"The Joys and Sorrows of Watching My Own Birth"
December 5, 2017 4:35 AM   Subscribe

"I want so much for that newborn baby crying alone in a plastic bin. I want to pick her up and make her feel welcome and wanted. I want to soothe her and gently rub her little head of ginger hair and tell her everything’s okay. I want to tell her stories about the life she is about to live. I want to warn her. I want to share what I know now with her. I want to tell her never to be ashamed of who she is, to be loud and proud of her red hair, to know that she will someday love the beautiful color she’s been blessed with." Journalist and essayist Shelby Vittek reflects on the bittersweet experience of watching herself be born — and her now-divorced mom and dad become parents — again and again.
posted by zarq (13 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It's interesting, now that we're in a time where people do DNA testing for fun, let alone to establish paternity, that the question of how she got her red hair hovers over this essay so powerfully. Especially when she can - and does - explain exactly how it happened genetically.

I looked nothing like either of my parents growing up (though now, in my adult body, I totally see both of them in me - my mom's jawline and skin, my dad's angularity and long arms), while my younger sister did. But I then also had a younger brother who looked almost exactly like me, so I never went through what Vittek describes.

I have a close friend whose blonde and light-blue eyed daughter looks nothing like her or her husband in coloring, and still found myself asking (genuinely curious) "who did the blue eyes come from?" when she was born. And they said they had no idea. And I was so upset with myself afterwards, because especially now, when artificial insemination and donor eggs and so many other fertility miracles are possible, asking where a baby genetically comes from just isn't an innocent question anymore - if it ever truly was. Sometimes I think we know just enough about how these things are possible, without being able to grasp the realization that just because something is rare, doesn't mean it's suspicious.

Interesting piece.
posted by Mchelly at 6:45 AM on December 5, 2017

I don't look like my mum at all, and we left my father when i was under two so I don't remember him. It was quite stressful for her when I was growing up because she was a single mum and didn't look like the kid she was walking around with. She always thought people would think she had stolen me.

When my dad's family got in touch with me at age 30 (7 years after his death) it was revelatory to meet so many people with the same hair, height and colouring as me.
posted by trif at 7:24 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

This was an enjoyable essay. There are birth stories that leave a lifelong mark.

I was born with a very blonde streak in the middle of my otherwise very brunette head. "Aw, she looks like a skunk!" was the nurse's first reaction. No video was made of it, but the remark was shared often enough among family that I'll always remember it.

Before dyed hair became mainstream, it was a regular subject of criticism. People really couldn't grasp that, no, it wasn't being dyed, it was just two very different colors on the same head.

When a lot more people started dyeing their hair, it got less noticed, but even now I occasionally get a contemptuous eyeroll or a snarky retort on what a bad dye job it is. Don't bother talking to them. A few people do remark "oh, neat!" and they inevitably turn out to be cool.

I've never dyed my hair. Also have sectoral heterochromia in my eyes that looks like a sunny ring in a dark sea. Have made the joke before but we on our Norwegian side like to think it's from our illustrious ancestor Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. It is the side with other relatives who have sectoral heterochromia (both in hair, like mine, and in eyes), so.
posted by fraula at 7:33 AM on December 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

My blonde mother told me once that when she went to the grocery store with her blonde daughter, her redheaded son, her dark-haired daughter, and her dark-haired toddler (me), strangers would ask all the time if those were all her kids.

["I'm afraid so," she would answer. My mother was a wonderful smartass.]
posted by JanetLand at 8:49 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Throughout my childhood, when people looked at our small family of four — three brunettes and a redhead — there was often the sense of suspicion lurking in their minds."

I also grew up with this constant experience. Although I look VERY MUCH like my family -- my siblings and I could have been run off a mimeograph, face-wise -- I'm the only redhead in living memory in my entire extended family. My parents and my 3 siblings are all brunettes, making me literally exactly the 1 in 4 child of the two brunette parents with recessives! My whole life people say to my mom (when I'm with her), "Does her dad have red hair?" or to my dad (when I'm with him), "Does her mom have red hair?" When they meet both my parents they inevitably ask "where it came from," sometimes going so far as to ask if I'm adopted and YO WE'RE IN A SUPERMARKET CHECKOUT LINE AND I'M FIVE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? or make jokes about the mailman. It was very distressing when I was around 6 and strangers were constantly suggesting I was an oddball who didn't belong.

Now it's starting to happen on the other end, people see my kids and often say, "Oh no, none of them got your red hair!" (Although at least I know they all got my MC1R gene, given how I have a pair of them.) I am a tiny bit disappointed, just because I wanted just one red-headed relative from among the 300 or so I see on a regular basis, and my own kids seemed like my best chance! No dice.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:00 AM on December 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

My parents looked so similar that people on their bowling league thought they were siblings. Everyone comments on how much I look like my mother, when in fact I look exactly like my dad in a wig.

