Cute little boy at the barber shop getting his first haircut with his father
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I Had “No Haircuts” Written Into Our Custody Agreement

And it may have been the only co-parenting battle I won.

When my ex-husband and I were drawing up our custody papers, I guess you could say I had some big asks. I wanted him to pay child support. He did not want this. And, in the end, I guess he won. I wanted our children to live with me and visit him every second weekend. He wanted this too, for a while. I wanted him to help pay for soccer and music lessons and swimming. He did not. I wanted Christmas morning and so did he. So does everyone, probably — it’s the big payoff.

Lastly and perhaps most specifically, I did not want him to be allowed to cut our sons’ hair. I did not want him to have any say about their hair at all, in fact, not ever. And this was the hill I was prepared to die on. To that end, I had it written in to our custody agreement that he could not take them to a barber shop or a salon or even that cute little kiddie haircut place I had taken them to where they got to sit inside a rocking horse and watch episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants while a nice person gently styled their hair.

This last one, the hair front, might be the only ask I won. Although child support would have been pretty nice, too.

I have four sons, and I have always loved their hair. I was one of those moms who couldn’t bring myself to take them for their first haircut. They loved their hair too, all of them. They loved being able to slick it back with hair gel or put tiny little ponytails in it when they played dress-up. They loved the first part of washing their hair, forming it into a white foamy mohawk on top of their heads before I rinsed out the soap, the only part they hated. They loved having their hair brushed and combed and fussed over.

My one son loved it most of all. And I will never know why it was this way, but his dad hated it. Deeply. Once, when we were still married and I was working at a local pub in the evenings, he shaved all of their heads as well as his own. I came home from work that night and saw my sweet baby boy laying in his toddler bed, not yet 2 years old, with his head completely shaved, bits of his duck fluff still attached to his T-shirt and in his ears. He had cried himself to sleep and was still doing that shuddery breathing thing kids do when their sleep is troubled. His older brother slept with his baseball cap on, he was so embarrassed by his newly shorn head.

I couldn’t put into words why it horrified me so much, but it did. My husband reasoned that he had just saved us $60 or so in haircuts, and “they’re boys, and boys don’t care about hair,” but they did.

We separated not long after that. I left with all of the children to live in a new city, and he moved in with a new girlfriend. I let their hair grow a bit. I let them pick out cool haircuts and bad haircuts and weird haircuts because this is what it is to grow up and pick for yourself.

I knew about bodily autonomy. And I knew my kids wanted to pick the way they looked for themselves.

He did not agree. One weekend when they visited him, my ex-husband sat our son down at the kitchen table, put a bowl on his head, and cut around it. A literal bowl cut. This would be a funny story he told his friends, one of those coming-of-age, “look at what a down-to-earth dad” I am kind of stories. “It’s good for boys,” he would tell me. “You wouldn’t understand.” This was the hair equivalent of making a child wash their mouth out with soap, something else he did while I was at work. Another cliche he figured would make for good copy at Friday night beers.

That Sunday night, my son laid in bed staring at the ceiling. His eyes bone dry and red. “I can’t go to school,” he told me. “Please don’t make me go to school.” It wasn’t just the hair cut. It was being held in place with a bowl on his head. His dad’s friends laughing and telling him “It’s good for you; my dad did it to me when I was a kid” like they were starring in a sitcom and he was their prop. I tried to take him for a haircut, but he was too afraid. Too scarred from that feeling of hands on his shoulders, holding him in place. Picking out who he got to be for him and laughing, laughing, laughing.

I told his dad no more haircuts. He shaved his head the next time. “Only bullies have shaved heads,” my son told me then. “Everyone will think I’m a bully.”

And that was that. A custody agreement was drawn up. No more haircuts. Ever. Not even a trim.

I hated sending my sons away every weekend; I’ll admit that now. I hated watching their eyes go sort of dead and quiet in the back of the car. I hated that I didn’t have a choice. Because he wasn’t technically doing anything wrong. Not when he shaved their heads. Not when he refused to put sunscreen on them or let them sleep with their night light or gave them snacks he knew they hated. He was just being a different kind of parent. A dad. Something I wouldn’t understand because I grew up without a dad and so of course I couldn’t know.

I knew about control though. I knew about bodily autonomy. And I knew my kids wanted to pick the way they looked for themselves.

We won. Eventually.