My Only Sunshine

My Only Sunshine

By Amanda Rose Adams


Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care.


It began as a small white spot above my lip, beneath my nose, less noticeable than my adult acne. The acne far was more frustrating and what drove me to the dermatologist. During my visit I did ask her about the spot. She shrugged and told me if it started to bleed to come back. The spot never went away but grew so slowly that when it finally started bleeding I didn’t realize how large or deep it had grown.

My dermatologist barely looked at my cracking skin and said, “It’s probably cancer.” I left that appointment with a bandage over my lip, while a layer of my spot went to the pathologist. It was cancer, specifically a basal cell carcinoma. The irony was that I never spent much time in the sun compared to my siblings or peers. I’ve never seen the inside of a tanning booth, and am not an outdoorsy person. Being so pale, I usually wore sunblock and hats on the rare occasions I was outdoors as an adult, but that was too little too late. As a parent, I’ve always stressed sun block and hats. My kids are both pale too, and neither has ever had a tan or serious sunburn. The burns they’ve had are extremely rare and relatively mild, but we live at high altitude and with every mild burn damage is done.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, “The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly.”

For several days after the nurse called to confirm my diagnosis, I was conflicted. I felt angry at myself for being upset about a cancer that wouldn’t kill me. Basal cell carcinomas can spread to the bone but are far more disfiguring than dangerous. My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, and I lost my father to esophageal cancer. I felt like I was being a baby about my minor cancer.

Still, it was a cancerous growth and it was on my face. The Internet was not reassuring. Every photo I found of basal cell carcinoma or the Mohs surgical procedure to remove it, presented an extreme case of a “Carcinomas gone wild.” Nothing resembled my little white spot.

The day of my surgery, I learned that the little white spot was fairly deep, not to the bone, but deep enough that the doctor sent my cells to the lab three times before they came back clean and he could close my incision. This small spot left a hole that required over forty stitches to close inside and outside of my skin. The seemingly innocuous white spot was gone but I looked like I’d been mauled by a dog or gone through a windshield, and it took months for me to get any feeling back on the left side of my upper lip.

At the pharmacy, even with bandages covering my stitches I felt strangers stare and knew what they were thinking, “What happened to her?” The answer was too simple, too much sun.

Since my diagnosis in early 2013, I have an annual skin cancer check. This year, I’ve had three. The first was with my old dermatologist whose treatment of two suspicious growths failed to take. The second was with my new dermatologist who successfully removed what turned out to be a wart on my thumb and identified a scar tissue growth on my ankle. On my third visit she froze two suspicious white spots from the tip of my nose and on the side of my face near my ear. She called them “precancerous.”

The one on my nose seems to have disappeared, but the spot at my hairline is still bumpy. If it bleeds again, I’ll be back for my fourth visit and another biopsy. As a patient, this journey has been relatively minor compared to other medical issues in our family.

Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care. I’ve bought them daily moisturizer with SPF that the dermatologist recommended, but I’m usually at work before they are dressed and at their age I cannot be sure they’re using it. Forcing them to wear a hat is about as effective as it was when they were babies and dropped them out of their double stroller.

When I had my surgery in 2013, I rested a lot and kept the wound covered. By the time the stitches came out it wasn’t nearly as frightening. After two years and regular use of a silicone gel the scar isn’t any more noticeable than the little white spot that caused it. So, my kids don’t seem to even remember my surgery or the wound.

As I struggle to get my adolescent children to take their sun protection seriously, I wonder if I should show them my after photos since they don’t seem to remember what Mom’s face looked like. Maybe I should show them the before photo of the little white spot to show them how minor the carcinoma looks.

I can’t bring myself to show them the over the top photos of people whose basal cell carcinomas went unchecked until they were genuinely disfiguring, but part of me is tempted. As if the outrageousness of it would unsettle them like a driving school video of a car accident. It would probably be as effective. Thinking these things will never happen to you, even if they are heredity, is a right of passage for kids. So, I keep buying the sun protection, nagging, and taking them to the dermatologist. Maybe the knowledge will soak in before too much sun damage is done.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Well Family, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at

This essay was originally published on Brain Child in May 2015

Photo: Alexander Shustov





Everything Old is New Again 

Everything Old is New Again 

By Amanda Rose Adams


Now that my daughter wears adult sized clothes I have bought her Banana Republic sweaters and snow pants at a thrift store.