(Also when I was born my hair was distinctly auburn and when my grandma first saw me she cooed "Oh, she's got my red hair!" — hilarious, since grandma's red hair has come from a box since 1936.)
posted by elsietheeel at 9:20 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a red head too. Reading this and this thread I can't believe the audacity of some people and the awful things they say. I guess because my family is from Ireland & it was present in other generations my red hair wasn't at all suspicious even though neither of my parents had it. But for some reason I always felt unwelcome among my cousins and I sometimes wondered if it was because I didn't look exactly like them. People really are that petty and stupid.

But I guess reading this thread now I feel blessed to know that even though it would bother me when strangers came up to compliment my hair (how dare they acknowledge me I'm invisible) at least they only ever had nice things to say. But I don't doubt that they only said nice things because they judged that I looked enough like my mom to meet their approval? Ugh, so many terrible, nosy, big-mouths out there. I didn't even know what I was missing.
posted by bleep at 9:39 AM on December 5, 2017

"But I don't doubt that they only said nice things because they judged that I looked enough like my mom to meet their approval? "

Some of it was malicious and/or stupid, but a lot of it was kindly meant but dumbly phrased. People going, "What lovely hair! Is her father a redhead?" are mostly trying to compliment the child and make small talk. When I was 5 and 6 I found it ENORMOUSLY stressful, but when I was a little bit older, 8 and 9 and 10, I understood people were trying to be kind and fumbling the football a bit, and that I could a) accept the kindness and let the dumb parts roll off my back and b) defuse the awkwardness by how I accepted it. (Like I remember being 10 years old and people being like, "What lovely hair! Is your father a redhead?" when I was out with my mom, and me smiling and saying, "Oh, no, I just got lucky with my recessive genes!"

Anyway, on the one hand it was a good life skill to learn young how to take a slightly-misfired comment and turn it away from making things awkward. But on the other hand, when I take sort-of a feminist view of the whole thing, I was being asked at age 9 to handle and assuage other people's feelings of awkwardness from putting their feet in their mouths and I think for a long time I was way too willing to conversationally rescue and excuse people who were being JACKASSES under cover of cluelessness, and way too willing to accept a feminine role as peacemaker and awkwardness-smoother, because I had a lot of practice and I was good at it.

I'm pretty careful in how I compliment children, and with redheaded children I'm always like "We're in a secret club of awesome!" rather than "where'd you get your hair?" But just in general it made me pretty aware of how a lot of (quite socially normal!) compliments for children can be a bit unwittingly awkward and how kids can take that kind of thing to heart.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

One thing that I didn't appreciate until I'd been through it myself, is that parents, particularly first-timers I suppose, are likely to be stressed-out, sleep-deprived, terrified, and excited all at the same time. I said such stupid things. My wife was exhausted and full of drugs. Not herself. If there were a videotape of my son being born, a viewer wouldn't catch us at our best. I hope.

A stranger might not quite call my son a redhead, but his hair does tend toward a strong coppery tone that doesn't appear at all in his parents or extended family. Strangers ask us about that all the time. I think it's mostly just small talk.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:32 AM on December 5, 2017

I'm pretty careful in how I compliment children, and with redheaded children I'm always like "We're in a secret club of awesome!" rather than "where'd you get your hair?"

When I see red haired kids I mentally telegraph to them "Kid, I'm giving you the greatest gift of leaving you the hell alone."
posted by bleep at 10:45 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

What is it with people's reactions to red hair? I was talking about it just the other day with my daughter, because I couldn't believe that people still get bullied because of it. They do.
She and I both have reddish hair that has darkened over time. In winter we are brunettes, but if there is a long sunny summer, I'll go bright orange, she'll go more strawberry blonde like I did at her age. Non of us have had any bad experiences which is why I thought this was something long gone.

I've always thought it was normal for families with dark hair and pale skin (Celtic or Jewish ancestry and I have both) to carry recessive genes for red hair/blue eyes/freckles.
posted by mumimor at 11:00 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

It is normal. People just love any opportunity to be stupid and/or cruel.
posted by bleep at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ahhh, my whole childhood I heard (and misunderstood the implications of) that question: Where'd you get your red hair? Brunette mother, black-haired father. At least my red-headed older brother forged the trail ahead of me (with our brown-haired sister in the middle).

I mean, my parents were Scottish and German-Americans on her side and Irish on his side, and furthermore, my illegitimate grandmother was a redhead. There just weren't any others - not my parents or aunts, uncles, or cousins, somehow. And adults always asked that question. I heard it at least as often as "are you looking forward to school starting" and other stuff adults always said.
posted by Occula at 2:29 PM on December 5, 2017

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