My parents had a big surprise when I was born! Nowadays, technology is so advanced that parents-to-be can utilize 3-D ultrasounds to basically visualize the exact facial structure of their babies in utero. Services such as genetic counseling exist so parents who have genetic diseases or birth defects can speak to medical professionals to be informed of risks for their children. In 1974, these services and technologies did not exist or were not routinely used. Ultrasounds were not standard in obstetric care at that time, so most parents did not know ahead of time whether their child had any type of atypicality. On my day of birth, my parents were faced with some upcoming challenges. I was their firstborn child and they were brand new to ANY parenting, let alone parenting of a child with a birth defect. Sometimes I imagine myself in their position: excited to have a first child, eager to meet him/her (they didn't even know my gender), nervous about holding the child for the first time and becoming parents, and relieved to be at the culmination of a 9-month pregnancy. What's hard to imagine is the first moments following my entry into the world. How scary it must've been for them to see my little face with no top lip! Every parent envisions this perfect little bundle of beauty when their children are born. My parents were broke, in their twenties, and knew nothing about raising children. Now, within minutes, their vision of parenting was completely altered. Their precious baby girl was born with a cleft lip.
Millions of questions and concerns immediately went through their minds: What is wrong with our daughter? Is she going to be okay? How can we help her? How did this happen?, etc. Fears instantly developed and, sadly, robbed them of a portion of the joy parents experience during childbirth. Now they not only had to worry about how they would afford diapers and formula, but how on Earth they would be able to afford surgery! These fears would be a daily part of life for my parents for months.
When my father tells me of those early discussions, it's hard for me to hear. The way he tells it, my mother was scared to death to put me through surgery at only a few months of age. She was afraid I would not make it through the surgery and she would lose her baby. My father, though obviously feeling similarly, put on the Hat of Reason and said "If you don't want to put her through the surgery, we won't, but when she's a teenager and is distressed and feels alienated because she doesn't look like other kids, YOU can explain to her why." Needless to say, at three and a half months of age, I underwent cleft lip repair by a former military war surgeon, arranged by the March of Dimes.
I can't even imagine how different my life would be if I hadn't had that surgery. At 45 years of age now, I can look back and say that I had times where I felt different, but never to the extent of having no self-esteem. I was raised like all little girls, being told how beautiful I was, called "Princess," going to ballet school from two years of age, going to public school, and playing with all of the other kids every day. Every year, my Dad and I would have a special "date" to go to the cleft palate clinic for my annual check-up. We'd always go to Denny's for lunch afterward and he'd let me take the rest of the day off from school. Getting prodded and picked at by a plastic surgeon, audiologist, Speech Pathologist, psychologist, etc. was never my favorite childhood memory, but those Daddy-daughter dates were. I never had any trouble making and keeping friends and having boyfriends. I went to all of my school dances and proms, was the captain of my Cross Country team, and worked in a grocery store as a cashier during high school. I was in all Honors classes at school, learned Spanish, and graduated *** Laude, moving on to college. I continued on to graduate school and guess what I became? A Speech Pathologist, thanks to the influence my therapist had on me during my years of Speech Therapy. Without my cleft lip, who knows whether I'd have needed therapy and where I'd be today. Sure, there were rude kids who made fun of my scar or my "crooked nose," and at the time those comments were hurtful, but now I realize that they made me who I am.
I never had follow-up surgeries to further correct my birth defect's symmetry. I thought about it as a teenager, but decided that I had spent fourteen years looking in the mirror at that face. If I changed it, I might not like what I saw. That face was ME. I remember going to my Dad one time in high school because a girl was telling me I was ugly and calling me "Scarface." I'd come home crying and feeling badly about myself. I'll never forget what he told me. He said "Next time that girl says something mean to you, you tell her 'I have a birth defect! What's YOUR excuse?!'." I followed that advice and never heard from her again. I still laugh when I think of the look on her face.
I won't lie. We live in a very superficial, beauty-based society. Supermodels, looks, and fitness are plastered all over the media. Sometimes it's hard to be different. I still wear some cover-up on my scar when I go out in public, but now I don't assume people are staring at my scar when they look at my face. I don't feel like I can't do things because I have a facial flaw. In fact, I've finally started to realize that it's not a flaw. It's part of my story and I wouldn't be the same without it. It's a difference, not a defect. My Dad told me once that "God gave you the birth defect because without it, you're perfect, flawless. He had to even the playing field for others." So, I've come to look at it not as a curse, but as a blessing. I was kissed by God.
Now, having had 45 years to come to terms with this fact, I finally have. It's been a long road. I'm a mom of two teenagers myself these days (neither of which inherited my cleft lip) and I see that ALL teenagers go through self-doubt, self-esteem issues, mean peers, and all of the issues I encountered. At the time I thought I was singled out. Nope! Different, but still normal, and for the first time ever, I'm comfortable with who I am. It took me all of these years, but now I wear my facial scar as a memory of who I am and where I came from, just as I wear the scars from my C-sections, dog scratch, and lawn mower burn. These are all parts of my life that formed me and ones I don't want to forget. Nobody's perfect. I'm different, not defective, and I love me.
March of Dimes fights for the health of all moms and babies. We're advocating for policies to protect them. We're working to radically improve the health care they receive. We're pioneering research to find solutions. We're empowering families with the knowledge and tools to have healthier pregnancies. By uniting communities, we're building a brighter future for us all.
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