Our son, our oldest child, is now 7 (7 and a half, he would want me to clarify). On the day he was born, the midwives placed him on my chest (at least that’s what I assume, I was too exhausted to notice who was doing the placing) and I got my first glimpse of his tiny red face.
“Oh, he has a cleft,” our midwife observed. She was surprised since, like many clefts, it hadn’t shown up on our ultrasounds. My husband nearly fainted (reason #3 midwives bring oxygen to a birth: husband resuscitation) but not for the reason you might think. You see, my husband was a cleft baby, too.
When my husband was born in the early 70s, plastic surgery, which only really began during the First World War, was still a young discipline. There was a lot to learn and practices were evolving. While I’m sure that in 20 years we’ll look back on today’s surgical techniques and marvel at how far we’ve come, even the experience of being in a children’s hospital has evolved enormously in the last 40 years.
When my husband had the nine (yes, nine) surgeries required to correct his cleft, his parents weren’t allowed to stay with him. He was on his own with the nurses at night and, while I’m sure they were excellent, it was pretty terrifying. It was also painful—imagine having repeated surgeries on your mouth, lips, and nose, particularly throughout childhood and adolescence when you’re so self-conscious about your appearance and during an era when there wasn’t much awareness of bullying and how damaging it can be.
My husband has had to endure comments about his appearance all his life: from classmates, my family, strangers… and all of this flashed before his eyes when he first saw our son. Would he have to endure this, too?
Fortunately, the world has changed. Our son’s cleft turned out to be significantly less severe than his father’s had been. He’s only required two surgeries to correct it and the second one was very minor (plastic surgeons, it turns out, are endearingly perfectionist). We have been extremely well taken care of by our pediatrician, our children’s hospital, our surgical team, and the travelling clinic that comes to our town every year. It’s really been an extraordinary experience. Cleft babies have the most incredible smiles, gummy and wide; they light up a room.
I felt a little sad when it was gone. If you met him today, you’d hardly know that he had ever had a cleft; the scar is that subtle. He was beautiful before the repair, and he’s beautiful now.
I’ve always called him my “beautiful boy.” Partly because I enjoyed the alliteration and partly, I admit, because I was trying to push back against my fears for him. Although his peers have only ever had innocent questions about his lip, I’m still anxious that someone is going use it to hurt him. I worry that other people might not see in him the overwhelming beauty that I see. I want him to know, without any doubt, that his mother thinks he is totally gorgeous, before the surgery and after. So “beautiful boy” he has been, since that very first day.
But, at the advanced age of 7 and a half, he’s started to push back against his mother. He informed me a few weeks ago that “boys aren’t beautiful, Mommy; boys are handsome.” Every once in awhile he’ll let me get away with it but I’m going to have to start inventing some new pet names pretty soon.
But late at night, when I’m quite sure he’s asleep, oftentimes with a book fallen across his face, I’ll lift off the book, kiss his sweet cheek, and whisper, “I love you, my beautiful boy.”
For those looking for support for families and children with facial differences, About Face was very helpful to us in the early days and have great resources on their site.