During a rare car ride with my grandmother in the 1990s she shared the stories of her parents’ deaths when she was a child. It was eerie how she described her excitement about getting her father from the hospital and watching her mother gather up his clothes. When my nine-year-old grandmother grabbed her father’s heavy boots, her mother just shook her head. The clothes they were bringing were for burial, and one of Grandma’s many fully grown brothers could make use of their father’s shoes. Their mother died a few months later.

A few years after this conversation with my grandmother I was pursuing my master’s degree and working at a technology company. During a water cooler moment, I made a comment about buying used clothing at a consignment store. My work-friends were troubled that I wore used clothes. One of my friends was visibly creeped out by the idea and shivered at the thought of wearing “used” clothes. I learned to be more selective about with whom I chose to share my shopping habits and wins.

When I had my daughter in 2004, fast fashion coupled with a child who grows like a weed found me buying her new clothes most of the time. However, I was always a persistent coupon and clearance shopper and strategically bought mix-and-match colors to stay in my budget. Then she grew too tall for children’s clothes and I had to change my approach.

Now that my daughter wears adult sized clothes I have bought her Banana Republic sweaters and snow pants at a thrift store, Asics running shorts in discontinued colors for five dollars on, and slightly worn jeans at consignment shops. We also buy at overstock stores like TJ Maxx where my daughter spent her own money to buy herself a ten dollar dress for her first day of middle school and bragged about the bargain to our hair stylist.

When I was my daughter’s age I wore my brother’s used shoes. In fact most of my clothes were from garage sales or hand-me-downs from a family friend. The rest were hand made by my mother or bought on lay-away at K-mart. Unlike my parents who were raising four kids, I only have two. My son couldn’t give two figs about clothes and usually wears the first thing he can grab out of his closet, whether it matches his pants or not. My daughter is far more interested in expressing herself through her hairstyle and clothing choices. But she is also open to the creativity and flexibility second-hand clothing allows.

When I took her sized 5 ice skates to sell at the consignment store, my daughter looked a little sad, but I reminded her that she now wears a 7.5 and that she could have all the store credit for those skates, and she perked right up. Our community consignment stores are all locally owned. Our community thrift store benefit local charities with the proceeds they make from their sales, and by buying chain store clothes on a secondary market we are buying local, and that’s important to me.

My kids don’t wear used shoes, socks, underwear, or pajamas. When I was buying snow pants at the thrift store, I looked at used snow boots and decided that I could afford to buy my kids shoes that fit their own feet. I will splurge on shoes and bras because nothing makes a person more uncomfortable in their skin than ill-fitting undergarments or shoes. The rest can be washed in hot water with vinegar and given a new life.

Financially, I can afford to buy my daughter expensive clothes, but I don’t want to start that habit. I can’t make the emotional leap. Between my great-grandfather buried in his bare feet, my favorite Levi’s 501 jeans that came from a garage sale with a $5 bill in the coin pocket that I wore throughout middle school, and the hand pieced quilt I made from an old flannel jacket I shared with my father in high school as a form of grieving his death, clothing is more to me than a consumable possession. I am quick to pass on clothing we no longer need and rarely keep a sentimental piece. My approach to clothing, and what I hope I’m passing on to my children, is that while we live in a culture of conspicuous consumption, we have choices and the power to decide for ourselves what matters and how we express that.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at


The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

By Amanda Rose Adams

OppositeSpoiled hc cRon Lieber, personal finance columnist for The New York Times and father has written a bestselling book that tackles the difficult issue of how to teach the values and meaning of money to our children with insight, kindness, and humor. Below, Mr. Lieber answers questions about his book, The Opposite of Spoiled, and the values we teach our kids about money.

Q: You were inspired by real-life parents and tested many of the concepts in your book while writing it, but were you already committed to any of these practices before you decided to write about them, and if so which ones did you bring to the table with your own family?

Lieber:  The idea for this book arrived not long after I became a parent for the first time, so I didn’t have much in the way of philosophy underlying any of my writing on parenting at that point. But there were a few things that became a part of this project almost instinctually. 

One was honesty with kids about money. Not full disclosure, but a no-lying rule, especially for children who are 8 years old or so and up. While there may be some circumstances where delaying the truth or avoiding it may be best for some children, most of us will be lucky enough that we won’t find ourselves in them most of the time. Plus, they can tell when we lie, or they find out later. And if it becomes clear that we’re not good sources for accurate information about important things, like money and sex and drugs, they’ll turn to others (or the internet) for advice and counsel. That’s not something we want. 

