My 5-year-old son Peter has a large birthmark on his neck. It’s called a congenital nevus. It’s light brown, a little bumpy to the touch, and approximately the shape of South America. It covers about half of his neck, and besides his enormous, luminous eyes, it’s the first thing people notice when they meet him.
Peter’s birthmark is not the kind that fades in time (we get asked this often). It’s there for the long haul, and will grow as he grows (it already has). Thankfully, it has caused him minimal medical issues so far: It chafes and bleeds if it gets too dry, so we apply an ointment prescribed by his dermatologist to keep it soft and moist.
If he wants his birthmark removed, it will require surgery — perhaps several surgeries. Although we are open to this option if he chooses it in the future, it’s not something we are considering now. We want him to be able to make a big decision like that when he’s more mature and can weigh the pros and cons.
So, for now, my sweet, bright-eyed boy lives life as someone with a noticeable skin difference. And he’s gotten pretty used to the whole thing by now. Most grown-ups are too polite to ask him what his birthmark is, but he’s used to kids asking him about it, especially when they meet him for the first time.
When he was very little and kids asked him what that brown spot on his neck was, I would usually answer for him. But as early as I could, I taught him to simply respond with “It’s my birthmark,” or something along those lines.
A couple of times, kids have been a little less than kind about it. There have been a few kids who asked if it was “dirt” or “poop,” and that upset him. Thankfully, those incidents have been far and few between, and I was relieved that this year — his first year in public school — he wasn’t bullied at all because of his birthmark.
Instead, it was more of a nuisance for him. “Whyyyy do I always have to tell people?” he asked me a few times. I explained that his birthmark is an unusual kind, one that most people don’t usually see — and that kids naturally notice differences.
I share in his annoyance, too. I want him to know that feelings of frustration about his birthmark are normal feelings to have. I want him to know that if anyone ever is unkind to him about it, he should tell me right away, and that we will address it.
He knows what bullying is, and that I am his biggest supporter when it comes to protecting him against it. His teachers and school administration feel the exact same way. I know that I can’t shield him from the pain that something like an obvious skin difference might bring him in the future, but he knows that we all have his back and will give anything in the world to support him.
I want to give my son tools to deal with his difference, especially as it evolves over the years. I want him to know that he has advocates in the matter. I want him to know that all of his feelings about his birthmark — even the dark or difficult ones — are okay.
I also want him to know as he gets older that he can choose what he wants to do in terms of removing it or not. I believe it’s a complicated decision, and one that will ultimately be up to him.
Yet what I want him to know most of all is that his birthmark is beautiful. “Birthmark” means marked at birth, and I want him to know that his birthmark is just part of who he is, like his dazzling grey-blue eyes and winning smile. It’s something to be proud of. Something that makes him special and gives him character.
Peter is a gentle soul and extremely generous. He’s always thinking of how he can help me and everyone around him. He is bursting with kindness and affection. I sometimes think that he was born with his birthmark for a purpose — to spread love, tolerance, and pride to everyone he meets.
I don’t know what the future will hold in terms of my son and his birthmark. Things might get more complicated as he gets older, and his image of himself changes and evolves. I know that his feelings about his birthmark will evolve as well, and there might be more difficult days ahead.
But right now, things seem to be right on track with him feeling some acceptance — and even love — about his difference.
Just the other day, he and his dad were listening to the song “A Bushel and a Peck.” When Peter heard the line, “You bet your pretty neck I do,” he said, thoughtfully, without missing a beat, “I do have a pretty neck … because of my birthmark.”
Yes, my dear boy, you most certainly do.