Death of a Parent and Ella’s Troubled Hair

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The first time I laid eyes on Ella was via a picture from her Ethiopian orphanage. I immediately thought that she was perhaps the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen. She was six years old and had perfectly braided hair gathered into a bun on her head. The orphanage had very little resources but a local hair salon came on Saturdays to wash and braid the hair of dozens of little girls. During the adoption process, I read every possible book on taking care of African-American hair. One of my greatest fears as a white American woman adopting three Ethiopian children (two girls and a boy) was that I would mess up their hair.
When we arrived in Ethiopia to bring our children home, Ella and Grace’s hair was perfectly braided. As part of the goodbye process, we went to visit their grandparents’ village, a few hours away on our third day. The kids were terrified that we were going to leave them with their grandparents and not take them to America. However, after they saw their grandparents and cousins embrace and bless us as a part of their extended family, Ella, Grace and Jared were elated. As we waved goodbye, we noticed the girls both simultaneously started taking out their braids. I found this very strange but interpreted it as related to their happiness at the approval of their adoption.
When it was time to leave Ethiopia two days later, Ella and Grace wanted perfectly straight hair. After a trip to the beauty salon, Grace took excellent care of her straight hair by placing a scarf over it at night. Ella immediately added water to her hair. Before I knew it, she had half curls and half straight hair on the way to the airport, which made me very nervous. I wanted to arrive in America with her hair done, either straight or braided, so I could have some time to settle in with my new kids before having to stress about hair. As we arrived at the DC airport, an African-American flight attendant looked at me and then at Ella’s hair and said, “Honey, you do know what to do with that hair don’t you?” My husband thought this was funny since he knew how anxious I was about it.
Once home, Ella never seemed happy with her hair. Grace was different―she enjoyed doing her own hair or accepted what I did. Ella changed her hair constantly. She would leave it straight for only a minute. Braids were kept in for two weeks tops. Her gorgeous natural ringlets were also unacceptable to her. She loved pink wigs and hair pieces. She wanted to wear the wig that I had bought for myself when my African-American girlfriend insisted I get a wig for the summer because my hair sticks to my head too much. I braided Ella’s hair once and she was delighted and responded, “Mom, you braided my hair just like my mom used to.” I was thrilled and cried. Two hours later she took the braids out.
Once Ella’s English had improved, after a few months in the U.S., she looked at me and asked, “Mommy when will my hair grow back?” At the time her hair was shoulder length so I wasn’t sure what she meant. She then confided, “When my Mom died in Africa they shaved my head. I don’t feel beautiful. When will my hair grow back?”
I then realized that for Ella her hair was intimately connected to her inexplicable anguish of losing her mom at the age of four. Grace, the older sister, for some reason didn’t have to shave her head, but Ella was forced to as a sign of grieving. She still felt she was in a grieving phase.
We resolved this problem not so much by addressing her hair but rather discussing the grief whenever Ella wants. She still is fickle about her hair but isn’t as obsessed with it. We think it will just take time, prayer, counseling and continuing to let her know how beautiful she is. The last time she had braids, she kept them in for three weeks—an improvement. In time, we hope she will heed the hairdresser’s advice and go for six to eight weeks. We still think Ella is one of the most beautiful children we have ever laid eyes on. We pray every day that she will see her own beauty as well.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I really loved this story! Heart-warming that you are so caring and loving as a mother to your daughters! You seem to be in tune with their individual needs, which is huge as a parent, and are as supportive as any good mother i know! Congratulations on a successful adoption process and I pray that you would continue to be the pillar for all of your children, as they will truly cherish the bond they have with their mommy!

    Cintron

  2. this is an awesome story i actually went to school with Ella and Grace at WYWLA but sadly they left today to move to ******( don’t want to say where lol) If you see this which you probably wont could you tell her that I miss her already and love her.

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