Pandemic Parenting: When Detangling Hair Feels Like Your Greatest Triumph

A few months ago, the Repeller team started putting together a series of stories about motherhood and parenting during the pandemic. The first piece featured Abbi, who detailed her experience of being pregnant for the first time during strict social distancing regulations in Los Angeles. Today’s story is about a more specific, but no less poignant, aspect of parenting: hair care.

My son’s last haircut was in December. He was already overdue for one in March, when all the salons closed, and by May he had a mullet, albeit a curly, adorable one that my mom begged me not to cut. Calder, all of 7, liked it too—said he looked cool, like a skater kid—except when I’d bark reminders at him to stop brushing it out of his eyes when we left our Manhattan apartment for our daily constitutional around the park. “Don’t touch your face!” I’d yell, terrified of the unseen germs on elevator buttons and door handles, and then I’d immediately feel bad for yelling. I started tucking his hair back with bobby pins, but little curls always managed to escape, framing his hand-sewn puppy-print mask. 

By June it was grazing his shoulders, but he wouldn’t let me cut it. Only Pepe, his longtime barber at Astor Place Hairstyles, could have that privilege. (“Do you think he misses me?” Calder asked one night. Of course I said yes.) Combing through the tangles after his baths began to lead to fights and tears. As if we needed any more tears in our house. Tears about remote learning, about having to go outside, about limited Minecraft play, about the lack of mac and cheese in our cabinets, about how I worked too much. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I stopped combing it. At bedtime I tried running my hands through his hair and my fingers got stuck. 

Calder started swimming every day and soon his luscious curls had become knots and nests, impenetrable to brushing.

When school ended we decamped to my in-law’s cottage on a lake in Western Maine. Calder started swimming every day and soon his luscious curls had become knots and nests, impenetrable to brushing. He’d scream bloody murder when I came at him with a comb. He deemed my conditioner “girlie” and refused to use it during his much less frequent than normal showers (“Swimming in the lake counts as a bath!”). I tried attacking the knots while he was zoned out in front of his iPad, watching Duck Tales before dinner, but I’d inevitably only get one side brushed out so he looked like some kind of Tim Burton creation. 

And then I found it: a bottle of Johnson’s No More Tangles spray in the bathroom cabinet, a relic from when his much-older girl cousins were long-haired elementary schoolers. Johnson & Johnson released No More Tangles in 1971, 18 years after it cornered the market on baby shampoo. A commercial from that time features an angelic-faced blonde preschooler with a mess of wet hair, frowning at the camera. “I have this terrible problem with my hair after shampooing,” she says with a slight lisp. “The comb gets stuck in the tangles and it hurts. Thank goodness Johnson’s invented No More Tangles. Mommy just sprays some, and no more tangles.” Cut to the girl smiling with a salon-worthy ’do. “And see how shiny and manageable my hair stays!”

I sprayed some on my own hair and breathed in deep: Here was the chemically engineered scent of possibility.

Here was my answer: a simple mix of behentrimonium methosulfate, cetearyl alcohol, sodium benzoate, citric acid, dimethicone, trisiloxane, and polysorbate 20, all wrapped up in a flowery fresh scent. Forget the organic, sulfate- and paraben-free products that filled my cupboards at home. Forget the manufactured and marketed idea that “all natural” could keep my kid safe and healthy. I sprayed some on my own hair and breathed in deep: Here was the chemically engineered scent of possibility. 

That night after his shower, I showed Calder the bottle and explained how his cousins had used it and that it really delivered on its name. He looked dubious but sniffed it and nodded approvingly (“It smells like a ladies’ clothing store; I like it”), and I sprayed away. Finally the moment of truth: I pulled my comb through his wet, brown hair and it slid through seamlessly. He raised his eyebrows comically high and smiled: “I really have no more tangles!” And with that, he bounded out of the bathroom to go play with his Lego, the moment, the months of anguish, already forgotten.

I laughed but I could feel the tears welling up. There were so many things in my life that I couldn’t untangle at that moment. And I knew, on every level, that this was a minuscule win, one of those tiny victories that on any normal day, in any normal summer, would be disregarded immediately. But I let that feeling of victory linger, and when I kissed Calder goodnight and breathed in the flowery scent from that eight-year-old bottle of cream rinse, I felt stronger.

Ellen Carpenter

Ellen is a New York City-based writer and editor. She's the editor in chief of Hemispheres, United Airlines' magazine (which means she travels a lot), and a former editor at Nylon, Rolling Stone, and Spin (which means she's always armed with a great playlist).

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