The Haircut

The Haircut

By Dorothy O’Donnell


I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.


The hairdresser grabbed a hunk of my daughter’s waist-length mane and scowled. Look how dirty and messy,” she said, shaking her head. “You need to learn to take care of your hair.”

We’d stopped by the salon spur of the moment after school. It wasn’t our usual place, but I knew they took walk-ins. Sadie needed a trim and wanted bangs. Linda, the hairdresser who greeted us, said she was free and led my daughter to a chair in front of a mirrored wall. At first, my 11-year-old preened at her reflection. But as Linda rattled off a list of her hair crimes, she dropped her gaze to the floor.

After a long day at school, Sadie’s hair wasn’t looking beauty pageant perfect. But I didn’t appreciate the way Linda was treating her, the way she assumed her tresses were always a disaster. Sadie is usually a stickler about brushing her hair and often gets compliments on it.

As Linda continued to criticize her hair—split ends, greasy roots, too long—my daughter slumped lower in her seat. My gut screamed at me to forget the haircut and get my girl the hell out of there. Instead, I chuckled awkwardly and did nothing.

Shy by nature, I grew up with a moody alcoholic father and, at a young age, learned to keep quiet to avoid triggering his anger. I’ve worked hard to shed this behavior as an adult, but still slip back into default mode more often than I’d like.

I’m trying to raise my daughter to be comfortable sticking up for herself. And I knew, as I avoided her wounded eyes in the mirror, that I was setting a terrible example—not to mention being a wimpy mom—by remaining mute while this woman belittled her. Yet I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.

As I paid and tipped Linda, she leaned across the cash register to offer some parting advice: “Tell her she needs to wash her hair,” she hissed through cupped hands, as if Sadie, glued to my side, couldn’t hear her. “And brush it!”

I gave another feeble laugh, grabbed Sadie’s hand, and fled.

“That lady was such a bitch!” my daughter said as we walked across the mall. “Why did you tip her?”

“Sadie!” I scolded.

But I knew she was right. And that her saying the “B” word didn’t compare to what I’d failed to say to Linda. I stopped between two rows of terra-cotta buildings and looked down at her.

“You know what?” I said. “You’re right. I’m going back.”

“To take her tip away?” Sadie asked, hopefully.

I explained it wasn’t about the money. It was about letting the hairdresser know it wasn’t okay to talk to her like that.

I left Sadie to browse in a toy store and marched back to the salon, my head churning with all the great lines I’d lay on Linda. But when I approached the entrance, I saw she was busy with another client. Other customers sat in the waiting area, flipping through magazines or tapping on their phones.

My throat tightened; my mouth went dryI froze a few yards away from the door, too scared to go in. Defeated, I slinked back to the toy store and found Sadie in the doll aisle.

“Did you tell her?” she asked expectantly.

I stammered that Linda was busy—maybe I’d call her manager later. Sadie swatted my outstretched hand away like it was a fly and bolted out the door. Disgusted with myself, I chased after her. I steered her back to the toy store, then headed for the salon.

Linda was finishing up with a silver-haired man when I arrived. I took a deep breath and went inside.

“Can I help you?” she asked, raising her brows.

“I just wanted to talk to you for a minute,” I said, surprised at how calm I sounded, how unruffled I was by the curious stares of the other stylists and customers following us as we stepped outside.

“I know you probably didn’t mean to, but you hurt my daughter’s feelings when you said those things about her hair,” I said, looking her straight in the eye.

Linda blinked.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was just trying to help her.”

Whether she was telling the truth or not didn’t matter. My anger at her—and at myself—vanished as soon as I said what I needed to. I’d scored a victory for my daughter. For us both.

Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder and blogs at



Something to Sing About

Something to Sing About

By Dorothy O’Donnell


“Situations that would give most kids a mild case of the butterflies—like performing in front of a crowd—can push Sadie over the edge and trigger explosive anger or panic attacks.”


We arrive at my 9-year-old’s school talent show a little late. I made sure we didn’t get there too early. Sadie doesn’t go on until after intermission and I worried that sitting through all those other acts would only increase her jitters. And mine.

The auditorium is warm and humid as a hothouse, the air thick with the smell of popcorn and pizza. Hoards of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends cram into rows of folding metal chairs or stand along the walls. The size of the crowd overwhelms me. We are so doomed, I think.

Sadie yanks her hand out of mine and bolts off to hunt for Mary, her best friend, who promised she’d be there to cheer her on. I watch her mane of honey-streaked brown curls bounce behind her as she vanishes in the crowd.

