Marked for Life
By Wendy Wisner
“This is your birthmark. Your special mark. It’s part of you. It’s beautiful. And so are you.”
My two-year-old son is at a playdate. He and a four-year-old girl are playing at a toy kitchen. He’s at the sink; she’s crouched down, picking up some plastic cauliflower. She looks up at him, her eyes resting squarely on his neck.
“What’s that on his neck?” she asks me.
“It’s his birthmark,” I say.
My son looks at me with a faint glimmer of recognition. I have used the word “birthmark” before to describe that rough, pebbly brown spot on his neck. Every night before bed, I rub ointment on it to keep it soft. Every so often, I say, “This is your birthmark. It’s your special mark.”
Other than that, I rarely discuss it, and neither does anyone else, for the most part. His birthmark is certainly noticeable, however. It covers most of his neck. It’s coffee-brown, in the vague shape of South America. Perhaps people are too polite, or too uncomfortable, to mention it.
When my son was younger, he was too young to know what other people were talking about. But I knew the day would come that someone would point it out in front of him, and I knew that it would be another child. Far more children have asked about it than grown-ups.
“How’d he get it?” the little girl asks. There is no malicious intent whatsoever, and I’m not sure my son would pick up on it if it were there. But I begin to feel a little uneasy. And suddenly—madly protective of him.
I know this is the first of many encounters like this, and know that as time goes on, he will understand more of what is being said. I know that there may be children who are not as innocent in their questioning. Questions may turn into insults. Or worse—bullying.
And I am keenly aware that I will not always be there to answer the questions for him, to fold him up in my mama-wings, and fly him away from it all, back to the place where he is my perfect beauty-marked angel.
“He’s had it all his life,” I explain to the girl. I show her a beauty mark on my arm. “Does your mommy or daddy have a mark like this?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, with some level of uncertainty.
“His is like that, only bigger,” I say.
The little girl seems satisfied, gets up, and walks away. My son looks at me for a second, brushes his finger along the length of his birthmark, and then wanders after the girl as she leaves the room.
* * *
I know that there are far more disfiguring birthmarks out there. I also know there are much more life-altering birth defects, and certainly life-threatening ones.
My son is normal in every way. He is bright, cute, and remarkably healthy. I have been concerned that writing about his birthmark could come across as overdramatic, hypersensitive, or self-involved. After all, his birthmark is an entirely cosmetic issue.
I also know that there are options for him should he decide to alter or hide it. Doctors have told us that surgery might lighten it. But it would take several surgeries, and results would not be guaranteed. As he gets older, he can wear clothing to hide it (though who wears turtlenecks and scarves in summer?) or use cover-up makeup (but he might feel self-conscious about that too).
One doctor said some kids don’t do anything, and just learn to accept the birthmark as part of who they are. I like this choice best, but the reality of living with a large birthmark as a child—as a teenager—might not be as simple and wholesome as the doctor described.
* * *
We didn’t notice the birthmark at first. We were in a daze, and he was a curled up, rosy-skinned newborn. We thought the light pink splotch on his neck was just another “newborn thing” that would fade in time. When he was about a month old, it darkened. We realized it was there for real, a part of his body.
The pediatrician said it looked like a port-wine stain (the kind that Gorbachev famously had on his head). Another doctor said it looked more like a hemangioma, a kind of birthmark that disappears on its own in early childhood. Both doctors recommended I see a pediatric dermatologist for a definitive diagnosis.
On the way to my first appointment with the dermatologist, I realized how much weight this diagnosis was going to have. If it was the kind of birthmark that disappeared in the first few years of his life, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But if it was the kind that would stay with him forever, it could be a very big deal. He’d be marked for life.
I flashed back to the times I was teased as a kid. The day the boys surrounded me at recess and asked if I stuffed my bra. The day the “in-crowd” formed a circle around me and told me I was “from another planet” because I wore tie-dye shirts and ate veggie burgers for lunch.
All of this seemed innocuous compared to what I imagined could happen to him. Children can be cruel without knowing it. Or they can be intentionally cruel, their own wounds and rage unleashed right before your eyes. It seemed to me that the world has gotten more unkind since I was a child, stories of bullying and violence in the schoolyard strewn across the news almost daily.
The dermatologist took out his ruler, measured it. My son pulled on the doctor’s Mickey Mouse tie.
“OK,” he said, “it’s called a congenital nevus,” a kind, crooked-toothed grin across his face.
“It’s not the kind that goes away,” he said. “It grows as he grows.”
* * *
It grows as he grows.
We have not decided when—or if—we will get the birthmark surgically removed. With no guarantees of success, it seems like too much to put his young body through. We will continue to grapple with it and reconsider as time moves on.
For now, we just continue the nightly ritual of rubbing ointment on his birthmark. As the months go on, we repeat the words more frequently, and add new ones: “This is your birthmark. Your special mark. It’s part of you. It’s beautiful. And so are you.”
Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books), and her writing has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, The Mid, and Mamalode. Find Wendy at WendyWisner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.