In the last few months, Oliver has witnessed and experienced a lot of changes in our family. He has witnessed my emotional ups and downs when dealing with diagnosis, he’s seen my body changed by a mastectomy and now we have been dealing with my hair loss. Oliver is an intuitive and curious child and very sensitive to changes, especially when it comes to his Mommy. I have been very concerned and scared about what would happen when I had to shave my head and how he would react to this drastic change.
Every day, Oliver talks about “Mommy’s big boo-boo.” It’s a part of his consciousness and his concerns. He worries about it and how I feel. To make him feel better, we have a ritual that lets him know that he is and has been a part of my healing. Every time he points to my breast and says, “Mommy (or Amma) big boo-boo?” we say:
Me: Yes, mommy has a big boo-boo but it feels better because Oliver gave mommy a…
Me: Because Oliver made…
Me: And because Oliver was…
It’s important to me that Oliver knows that because of his empathy and compassion, I have been able to heal. It might be one of the few silver linings of this whole situation. He knows that if he’s loving and kind he can make people feel better. It’s why he goes up to new children he meets and immediately begins making nice to them or giving them a hug. He is rarely aggressive and is a gentle soul.
My biggest fear with my hair loss was what Oliver’s reaction was going to be. In my mind, in my worst nightmares, he would see my bald head and scream and run away from me, afraid of the strange woman in front of him that used to look like his mother. I was afraid it would break our bond, break our trust. With so many changes, could he trust me? Some say it’s a blessing that this is happening when he is so young because he can’t possibly understand the seriousness of what is happening. Yes, but, I’m afraid of the damage being done because he is so young and can’t possibly comprehend what is happening but can feel the implications.
I thought long and hard about how to handle the hair loss and after weeks and weeks of thinking, finally came to a decision. I decided to be open and honest with him about what was happening but in a very basic and simple way.
In our family, we are always honest. When leaving for work or going out on a (rare) date, we never sneak out of the door. We always say goodbye even if it upsets Oliver at first. We think it’s important for him to know that sometimes we have to leave but that we always come back. We think it builds mutual trust and respect whereas sneaking out would create confusion and lack of security. I decided to take this same approach with discussing my hair loss; a chance to build mutual trust and respect.
The day after I shaved my head, Oliver came home from a stay with Grandma and Grandpa. We sat him down on the couch but he was too wiggly. I said, “Mommy wants to talk to you,” but he just wanted to play with his toys. I tried again later, this time bringing him to our rocking chair where we snuggle and read books. I got him a little calmer and asked, “Where is Oliver’s hair?” He pointed to his head. “Where is Grandma’s hair?” He pointed to Grandma’s hair. (Ken was at work this day, by the way) “Mommy had to say bye-bye hair. Mommy has no more hair.” At this point he got wiggly and agitated and slipped off my lap. I didn’t try again that day.
The next day Ken was home and in the morning, when Oliver is a little more calm, we pulled him into bed with us and we tried again. “Where is Oliver’s hair?” He pointed to his head. “Where is Daddy’s hair?” He pointed to Ken’s hair. “Mommy had to say bye-bye hair. Mommy has no more hair. Do you want to see?” He grunted, which means yes. I lifted just a small part of my hat away to reveal my buzzed hair just above my ear. This definitely upset him a bit because he yelled at me the same way he yells when he’s angry or frustrated. He sticks his tongue out a little bit and does a short, high pitched scream. We stayed calm and said, “It’s ok. It doesn’t hurt. It’s not a boo-boo. But Mommy had to say bye-bye hair. Do you want to feel it?” He grunted yes, touched it and then scooted to leave the bed. He was done. That was the last time we discussed it that day.
The next day we did the same thing over again, snuggled him and went through the same routine. This time, after we asked Oliver to show us his hair and Ken’s hair, he looked at me and said, “Mommy no more hair.” He had heard and understood. This time we showed him my whole head. He looked me over for a few seconds, was obviously curious and confused but touched it. Then he asked me to put my hat back on. I did as requested.
Since then, each day Oliver seems to be getting less and less upset with the change. He sees me with my hat off and is asking me less and less to put it back on. It’s becoming normal, at least a bit.
I don’t know if the way I handled this situation is the right way to do it. There is literally NOTHING, no information out there on how to deal with toddlers and the effects of cancer. There is this short informational page on the subject but there is far more information on talking to older children. There are even books. I get that, toddlers really are too young to truly understand cancer. But toddlers are also little sponges and very observant. They see and hear everything and I believe take in more than is being acknowledged. But there are no resources, no help. I feel like I am inventing the wheel.
I found one book on Amazon called Nowhere Hair. From the little sample, it seemed simple and a really great way to talk to Oliver more about hair loss. I just got the book in the mail and feel that it is probably too mature for him but it would be great for a child in pre-school. I still might try it.
I’m curious if anyone out there knows more about the subject of dealing with disease and toddler development. Does anyone have any connections to child psychologists or anyone in the cognitive sciences? Please share any of your experiences or resources here for others.