When I was in high school, my mother was pretty blunt with me about the reality of our financial situation. While that wasn’t always fun, in retrospect, I’m glad I knew exactly what kind of odds we faced for getting me into and through college without racking up too much debt. She also took me along for a meeting with a financial aid counselor when I was in high school, which had a lasting impact

Money is a source of power, but it’s also mysterious. So of course our children are going to have lots of questions about it. We should be as honest as we can, even if it means promising the truth (say, about our salaries) on some later day years in the future when they’re more ready for it.

Q: What I came away with after reading your book is that money is a powerful tool to express who we are. Were you as open with your daughter about money before you started writing the book as you are now?

 Lieber: Thanks for saying “a” powerful tool and not “the most powerful tool” or the “best” or “only” tool. It’s none of those last three things, though it might be the most underrated and least used or understood parenting tool to imprint good values on our children. We should talk about money more often, but not all the time. Make it a focus, not a fetish.

Think about it this way: What we spend and where says a lot about what we care about and ultimately what we stand for. If looking at the credit or debit card statement each month is unpleasant, then we’re probably spending on the wrong things or in the wrong quantities. This is not a hidden argument for more thrift by the way; sometimes spending more on the things that matter most is the surest route to happiness, as long as we can do it without going into debt. The money we give away, by the way, says a lot too. When we told our daughter how we divided our charitable budget, the conversation was revelatory for all of us. We do it every year now. 

Q: Do you have any advice for where to start, and if families are late to start the discussion about money and finances how they can catch up?

Lieber: First, before you start talking, consider your own shame, in all the forms in which it may manifest itself. Some people have shame about what they do have, especially if they inherited it. They’re ashamed of not having to work, and they feel idle and unaccomplished. Others are ashamed of how they’ve made their money. Still more feel shame about having more than anyone else and don’t want anyone to know. 

Then there is shame in having less, perhaps because of a job loss. Or there is shame in a path not taken, a career that feels like a dead end or is not glamorous. There may be shame in having been tricked or swindled in a way that is costly or shame in big mistakes that have led to the need for a move to a smaller residence or some other large disruption. 

Talking about these feelings is as good of a way as any to start the conversation with a spouse about how to start a conversation with a child or children. Spouses who grew up in different social classes may well have very different ideas about how to approach the topic. If you don’t have a spouse, try confiding in a sibling or close friend. Ask other parents what their kids ask and how they answer. 

Many parents also feel shame in not knowing enough about money to teach their kids or talk to them about it, or they’re ashamed of their own habits around money. But teaching and talking out loud with children, especially older ones, is as good of a way to shape yourself up and get over it as any. You’re a role model, they’re watching your every move now anyway, and they probably have taken in way more than you think about how you spend and what that says. Might as well talk about it.

Q: When researching for your book, what did you notice about parental partnerships and different approaches to money, and how that influences the kids? How involved is your wife in the money messages that you bring to parenting your child?

Lieber: The most important thing here is not to fight about money with your spouse (or ex-spouse) in front of your kids. When I talk to adults about the topic, so many of them have intense memories of loud fights over money when they were growing up and having been led to believe that money is a source of stress and strain first and foremost. It’s those recollections that often lead those grownups to not talk about money at all, for fear of repeating the same patterns with their own spouse. 

Q: A lot of parents are co-parenting with a former partner, how do you think separate households can collaborate to give kids a consistent message? This wasn’t a focus of the book, but when a child could have as many as four parents and twice as many grandparents through remarriage, how can they all begin to balance those influences, which is probably trickier than the influence of the media?

Lieber: The fact is, many times they cannot give kids a consistent message. Ex-spouses are sometimes not on speaking terms, and even if they are, they don’t agree about money and 1,000 other things. One spouse may have more money than another or is willing to spend more (or go into debt) to show the kids a good time or lavish them with toys or experiences to make up for whatever pain and distance exists in the family relationships. 

