Shampoo. The word is vaguely obscene. Sham + poo :these hardly sound like substances that, combined, could render one clean. Sonically, shampoo does not present as a hygienic herbal solution bottled in a shower stall. Instead, its syllables tell of a darker substance threaded through one of our vast, glacier-inflated oceans: if sound ruled the English language in onomatopoetic grace, shampoo would be the word used to denote the fecal matter of the orca.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to decide these things—which words to attach to which items in the world. I wish I had that job. I wish I were Adam. In the Book of Genesis, he was given dominion over the birds and beasts. And how was this done? He got to name them. I think he probably enjoyed this God-given assignment because of the kind of guy he was—unencumbered by the stresses of the modern world. Free enough, perhaps, to enjoy a joyful task. He took his time and he came up with some real beauts. Adam gave us rhinoceros and dodo, three-toed sloth and albatross, brown recluse and blue-footed booby.
And me? In a more modest charge, I once was given joint dominion over three little beasties. And much like Adam—tossed out of Eden for taking the boss’s yogurt from the communal refrigerator—I had my domain then lost it. My authority began slipping from me a few scant years after I’d named my sons Simon, Bishop, and Koen (perhaps in a misguided attempt at invoking a law firm).
I was downgraded from divine presence to tolerated elder as one-by-one my sons began to reject certain rules and practices. My power over them began to wane, and this I think is no coincidence, the moment each of them started shampooing their own hair.
To establish the relationship of shampoo to power, I could return to the old testament to reference brawny Samson and his lovely if vindictive Delilah, who cut off his mane—seizing his strength—precisely because he refused to condition it, letting it dread up in that non-committal way some alt-boy drummers do. But I think the relation is more basic than that, less supernatural. To shampoo is to practice self-care. To become independent, to take responsibility for one’s own person and for the spilling over of that person into the world.
Hair, after all, is one of our only parts that we keep after it is dead, even to the point of cultivation. Nobody, at least no one I know, keeps a jar of spit at home, much less urine, menstrual blood, or shit. These we flush. Skin we shed—then vacuum up as household dust. Or don’t. But our hair many of us keep. We embrace this borderland between ourselves alive and ourselves unliving. We assign it some significance.
One such significance is that our hair belongs to us and us alone. It is a clear sign that we are becoming autonomous humans when we start to claim that territory—our locks—the border between us here and gone. And we don’t simply choose to own it. We police it.
“Mommy,” he said, “Mommy do not touch me there.” And by there, Simon meant his head.
He wasn’t even four.
I favor particular scents of shampoo. I like rosemary and mint, tea-tree oil, sometimes vanilla. Freesia makes me want to retch. I can take coconut, but only in the dead of winter to remind me that, yes, warmth will come again. Citrus and I do not mix: lemon reminds me of window cleaner, and lime—tequila.
For my young sons, I bought only one shampoo: Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears, but the purple one, with lavender.
When you are first able to wash your children’s hair without a cup, it is a fragile thing. You kneel beside them on the tile beside a tub filled up with no more than two inches of lukewarm water. They seem so lost inside the coffin-sized porcelain, and you think about the hundred tales you’ve heard (a friend of a friend, a cousin’s in-law’s neighbor) of infant and child drownings. It takes only an inch. It takes only two minutes of neglect. The tub might as well be an ocean. A bath is a dangerous proposition, a daily journey you navigate like an ancient sailor armed with only an astrolabe and stars. So you watch them like an albatross, big and swoopy, ready to dive in and retrieve. You place the flat of your hand behind their tiny bony shoulders, you make sure they don’t slip in the soapy water. And you are on your knees, leaning over, and they are entranced with some rubber animal or colored bubble concoction or their new-to-them external genitalia. And everything is good.
At some point during this evening ritual you must wash their hair. Why? Because hair collects germs and odor, and because a toddler’s hair is the measuring stick of your worth as a mother, at least to judgmental eyes lurking behind end-caps in grocery stores. I won’t lie about the ease I’ve felt with boys: a little girl’s hair reflects far more on her caregiver—strangers feel comfortable commenting on its length, the tightness of a braid, the straightness of a part, how it falls over her eyes or is pulled back in a tight-slicked bun years before she asks for ballet shoes. Still, my boys had days (still do) when their bedheads made them appear urchins ready to pick your pockets in some European art film circa 1963. So you need to wash their hair.
