleep over the decision. I would’ve forgotten how my hand shook when I held the scissors. I’m sure this one monumental decision would be blurred by others, each more complicated than the last.

I thought of how those ceramic containers were kind of an inappropriate gift when suddenly it occurred to me that one person’s keepsake pig was another person’s albatross – that night, that was the only thing I was certain of.

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