This is a hard thing for the parent with less (or who chooses to buy or do less) to explain. Kids will demand an explanation, and I do believe they are entitled to one. This is confusing, after all, and it’s their job to figure out how the world (and their world) works. But it can be extremely difficult to explain your choices without disparaging your former spouse. Try to avoid doing that anyway if you possibly can. Explain that you’ve simply chosen to make different choices. Lay out your budget. If you’re choosing not to spend more, even if you could afford to, remind your children that it is your job to set limits so that the kids will know how to do the same thing for themselves when they get older. Give them some power or control over whatever budget you do have if you can, and let them make some choices for themselves about tradeoffs. 

Q: What kinds of financial details do you think are appropriate to withhold from kids of particular ages, and when do you think those details should be shared, if ever?

Lieber: I don’t think we should tell kids how much money we make until they are ready. Most aren’t ready (having practiced with money themselves for a decade, having learned about all of the household bills, having proven they are discrete) until they are at least 16 or so. 

To me it makes sense not to voluntarily offer up information to children that we think will cause them anxiety. But I also believe in the no-lying rule. 

Q: Your entire book spoke to me about family trust. Parents who trust their children to treat private information with respect, and children who trust their parents because they know that nothing is off-limits when it comes to conversation and learning. Would you agree that the unspoiled child is one who is given the gifts of trust and respect, and if so, how can parents continue to build these attributes?

Lieber: Agreed. Most younger kids are not ready to keep private information private and we shouldn’t test them unless we don’t mind certain things getting out. When kids ask for it, remind them that childhood (and their teenager years especially) are partly a years-long discretion test that parents are conducting. Are they keeping their friends’ information to themselves, or getting in trouble for spreading gossip? Are they reading their siblings’ journals or tattling on them inappropriately? Is other family information leaking out somehow? If so, let them know that they have flunked this part of the test. Until they can pass, they don’t get to discuss the household income or net worth, which is private information.

One other useful tactic to try with teens as they approach readiness, especially those from families who have more money than average: Remind them that the information really doesn’t have much use outside of their house. Their friends probably aren’t going to ask about your family’s income, and if your kids share the information anyway, they’ll sound like braggarts and jerks. No kid wants to flunk their parents’ discretion tests but they definitely don’t want to flunk their friends’ jerk tests. 


Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at

Suspended in Social Mobility

Suspended in Social Mobility

By Amanda Rose Adams


For the past seven years, my kids have attended our neighborhood elementary school. The school was recently classified as a Title One institution. According to the US Department of Education, “Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school.”

For many years well over 50% of our school’s students have been eligible for free or reduced lunch, but my children are not part of that 50%+ percent. At our elementary school, we’ve been the minority of families who are decidedly and comfortably middle class.

My daughter only has nine more school days before she leaves our Title One school to join her brother in middle school next fall. Our middle school has the lowest percentage of at-risk need funding of any school in our district, less than 2%. We are going from a school where most of the school directory addresses are in one of the biggest trailer parks in our state to a school where we’ve seen kids picked up in Lamborghinis and limousines.

According to the principal at the middle school, close to one hundred percent of the students have smart phones. I can assure you it’s not fully one hundred percent because my son does not have a cell phone of any sort, smart or not. We simply cannot afford to arm a sixth grader with a telephone for his convenience or ours. Once again we are in the minority, still middle class but closer to the margins than many families at this school.

My husband and I look back over our children’s tenure at the lower income school with mixed feelings. We are glad we didn’t try to “choice” out of our neighborhood school because we wanted our kids to understand that not everyone has the same advantages and possessions. We’re glad that they had so many English-learning classmates. We are glad that we had the school’s social worker translate birthday party invitations to be inclusive. Diversity is one of the values the school celebrates.

We did “choice” our son out of the middle school he would have been bussed to because we wanted him to have a chance to make new friends. He was never athletic enough to blend in with his peers in elementary school and a new crowd seemed the right choice for him. Where we live if a family wants to opt out of their default school, they must submit a request in writing by the January before the next school year begins, and even then a change of school is not guaranteed. The middle school he’s at now was actually third on our list of three alternatives. We knew little about it before he was assigned, but it’s the one the school district chose for us.

In elementary school, our kids were getting easy As for years. They’ve been coasting, which we learned this year when our sixth grade son was buried in homework and struggled to legitimately earn solid Bs. We’ve not only seen him work harder, we’ve seen his writing and math skills improve dramatically. At his old school we never pushed him to join the gifted and talented program because we knew he wouldn’t push himself. In this new school, whether it’s his age, his teachers, or his peers, he’s found his drive.

