“How was school today?” I ask my son as we pull out of the parking lot.
I call it school, but it’s really a drop-off program at the local environmental center where my son goes two mornings a week to play with other 3-year-olds, make art projects out of leaves and sticks, and take nature walks. I’ve made a point of calling it school to prepare him for real school next year, a Universal Pre-K program offered by the city school system.
“Bad,” my son responds, deadpan. At 3 years old, he has an uncanny ability to tell me exactly how he feels.
“Did you miss me?” I offer.
“No,” he said. “The boys were asking about my birthmark.”
“Oh,” I said, my heart sinking a bit.
My son has a large birthmark on his neck. It’s chestnut-brown, and I like to describe it as the approximate shape of South America. It’s a raised birthmark, and the skin is rough, sometimes prone to chafing and irritation. Its official name is Congenital Nevus. It’s not the kind of birthmark that fades as the child grows, and the only way to remove it is through surgery — maybe a few surgeries, under general anesthesia.
As his dermatologist described it: it’s rooted deep into his skin; it’s part of him, and not easily removed.
“What did the boys say about your birthmark?”
“They asked if it was mud.”
This has been my biggest fear as my son enters school. It’s not how he’ll fare without me, his behavior, or any of the other normal qualms parents have during this transition. Since I found out that his birthmark was not the kind that disappeared in early childhood (as many birthmarks do), I have been terrified about the possibility of him being ostracized and teased.
I was not surprised that the kids were asking him about the birthmark. I don’t think my son was surprised either. As soon as he could speak and understand words, he noticed that people asked about his birthmark. Usually it’s been children. The ones who, like my son, tell it like it is.
“What did you say when he asked if your birthmark was mud?”
“I told him it was my birfmark!” he said, emphatically. He can’t always pronounce the “th” sound perfectly. Did the other kids even know what he said?
“Good,” I said. “That’s what you should always do when people ask. Just tell them what it is.” This was a piece of advice that was offered to me by his dermatologist. I had modeled a simple, confident response to questions about his birthmark, and I was happy to see that he had followed the example.
“But why do people always ask?” he asked.
I started to tell him that people ask because they don’t usually see people with birthmarks like his. But I had to stop myself, because I wondered if that would make it worse somehow.
At times, I have tried to normalize his birthmark. This was another key piece of advice from his dermatologist: Have him embrace it, point out the ways in which we all have our differences and emphasize that each of us is unique.
I have pointed out the small birthmark on my chest, and the small one my husband has on his shoulder. I’ve mentioned that beauty marks are like birthmarks too, and that most people have a few. But maybe making his birthmark seem ordinary isn’t the best strategy anymore.
So I told him the truth: his birthmark is bigger than most people’s marks, and kids notice that it’s different. Then I started to tell him that soon enough, the kids will forget. When I mentioned my fears about socialization at one of our first dermatologist appointments, my son’s doctor described what usually happens when kids with large birthmarks begin school. At first, other children notice the birthmarks — it’s part of their nature to notice such things — but as time passes, they simply don’t see them anymore.
But as soon as I began to talk to my son about the desensitization that I hope will occur over time, and what that might mean for him, he cut me off.
“Stop talking about my birfmark!”
So I did.
The next week, the instructor told me that several children were speaking about the birthmark during lunch. She had explained to them that it was just a birthmark, but she wanted to let me know the kids were talking about it.
I ask him again as we’re pulling out of the parking lot: “How was school?”
He cut to the chase: “Isabelle said my birthmark was poo-poo.”
“What?” I felt sick to my stomach.
I tried to be levelheaded: “How did it make you feel?”
“Bad,” he said. There was that word again.
Right away, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and I didn’t press it.
As we finished our day — having lunch, taking a nap, picking his brother up from school — I thought about the forms sitting on my counter for Pre-K, the upcoming school year and, of course, his birthmark. Would more time with more kids equal more teasing?
Perhaps I’m blowing it out of proportion because I’m his mother, and worried.
His dermatologist has always reassured me that if we prepare him well, ask his teachers to be mindful and communicative of his situation, and model confidence and resilience for him, he will fare just fine. But I know that kids can be mean, sometimes unintentionally, and that even if it’s an issue that diminishes after the beginning of school, it may resurface, in a bullying situation. It’s the perfect bully-bait, actually.
A few weeks later, as I do every night, I was rubbing a small amount of Aquaphor on my son’s birthmark, as recommended by his doctors to prevent chafing. It had been warm, and the birthmark does worse in the heat. I noticed that some of the skin was peeling a little, and I could tell my son had been scratching it in that spot.
“Honey,” I said, “You have to be gentle with your birthmark. Don’t scratch it so hard, okay?”
“I was trying to peel it off,” he said.
“Baby,” I said, as calmly as possible, “You can’t do that. You will hurt yourself.” I was fearing the worst — that he was upset by the “poo-poo” remark from weeks ago, or that someone had said something else about his birthmark. I was afraid he wanted to remove it, to end the taunting.
I don’t usually mention the option of surgery because we have decided to present that choice to him when he’s older and more able to understand what it would entail. But I brought it up. I told him he can’t peel it off, but that his doctor says there’s a way to have it removed when he’s older.
“I don’t want to do that!” he screamed, “I want to keep my birfmark forever!”
I let out a sigh — a breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding in. And in that moment, because he’s always one to tell it like it is — or because I desperately wanted to believe him — I decided that he and his “birfmark” will be just fine, whatever happens in school, or in life, whether he decides to remove it someday, or not.
I realized I hadn’t heard him complain of anyone asking questions or making fun of his birthmark in many weeks. Perhaps the children had gotten used to it. What if there is nothing for me to do right now, no reason to worry so much? Maybe all I can do right now is teach him to love and accept himself — to be truly comfortable in his skin, every inch of it — and the rest will work out as it’s meant to.
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