Standing behind the last row of chairs, I alternate between watching the door for my husband, Jim, who’s meeting us here after work, and trying to focus on five boys in white karate robes showing off their kicks and chops on stage. But all I can think about is Sadie. How she’ll be up on that stage, all alone, in less than an hour. Shy and reserved myself, I was beyond proud when she decided to enter the talent show a couple of months ago—something that wouldn’t have been possible for her even a year earlier. Now that it’s almost time for her to perform, though, I’m not convinced either of us will survive.

Sadie was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder in kindergarten. Ever since, I’ve often felt I have not only earned the right to be a helicopter mom, but that I owe it to my daughter to be one. Situations that would give most kids a mild case of the butterflies—like performing in front of a crowd—can push Sadie over the edge and trigger explosive anger or panic attacks. There was a long period when her moods were so unpredictable and her self-esteem so low, I thought she’d spend her entire childhood sitting on the sidelines.

With ongoing therapy, she slowly gained enough self-control and confidence to start trying new things. She signed up for hip-hop and her school chorus. She discovered she loves singing and has a knack for writing songs. Music seems to soften the harsh voices in her head. Voices that tell her she’s stupid or doesn’t belong on this planet anymore.

For the talent show, Sadie planned to sing one of her own songs. She’d be the only singer performing an original number. And the only one who wouldn’t have pre-recorded background music to pump up the audience or hide behind. Just her and a microphone.

*   *   *

The auditorium lights flicker on for intermission. I scan the room for Sadie. No luck. The knot in my stomach tightens. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Jim.

“I can’t find Sadie,” I tell him.

“I’ll go look for her,” he says. “Don’t worry—she’ll be fine.”

I wish I could believe him. But my mind flashes back to earlier that afternoon when Sadie I and were at home. I made her a snack and settled her in front of the TV while I went into my room to change. When I was done, I sat down beside her on the sofa. The snack was untouched on the coffee table. Ignoring me, Sadie scowled at the TV screen. She clenched her fists so tightly her whole body trembled. It was a gesture I’d seen hundreds of times. One that turned the soft dimpled little hands I loved into weapons. I knew what was coming next.

“No, Sadie, ” I said firmly, grabbing her arms as she started to raise one to her face.

“I’m so angry!” she snarled. “I need to hit something!”

“It’s okay, honey,” I said, wrapping my arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “You don’t have to do the show if you don’t want to.”

“No!” she snapped, glaring at me. “I want to do it.”

She shoved my arm away, stomped down the hall, and slammed her bedroom door.

Maybe I shouldn’t have told her she could quit. But my doubts that she could get through the show had been growing since a rocky dress rehearsal earlier that week. After flubbing a couple of lyrics, she’d punched herself in the forehead.

On the drive home, I had tried to help Sadie shake it off. “Even Adele makes mistakes,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “That’s what rehearsals are for.” But inside, I feared I was setting her up to fail.

*   *   *      

The show director announces that intermission is ending; it’s time for the next group of performers to go to their places. I finally see Sadie bulldozing her way across the room towards me. When she reaches me, her face is crimson; her dark eyes brimming with tears.

“Mary had to leave,” she screeches. “I hate her!”

She erupts in sobs.

“I can’t do this!” she screams.

Other kids swarm around us. A few pause to peer at us with puzzled expressions. As I hug Sadie and smooth her hair, panic sweeps through me.

My first impulse is to grab my little girl and flee for the nearest exit. But we’ve made it this far. Is quitting really the right thing to do? My thoughts jerk back and forth in a vicious game of tug of war: Save her. Let her sing. Save her. Let her sing.

I steer her to the bleachers, still uncertain about what to do. We sit down, and I slip her hand into mine. After a few minutes, she stops crying. She loosens her grip on my hand a bit. The last of the performers settle around us; I tell Sadie I need to go down and find a seat.

“You okay?”

She nods, but her chin quivers. I squeeze her hand one last time as a trio of fifth-grade girls in ponytails and sequined mini-skirts prance across the stage.

“You’ll be great, honey,” I whisper, forcing a smile. “Just sing it the way you do in the car.”

My heart thumps louder than the Selena Gomez tune the girls gyrate to as I walk away. I stake out a spot by the concession stand in the back of the room. Jim is up front preparing to film Sadie. I stay put, my eyes glued on her. I remind myself that even if she bombs, she won’t be scarred for life. But that’s not how it feels. It feels like I’m shirking a mother’s most primal responsibility—to protect her child from harm.  Sadie looks so fragile, like a china doll teetering on the edge of a shelf. It takes every ounce of self-restraint I can muster not to swoop into the bleachers and pluck her to safety before she topples and shatters.