We expect our daughter to really take off in middle school and are hoping to see her communication skills blossom like her brother’s have. We are so happy with the academic rigor middle school that we wonder if we did wrongly by our kids by not trying to “choice” them into a more challenging school sooner.

For the past several years we were stubbornly loyal to our neighborhood elementary school, volunteering regularly and donating supplies and hosting classroom parties. We didn’t want to be those people who thought their kids were too good to go to school with the poor kids. This was especially important to me because I actually lived in a trailer park from kindergarten until sixth grade. My siblings and I were the kids who got free and reduced lunch. My family ate government cheese and drank canned pineapple juice from the USDA Commodities program. It seemed like a betrayal of my family of origin and an enormous hypocrisy of self to segregate my own children from other kids just because the other kids lacked money. What I didn’t understand until later is how hard the teachers have to work to make up for other gaps that many kids without money also possess, like never attending preschool or not having books at home and often not having a parent at home.

By doing right by our neighbors and our values, I do sometimes wonder if we did right by kids? Our son seems to be catching up quickly, and I expect no different from our daughter. If we created a gap by indulging our values of equality and fairness ahead of our value of education, it is our responsibility and our great privilege to close it with the myriad of resources at our disposal. One of those privileges is sending our kids to a middle school that challenges them. It’s now up to our kids to reach their full potential and for us to support that. I wonder about our choices, but I don’t regret them. In raising children, I would far rather error on the side of compassion over competition because that’s the lesson I most want them to take into the future.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at


Photo: gettyimages



By Amanda Rose Adams


As he approaches twelve, he doesn’t remember these things that happened the month he turned three.


My eleven-year-old and I exchange my phone so he can type messages to me. I read them at red lights. His last message reads, “I need to spit.” I tell him to spit into the gauze over his mouth while I grab more to pack atop the bloody pile. By the time we get through the ER door, his hand and the new gauze is saturated with blood.

The security guard wants my Leatherman scissor before we can enter. I hand him my entire key chain, and he gives me a slip of paper and an apologetic smile. The receptionist takes my insurance card while my son types, “I need a drinking fountain NOW!” I ask if he needs to spit, and he nods emphatically. The receptionist points to a pile of expandable cups. I take one, extend the attached bag, and hold it for my son while he spits out so much blood that I feel lightheaded. In case the blood is not convincing enough, I play my ER fast-pass card. “He has a single-ventricle heart. He’s on blood thinners. He’s had twelve heart surgeries.”

I am not above this truthful trickery to get my son seen more quickly. But I am not worried about his heart right now. I am worried about the blood and how his teeth came through the outside of his mouth thirty minutes ago when he tripped and hit the wooden stairs in our home. I am worried that one of the messages he typed on my phone says, “My head hurts.” I am worried because there is so much blood, and even though this isn’t nearly as serious as other emergencies we’ve faced, I’m still his mom and I can’t bear to see my child bleed.

We sit, not long, and a stranger asks if my son is going to lose a tooth. I hadn’t thought of the teeth, just the blood. Teeth are a major concern for the nurse and attending PA. His neck doesn’t hurt and he hasn’t thrown up, so concussion is something we will monitor but not escalate. His teeth seem attached, and we will go to the dentist first thing in the morning for x-rays and additional treatment.

Now it is just skin, gums and the blood. My son is terrified of stitches. He doesn’t want a shot in his face. He doesn’t want a scar, even if it’s like the one Han Solo shares with Indiana Jones. He rates his pain a four of ten and cried only long enough for the shock of the fall to pass, but his fear of the needles and thread now send him into a panic. Fortunately, the “through and through” of teeth piecing skin only partially perforated the outside of his mouth. After a lengthy saline irrigation, the PA glues closed the wound beneath his lower lip.

The first nurse wants to listen to his heart before she takes her dinner break. She’s learned about kids like my son in school but has never met one. He is happy to let her listen. He even lifts his shirt and shows her his scars. I point out a constellation of twenty-one scars on his torso, all from chest tubes. Little ticks running down his sternum were made after a lethal infection and death averted through emergency surgery, weeks of hospitalization, and the last great antibiotic. When they closed his chest, for the fifth time, too little healthy skin remained to easily stretch over his breastbone. What remained was pulled so tightly that the sutures left their own tension scars where they held the wound closed. Now, as he approaches twelve, he doesn’t remember these things that happened the month he turned three.

