When I look at my son, Zephyr, I see a blend of his mother and me. His golden caramel skin is made with her browned butter and my heavy cream and white sugar. Both of us lent him elements for his face — her smile, my eyes. When he makes jokes, I hear echoes of myself, but when he laughs, it reminds me of my wife. He got her speed and my endurance.

Despite my paternal desire to see a piece of me in every part of him, soon after his birth I became convinced that somehow my genes played no role in the creation of his hair. He got that solely from his mother, whose tightly coiled curls require patient care and attention. All her diligent work pays off. From buns to braids to an Afro — whatever style she chooses elicits compliments. I have a head of straight strands, requiring little maintenance and styled in a fashion my barber calls a disconnected cut, which is appropriate given how little thought I give it.

As it began to grow into its curl pattern, Zephyr’s hair became less and less like my own. Though I tried, I never seemed to be able to dress or style it in the way he preferred. So, for the first few years of his life, it became solely his mother’s purview. Whenever it needed to be done, I would throw up my hands like a sitcom father from another era and exasperatedly declare to my wife, “You take care of it, because I can’t do it!”

“You’re perfectly capable,” she would always admonish me as she deftly coaxed his curls into place. “It’s not rocket science.”

No, it was not NASA-grade work, I would grudgingly admit. “But you’re better at it.”

I used that excuse for years. I wanted Zephyr to look sharp — and his hair was a big part of that. My lack of participation was for my son’s own good. Or so I kept telling myself.

Shamefully, I didn’t want to confront my discomfort with handling my son’s hair. Zephyr wasn’t making my quandary any easier, either. When he was 2, he began alternating between a head covered in curls and a squat mohawk. The mohawk became taller and permanent a couple of years later. Then it began getting dyed in a series of head-turningly bright hues, from golden yellow to ocean turquoise. With each new style, the care of his hair seemed to become more complex.

It all came to a head, literally and metaphorically, when he was 6. We were set to go on a father-son vacation, which would involve a few meals at high-end restaurants. He would have to look his best. It was time for hairdressing boot camp.

“Finally,” my wife said when I asked for her help a week before our departure. “I don’t know what you’ve been so afraid about.”

The next morning, we convened in the bathroom, Zephyr on a step stool between us. The process was simple. As I watched it unfold, I wondered why I imagined it was so complex. Rocket science it was not.

First, she ran her wet fingers through his hair to dampen it. Next she gently worked in leave-in conditioner, so every strand had slip. Using a comb, she smoothly worked out the snarls and combed his hair into shape. A quick blast from the hair dryer ensured his mohawk was standing regally upright.

“That’s it,” she told me. “It’s that easy.”

It did seem easy, but I still managed to muck it up when I tried the next day. I splashed water on his face and shoulders instead of on his hair. I added conditioner unevenly, resulting in bottom-heavy strands that were half gloopy and half dry. The curls weren’t properly primed, but I didn’t know better. I plunged the comb into his roots and pulled upward.

“Ow, Poppa,” Zephyr yelped, flinching away from me as tears puddled in the corners of his eyes.

“Sorry,” I apologized, figuring I simply had bad luck on my first try. Things didn’t get better as I restarted combing. Again, he jerked away.

“It really hurts,” he told me, tears streaking his cheeks. I felt terrible for causing him pain and was frustrated with myself. The session ended before I had really started. That day he went to school wearing a hat.

The next few trial runs were equally disastrous, and Zephyr begged for his mother to return to styling duties. We were set to leave on our vacation in just a few days. I found myself surreptitiously looking online for a stylish little pork pie hat for him to wear out to our dinners so we would both be spared my failures.

With less than 48 hours before departure, I tried once more, forcing myself to really think about each step of the process. Slowly but surely was my new approach.

I wet my hands just enough to moisten his hair without splashing water everywhere. I worked the conditioner in gently and evenly, making sure to coat each strand from the root to the tip. I was tender with my combing, addressing the tips first and pausing when I reached a snag to slowly work through it rather than pull it out. A few sweeps of the hair dryer got his turquoise mohawk standing straight up. The whole time, Zephyr was silent.

“So?” I asked.

There was a pause that dragged on. It was a vulnerable moment. I wasn’t just being judged for my hairstyling skills. The only person who calls me Poppa was judging me as a father — one with a history of deficiencies when it came to hair.

“You did good, Poppa,” he assured me with a small smile.

I let out a sigh of relief. Even though astrophysics were not involved, I felt as if I had accomplished something positively astronomical. Although I wish I had done it without causing any tears, I was elated he had seen me persevere and tackle a task outside of my comfort zone.

Since then, I’ve continued to dress his hair regularly and with confidence. Yes, I still occasionally hit a snag — though a lot less since my wife bought a Tangle Teezer hairbrush, which moves through his curls super smoothly — but it only elicits a brief “Ouch!” rather than tears. When it’s my job to tend to his mohawk, I don’t avoid the task. I embrace it.

Every session ends with a review of my work. He steps out into the hall to examine the results in the floor-length mirror, while I wait in the bathroom.

After a few moments, I ask, “What do you think?”

He’ll stick his fist around the corner and slowly give me a thumb rating, as if he’s Commodus determining the fate of a gladiator. If he gives me a thumbs-up, I breathe a sigh of relief. But if his little thumb wavers in the middle or points down, I ask for feedback. Even when he shares criticism, it’s productive. He always adds something like: “Don’t worry, Poppa. You’re doing good.”

No matter how our sessions together go, I love the closeness and togetherness of tending to him in such a simple yet important way. All that time taking care of his beautiful curls has made me realize I was wrong not to see some of me in his hair. It’s definitely there. I just had to work through my own internal snags to understand it.

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food and travel writer. Find him online at nevinmartell.com and on Instagram @nevinmartell.

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