Children, like hair itself, are the avatars you send out beyond you and into the world, a border between a dead you and you immortal. What that meant for me, being a poet—a woman acutely aware of her own being in the world and one day not being—was that I forced myself to attend to their hair at least every other night.
At first it is a struggle: they don’t want to lean back beneath the faucet. They cry or they shriek, and you resort to a plastic cup and a hand towel to wipe their eyes between pours. But eventually, they give in… and together you find the sweet spot, the brief stretch of time when they lean back willingly, placing their cranium in the palm of your hand, and that palm can contain it, and your undeveloped bicep can easily lower them and control their descent, and they look as they do only when they sleep—peaceful, angelic—and you can imagine yourself having another. And once, or maybe twice, you do.
My boys fought and fight me on nearly everything: their clothes, their food, what they want to play, where they want to go, when they want to sleep, who they’re going to be. They used to fight me on this act too, this going against animal instinct—exposing their underside, extending their slender necks with eyes closed against the anticipated sting of soap—never imagining how often I pondered the weakness of those very bodies. How acutely I imagined (on the playground) their bones snapping, (in the kitchen) their blood spilling, (as they slept) their breath ending. As they were waking to life’s immense potential, I was becoming painfully aware of how suddenly it could be stripped away. But in this small recurrent moment, floating, limp as seaweed, they voluntarily submitted to me the keys to their existence… and the moment was singular and precious every time it happened.
And then it ended.
Simon was three-and-a-half, Bishop was five, and Koen—the baby—nearly six. At these ages they looked up at me and they said no. They wanted to be their own men, and I would have to start letting them. I didn’t have a choice. Here’s the thing: when a person asserts his or her personhood to you, if you are not a tyrant—you must relinquish your control. So I took a breath, and I began.
It was never permanent, this power.
When I kiss them goodnight—a gesture the seventeen-year-old allows me to make even now—I smell their childhood. I do not wash their hair anymore, it’s true, but I do purchase all the soap in the house. No longer Johnsons & Johnsons, but the lavender-vanilla mix I buy in bulk reminds me of the charge I held, their skulls in my hands, their carotid arteries pulsing just there beside the hollows of their collarbones, inches from the divot at the base of the neck that should have a name but does not.
I think it should be called the forgiveness.
My sons once offered up their forgiveness to me each night, and I did not pierce it with a knife or dig my thumbs into it until they suffocated. I did not. And this is what I think motherhood teaches: how to willingly and consciously relinquish one’s dominance over other humans.
Motherhood has been, for me, a dark ocean, tinged with whale waste and inhabited by giant squids and poisonous puffer fish and islands of plastic, an ocean whose algal blooms are failing, whose coral reefs are dying. As my children enter the world, I have become profoundly aware of how much of this earth is being lost as a result of human dominion, of how we refuse to let go. I have become sad. One day, not tomorrow, not in my boys’ lifetimes maybe, but someday—all of it will be gone—wiped out by our own arrogance or annihilated by some spite of the sun. I know this. And knowing how tenuous life is makes every tiny thread, each filament, that much more insanely beautiful. It does.
The scent of lavender will one day echo only an extinct flower.
Like my boys, I too have a mother. For years and years, she was a complete mystery to me. I didn’t know what she had done to me, or why she had done it, but it felt like a strange mixture of love and abandonment. She is there, and she is not. I am just now, as my first son prepares to leave my home, beginning to understand what happened between us. I am beginning to recognize the gift of her release.
What I think I also know is this: that if you have a mother, if she is still living and you return home to her briefly and she hugs you and buries her face in your neck and breathes in, awkwardly… I think at that moment it is good to be kind. To not push her away, or not too quickly, not too hard. That woman, she gave you your name, and then she held your life in her cupped hands before—mercifully and with more strength and sorrow than is commonly imagined—she dropped you.
We have to.
And then hope, beyond reason, that you find your way to some exquisite, distant shore.