The pharmacies are closed, so the second nurse gives my son applesauce and an antibiotic. She gives me a prescription, and sends us on our way. In the car, I tell my boy how brave he is. He tells me, now that he doesn’t need to hold bloody gauze over his closed wound, that his teacher’s daughter had to have two stitches and his friend at school had to have seven in his knee! I ask him if he realizes that he’s had more stitches than anyone I’ve ever met, but he didn’t know that. He doesn’t remember that blood, those tubes, or the three times before his memory begins that he almost died. I’m glad he doesn’t remember, but I’ll never forget.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at

My First Tattoo

My First Tattoo

By Amanda Rose Adams


I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.


For years I joked I would never get a tattoo because I wouldn’t pay someone to poke me with a needle unless it was medically necessary. I’d never considered spiritual necessity might lead me to a tattoo.

My friend Heather had one word, “Worthy,” tattooed on her forearm, and I admired it as a bold declaration in a world that conditions girls to question our own worth until we doubt it entirely. Heather died on November 30th; she was forty-one. While I’d considered copying her tattoo for some time, losing Heather made me commit to it. Yet I wanted the tattoo to be unique to me. On January 1, 2015, I had my first and possibly last tattoo placed on my left upper arm. It is the indelible word “Worthy,” with the addition of one yellow and one pink rose.

Twenty-six years ago, I was fourteen. In the glare of a pink reading lamp I discovered some small bumps on my left shoulder and upper arm. Several hours later, my arm felt like my skin had been massaged by thorns. This began a lifetime of self-harm.

My self-harm escalated to include needles, pins, tweezers, and nail clippers. It spread like an infection to my chest, legs, face, neck and even my stomach. While I inflicted injury, I never hurt. The poking, picking, digging, and scraping was all relaxing. The pain only came when I stopped. I was trying to excavate the thing inside me that made me wish for death. I never found it, but I left a landscape of scars, like strip-mines in the surface of my skin. I’m extremely pale, so most people don’t see my ancient scars, but I see every flaw in my skin, whether I’m looking or not. Each mark is like a glowing diode, a pixel of imperfection.

It all began in my upper left arm, so that is where my tattoo went, covering some of my deepest and widest scars. “Worthy,” shouts bold and dark against my pale skin and scars. My middle name is Rose. My yellow rose symbolizes my friend Heather, but yellow roses were also my mom’s favorite flower during her marriage to my father. Dad always bought Mom yellow roses, but he died almost eighteen years ago when he was forty-eight and I was twenty-two. My yellow rose represents memory and loss.

A pink rose (according to many tattoo websites) stands for healing, among other things. Traditionally pink roses represent gratitude. My pink rose is entirely centered on healing. I’m healing from my self-harm and the ancient pain of sexual abuse and isolation that led me there. I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.

Yet, I still am healing in the present, and trying not to pick at my skin at all, but especially in front of my kids. Leaving a pimple alone is nearly impossible for me, and I’m ashamed to admit my children have seen me pick at my skin. Now they are entering adolescence and getting their own pimples, and I’m terrified that my actions will teach or worse—have already taught them to be violent against their own bodies.

My beloved husband doesn’t understand my tattoo or how I could question my own worth. I know he loves me, just as I know my children love me, but the lies we tell ourselves as children are insidious. They haunt us well into adulthood. My tattoo is a rebuke to my doubts and reminds me that I was as innocent as my own children are when other people harmed me and when I began harming myself.

The tattoo reminds me to be honest with my children about their own self-worth and about my own. This tattoo, easily covered by a t-shirt, is not a declaration to the larger world, it is an affirmation and a pledge to myself in the second half of my life to set an example of self-care and self-respect that I deserve and want my children to inherit. Some people think tattoos are mutilations, but mine is the conscious art of reclamation from the true mutilation I did to myself out of self-loathing. My tattoo is the final word on the question of my self-worth.

I may never get another tattoo, but I might have the word “Loved,” with a deep red rose added beneath “Worthy.” In Latin Amanda, my first name, means, “Worthy of Love,” and I am worthy, I am loved, and so are the people I love in return, including myself.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at

The Ugly Side of Pretty

The Ugly Side of Pretty

WO Ugly Side of PRetty ARTBy Amanda Rose Adams

My daughter doesn’t know she’s beautiful. I think she knows she’s “pretty” because people have been telling her that since she can first remember.  Despite my best feminist intentions, I’ve told her she’s pretty, but for reasons she cannot understand. She thinks everyone is pretty, that it’s just part of being human. She’s right, every human is beautiful, but not every human turns heads.

