"Keeping Up Appearances"

As the parents of four black children, we drop a small fortune on lotion and products and build time into our schedule to style their hair, all the while questioning whether we know what we’re doing. A recent conversation offered some much-needed reassurance.

"Committed to honoring our children’s African American race and culture, we buy lotion for every room in the house and spend a small fortune on hair products…"

My wife Laurie and I work diligently every day to ensure that our four kids look like a million bucks before we leave the house. For our two boys, this means we douse them in lotion. I make sure their hair is edged every few weeks and picked out every morning. For our two girls, this also means we douse them in lotion, but their hair is more time-consuming. Typically, I do the prep work on our youngest while Laurie finishes the oldest. Once the youngest has been cowashed, put in her bathrobe, and detangled, I send her to Mom for puffs, twists, or braids, depending on what Laurie can handle that day or what kind of mood the six-year-old is in.

However, we don’t hit home runs every time. The boys often put a lousy amount of lotion on their hands, or rub the lotion on their hands for 10 minutes, until there’s nothing left, and then rub their hands, legs, and face. Plus, the girls are getting more opinionated about what they want to wear. Occasionally, we don’t have the energy for our youngest girl’s hair. Jasmine’s hair type is 4c, which is the tightest coil and with no defined curl pattern. This means that one bottle of hair product costs more than most meals to feed all six of us, and detangling can take an hour—an hour that involves a lot of thrashing, sobbing, and coaxing.

The other morning, I picked out a large knot and she kicked the ground in pain.

“Are you done yet?” she sobbed.

I wasn’t even close to being done, but I said, “Almost.”

“I want Mommy to do it,” she said, because she knows Mom says the heck with it sooner than Dad does.

“A few more minutes,” I told her.

“Can I have a popsicle now?”

This is one of our more powerful bribes. I try to keep this in my back pocket until we’re at least halfway done. “Sure,” I said.

Finally, when her hair was done, I scooped her into my arms. “Your hair is SO pretty!” I said.

She gave me a big smile and said, “Tomorrow, you have to put the beads in my hair that match my dress.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied.

I sometimes refer to Jasmine’s hair as our fifth child. A newborn, in fact. So fragile that no one is allowed to touch it. Including her. Once her hair is done, should she dare touch her scalp, we shout, “What are you doing?!” as if she were juggling knives.


Hairstyle Scrutiny

One morning, we all overslept. I headed straight out the door for work, while Laurie rushed to get the three oldest to school on time. Then she took Jasmine to the grocery store, where she told me she felt an employee staring at them, or, specifically, at Jasmine’s three-day old hairdo. After several minutes, the employee left her station, tracked Laurie down, and asked, “Who does her hair?

“Um, I do,” Laurie said.

“Well, I do black hair out of my home.”

After an awkward pause, Laurie asked, “Do you have a business card?”

The employee fumbled around in her pockets and found a piece of scratch paper where she wrote her phone number. Laurie accepted the paper, waited for the employee to walk away, then left the store. “I just left all my groceries in the cart,” she told me. “People have inferred some messed up things about us before, but this was really embarrassing. How am I supposed to go back to that store?”

I offered her the best comfort I could, but I was already late for a meeting. So Laurie called Kim, one of her best friends. Kim is black, which is relevant because we’ve learned that our white friends are too gracious. “I’m sure you did the best you could,” they say. However, Kim always tells us the truth. In this instance, she told Laurie, “That lady was way out of line! Listen, when I was a little girl I pitched holy heck when my mother did my hair. She used to have to chase me around the house.”

This was far more comforting. When Jasmine’s giving us an especially difficult time on hair days, or Laurie’s trying a new style that isn’t working out, it’s easy to think “We don’t know what we’re doing!” We share this with Kim, who jokes, “Do you think black people come out of the womb knowing how to do black hair? We have to learn how to do it too.”


“She’s a 4c…”

I found my own reassurance after a recent interaction at work. It was a Monday morning, and a couple of coworkers nearby were discussing their weekend. One of them had had her hair done, and I overheard bits and pieces of their conversation:

“How long did it take?”

“Where’d you go?”

“I get mine done at this shop on Oak St.”

But I took notice when I heard one of them say, “I tried this one hair milk, but it dried my scalp. Then I tried this other brand of coconut oil, but I can’t remember the name.”

I was pretty sure the lady was describing the moisturizer we currently use on Jasmine, so I said, “Was it SheaMoisture?”

I could have sworn I heard crickets chirping. They both stared at me, and I took a moment to enjoy the awkward silence before I said, “My kids are black.”

“Oh!” they said in unison. Then I took out my phone and scrolled through pics of the kids. I told them about the different barbers I’d taken my boys to and the different products we’d used on my daughter. “It seems one moisturizer will work for a while,” I said, “Then it will have the opposite effect and dry out her scalp.”

“Oh, yeah,” one said.

The other commented, “I’ve been using this styling pudding, and it’s pretty good.”

“We used hair milk when Jasmine was a toddler. But then the consistency of her hair changed and we had to start all over experimenting with different products. Our linen closet is really just Jasmine’s personal hair cabinet, and there must be hundreds of dollars’ worth of products in there.”

“Yeah, that’ll happen,” she nodded.

“What kind of hair does she have?” the other asked.

“She’s a 4c,” I said.

They both freaked that I knew what that meant. Throughout the conversation, every time I answered one of their questions they gave each other looks that I interpreted as, “Get a load of the white guy who knows about black girl hair.”

A transracial adoptive father detangles his black daughter's hair

Author Billy Cuchens detangles Jasmine’s hair.

Receiving affirmation from the black community is important to us as transracial parents. Laurie and I have made honoring our children’s race and culture a high priority, so we buy lotion for every room in the house and both cars. We drop $25 on a bottle of conditioner for one of the girls, then another $25 on a different bottle for the other. We set the alarm clock 15 minutes earlier to give the boys time to pick their hair and lotion up. We divide and conquer.

And if Laurie and I are too tired for the whole routine, then we tell the kids, “Today is pajama day.” We stay home, order pizza, and watch TV all day. We don’t have to do hair and lotion, and the kids don’t have to endure hair and lotion. It’s a win/win for us all.


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