Then I notice her hands. She’s tapping them together, just barely, in tepid applause for a fellow performer. By the fourth act, a piano solo, she’s clapping with gusto. And by the time two gymnasts flip and fly through the air, she’s hooting and hollering along with everyone else.

Sadie is one of the last performers to take the stage. I hold my breath when she wobbles across it in her new, jewel-studded sandals. She stands there, blinking into the bright footlights. An expectant hush falls over the dark room. It’s quieter than it’s been all night. Clutching the microphone to her chest, Sadie starts to sing. Her soft voice wafts through the room.

The words catch in her throat a couple of times. But she gets through the whole song without forgetting a single line. The audience explodes in applause. Sadie dips her head in an awkward half-bow. When she rises, I swear she’s five inches taller. She soared—and landed safely—all by herself. And I’m so light I’m floating.

Dorothy O’Donnell’s essays and articles have been published on Brain, Child,,, Scary Mommy, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with a mental illness. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter @MVDorothy.


Reluctant Sorority Sisters

Reluctant Sorority Sisters


Water drop close up

By Dorothy O’Donnell

I sat with three other moms on ugly green wedges of modular seating in the lobby of the Stanford Psychiatric Services building. It was a Tuesday evening and we were waiting for our daughters to finish their first session of group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for kids with bipolar disorder. At first, we wrapped ourselves in cocoons of awkward silence. Our eyes bounced from our phones to the clock on the wall or—whenever it dinged, rolled back its heavy doors with a groan, and deposited someone into the shadowy room—the elevator.

I glanced at the pretty Asian woman sitting next to me. I remembered her kind smile when we’d all dropped off our girls—who ranged in age from 11 (Sadie) to 15—in the stuffy, windowless conference room on the third floor.

“Does your daughter have bipolar disorder?” I asked, tentatively, feeling like an idiot as soon as I did. Duh. Why else would she be here?

She nodded. In a soft voice she told me that Lily, 15, had only recently been diagnosed. But she’d had problems since she was 12 and had been hospitalized four times. Thanks to lithium, Lily was doing better, although the drug made her lethargic and slow.

Her father also had bipolar disorder. “He passed away a few years ago,” Lily’s mother whispered.  Tilting her head back, she pantomimed raising a bottle to her lips. “He drank a lot,” she said, lowering her arm. “He didn’t know he was bipolar.”

The matter of fact way she delivered this news hit me like the jolt of plunging into an icy lake. I was reminded, once again, just how deadly this illness can be. And how lucky we are that, in spite of her struggles, Sadie isn’t much sicker and is getting the help she needs.

Lily’s mom asked how old Sadie was when she was diagnosed. Her eyes widened when I said 6. The woman sitting across from us leaned forward, listening intently to our conversation.

“How old was your daughter when you knew something was wrong?” I asked her.

“Right away,” she replied, grimacing. “Amy cried all the time when she was a baby.”

Her husband’s denial about their daughter’s condition led them to divorce. She sighed and folded her arms tighter across her chest.

“Amy just goes into a really dark tunnel sometimes” she said, shaking her head.

The rest of us nodded. We all knew that tunnel. We knew how the strain of raising a child with a mental illness could chip away at even the most solid marriages. We knew what it was like to watch our girls flounder in school and lose friends. We’d felt the sting of skepticism from our own friends, relatives and others when we uttered the words “pediatric bipolar disorder.” We knew about clinging to the hope that each new medication would be the one that would prevent our child from ever crawling back into that tunnel.

The only mother who hadn’t yet spoken, a blonde woman with tired eyes, rose from her seat. She shared that her girl, Kylie, who was 12, had originally been diagnosed with ADHD.

“I sobbed when the doctor told me she had bipolar disorder,” she said.

The illness had ravaged her sister’s life. More nods. We’d all seen adult family members sidelined by bipolar disorder and robbed of their potential. We’d watched them succumb to addiction and push away those who love them with their erratic moods and behavior. And we knew how the lure of suicide, with its promise to end their pain forever, always clouded their futures.

Our formerly subdued group was suddenly chatty as a gathering of sorority sisters—which, in a way, we were. Talking over each other, we swapped stories and compared notes on symptoms and medications. We didn’t slow down until the elevator chimed and one of the older girls from the group swished past us in her long bohemian skirt, signaling the 90-minute therapy session was over.

Sadie was the last one to pop out of the elevator.

“How’d it go?” I asked as we headed to the parking lot, though the grin on her face answered my question.

“Really good!” she said. “But it went by so fast.”

I knew how she felt. I was pretty sure spending time with other girls who had bipolar disorder would help her. I hadn’t anticipated how therapeutic it would be for me to hang out in the lobby with their moms.

Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in various newspapers and on, and NPR. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder.

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