My ten-year-old daughter is traditionally beautiful. Her face is symmetrical, her eyes are big but not buggy, and strangers have been commenting on her uncommonly common beauty since she was a newborn. I’m not bragging about her beauty; in fact I’m troubled by it. It was fun having a baby that everyone noticed, but she’s ten now. Puberty is advancing on her body like a creeping vine, and I’m not the only one who notices.  On our way to the park the other night, a grown man, a teenage boy, and a gaggle of middle school boys all looked at my child in a way that made me uncomfortable, but she did not notice. She was too busy racing to the tire swing, unaware of anything between her and her goal of spinning until she was dizzy.

She has always been interested in math and architecture. She loves Minecraft enough to save her allowance to buy her own account and has her own set of Pokémon cards. She is creative, kind, smart, and, yes, beautiful. None of her attributes seem like problems until I notice a man my own age staring at my child. This is when I worry she might be too kind, the wrong kind of smart, and too pretty for her own good.

Some mothers may not notice when men or older boys stare too long at their daughters, but I do. I notice it now because I didn’t notice it when I was ten. I was like my daughter in many ways, oblivious to things beyond my own attention span and enmeshed in my private creative space. I also hit puberty early, even earlier than her: My period began seven weeks before I turned ten. By the time I was eleven, when most of my classmates were getting training bras, I was in a C-cup.

Before my body betrayed me, I was indifferent to it. Unlike my daughter, I was not strong and didn’t swing across the monkey bars. I wasn’t boldly climbing trees; instead, I climbed up to my top bunk and played with my Barbies and read my books. I didn’t really notice my body changing. My classmates pointed it out in third grade. Soon after, the older boys and girls at my Lutheran school saw fit to comment on my chest and ask me if I stuffed my bra . . . I didn’t even own a bra. My twenty-eight-year-old mother was in denial that her oldest daughter’s body was unfurling so quickly. My puberty didn’t begin well, and it got worse before it got better.

I didn’t notice the boys looking at me, but my dad did, and it made him angry. He couldn’t direct his anger at strangers, so he directed it at me. He used his Bowie knife to cut up a pair of my shorts because they were suddenly too short. All my shorts had been just as short the summer before, but something had changed. When the thirteen-year-old boy across the street asked me to go with him to the Boys and Girls Club to play PacMan—it was O.K. because he had enough quarters for both of us—my dad yelled and sent me to my room. It wasn’t OK. I was grounded just for being asked.

While I was still ten, my babysitter took me with her to the local high school football practice. Sophomore and junior boys shook their heads when she told them how old I was. She and her friend laughed, but I was even more confused than the boys. My dad was not amused, and I was no longer allowed near the high school.

The summer I was eleven, a twelve-year-old boy I adored and his fourteen-year-old friend took turns holding my arms behind my back in the swimming pool and tugging my swimsuit up and down, reaching in where they could. When I complained to my mom that the boys wouldn’t leave me alone (without explaining exactly what they were doing), she told me that I must have liked it or else I would have gotten out of the pool. As overbearing as my dad had become, my young mother was indifferent. For years I didn’t realize these boys were molesting me because I had liked one of them, though I didn’t like him after that summer. I was so confused by the entire situation that I just tried to forget  and pretend it never happened.

Soon after, my sisters and I were left with the husband of a family friend while my mom went shopping with a friend. The husband promptly sent my two younger sisters to the basement to watch his infant daughter while he and I “made cookies.” My idea of making cookies was making sure they didn’t burn and carefully navigating the spatula against the hot cookie sheet like I’d learned after I burned my finger in 4H.

His idea of making cookies was pressing me up against his kitchen cabinets and rubbing his erect penis against the small of my back while holding himself up with one arm against the upper cabinet and grasping my right breast with the other. I ducked under his left arm and raced to the bathroom, where I waited until my mom came back. Then I got in trouble for not helping clean up the mess in the kitchen. I never ate any of those cookies. That’s around the time when I started eating and couldn’t stop.

I was an anxious child. The way I explained these painful invasions to my young self was that I must be ugly. Why else would people want to hurt me? Why else would I keep getting in trouble? Besides, vanity was discouraged in my conservative religious upbringing. When I was younger, one of my Sunday school teachers told me how much I looked like my mother. I did not take it as a compliment. I never thought my short, broad mother or grandmother were beautiful. I thought beautiful women looked like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, and I knew when I stopped growing at 5′ 2″ that I was not a beautiful woman.

Convinced I must be ugly if men and boys were staring at me, I kept my head down. In high school, I hid my body under layers of clothing two or three sizes too big until I started sneaking so much food that my body began to fit the clothes. Now I was not only ugly but fat, too. I began harming myself with tweezers and straight pins, trying to dig something out of me like a splinter. While this was highly destructive, it was the only thing that soothed my increasingly suicidal mind.

By the fall of tenth grade, my home life was volatile, my school life isolating, and I was at a breaking point where I had to decide if I was going to live or die. Volunteering at a nursing home gave me the shot of self-esteem I needed to choose life, but I still believed I was ugly. One day during one of our many fights, my mom asked what my problem was. “I’m ugly and I hate myself!” I screamed. “Are you happy now?” It was one of the rare moments that I left her speechless. When she finally found her voice, she said, “You’re very pretty,” and I said, “You have to say that, you don’t mean it,” and I hid away in my bedroom like a troll. I hid for a very long time.

When I was twenty-seven, my maternal grandmother died. At her funeral, my great-aunt told me that she always thought my grandmother was a beautiful woman. Even then, my image of what was beautiful was skewed by the conviction that anyone who looked like me was ugly. Aunt Mary’s comment drove me to look at pictures of my grandmother and not see my myself. I did the same with photographs of my mother, seeking their beauty and trying to absolve them of my ugliness. I didn’t even feel beautiful on my wedding day, maybe almost passably pretty, but not beautiful.


In 2003, I had a beautiful baby boy with half a heart who was promptly and precisely butchered to save his life. As I dragged my breast pump across three hospitals and thousands of miles, I didn’t think about what I looked like. I was done with outside ugliness and instead battled the ugly thought of losing my child. After his second open-heart surgery, I was surprised to find I was pregnant again.

Then, there she was, my beautiful, perfect little girl, whom I would have to leave behind more times than I could count to take her brother to doctor’s visits and for two long weeks during a hospitalization. It took me longer to learn her face than his, and it kept changing, pudgy as a baby, thinning out in elementary school. When people would say that she looked like me, I would dismiss that as an insult to my child. I knew my daughter was beautiful as surely as I knew I was not.

A couple of years ago, we had family photos taken and there she was, my mini-me. My daughter and I looked so much alike, I was stupefied by the resemblance. Another time I was brushing her hair and looked up to see our hair the same cut and color, parted the same direction, our faces eerily similar. I was startled as if a stranger was looking back at me, challenging me to call her ugly.

That was the moment, after surviving so much fire, that the smoke cleared and I realized that being ugly had been my greatest comfort. Being ugly meant that I could still be a good person. Being ugly meant that the things that had happened to me when I was eleven weren’t my fault. Being ugly meant that everyone else was judging me for my looks so I could ignore that I was socially awkward and deeply wounded. Being ugly and fat meant that maybe, someday I could be pretty and thin. Being ugly meant I could keep eating and cutting myself because I didn’t deserve to actually feel good. Being ugly was the barrier I put between my skin and my soul to hold back all the pain rotting on the inside.

But that day, I couldn’t deny that I was pretty and had always been. I had to admit that my daughter looks like the girls I always envied growing up, and she also looks like me. As my daughter approaches the age where I became ugly, I have to own that I never really was. Ugly things were done to me at an age and left wounds that never healed quite right, but I wasn’t ugly.

My compulsion to protect my daughter from the unwanted attention of men and boys is only partially driven by my maternal love for her. That is part of it, but I am also motivated by the ache in my heart that I was not protected from the actions of others. Being ugly kept me from facing how fragile I felt, but it also kept me from seeing how fragile I was. Now the ugly mask is broken, the sooty mirror is clear. When I realized my daughter couldn’t be beautiful if I was ugly, it was like tearing off a blister to reveal a raw and tender space. Seeing my face in hers means owning that I am beautiful, too.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her nonfiction writing has been featured in The New York Times Motherlode blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Bioethics Newsletter, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Squalorly Literary Journal, Evening Street Review, and Scrubs Nursing Magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her @amandaroseadams on Twitter.