my mom’s first mother’s day

To hear my mother tell it, it looked like a bomb exploded in my face. I entered life in this world with a defect that occurs once in approximately 700 births; a cleft lip and palate. By kindergarten, I had undergone three reconstructive surgeries that eventually totaled seven by graduation from college. Not to mention the years of extensive dental work required to replace teeth that never really grew where they should have.

The years during which my face was slowly being reconstructed were challenging to say the least. The schoolyard is a tough enough place without adding a highly visible physical deformity into the mix. As a child, I remember feeling paralyzed with fear when facing a new environment where I was certain to encounter children I did not know. I never knew if I would be met with jeers and teasing, or if I would find a brave soul who could see beyond my appearance to notice the regular girl who just wanted to play with a new friend. Even though it was extremely painful, navigating playground politics was building my character stone by stone. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to be a person of substance. My capacity for empathy was expanding even through self-consciousness and fear.

me, mama, grandma & great-grandma

Once, when I was about nine, a shopping trip with my mother sparked an epiphany.  A boy about my age was shopping nearby. He was making fun of the way my lip pulled up on one side by mimicking my signature look. He would then follow-up that lovely performance by using his fingers to re-create the way my left nostril was, what I used to call, “squished.”   Distraught, I told my mother what was happening. What followed was the most beautiful display of motherly love a kid could ask for.  I watched in both horror and pride as my mother coolly employed a strategy to position our shopping cart directly behind the perpetrator and thump the boy on the head with a flick of her fingers! Yes, I understand the legal ramifications of her behavior, and perhaps some would argue her physical aggression was not setting a proper example to her young daughter, but all I knew, and all I cared about, was that in that single gesture   my mom unequivocally and undeniably made a statement: I did not deserve to be mocked and I am worthy of respect. Legalities aside, as a kid, this was pretty much the coolest thing I’d ever seen my mom do! She totally rocked my world!   Here was a woman who went to great, almost unhealthy lengths, to make sure she was liked and approved of by others (a character trait inherited by me that I still wrestle with) throwing caution to the wind in defense of her daughter. I’d never felt more loved.

After that, things started to change for me. I started understanding the difference between honest curiosity and blatant rudeness when other kids asked questions.  I was learning how to be authentic and transparent. I found my voice. I was learning how to talk openly about the things that made me less than perfect and I discovered that authenticity builds strong and meaningful friendships.

happy girl

As the years progressed, the traces of this birth defect diminished with each reconstructive surgery. All my adolescent fears of sitting alone on Saturday nights and never being lovely enough to love because I was not picture perfect, never came to fruition. My high school and college years were full of wonderful friendships and unforgettable moments. I believe if you polled any other American teenage girl, you would find that my neurosis was on par with everyone else’s, and birth defect or no, the playing field was level.

Knowing what I know now about the high value I tend to place on making a “good appearance,” reveals that living through those challenges in my formative years was absolutely vital to the development of good character. I believe the tumultuous playground experiences cured me of chronic self-centeredness and gave me the gift of compassion, humility and authenticity.

I have recently observed that having never known what it feels like to have the perfect face is making the aging process much easier. I’m not afraid of a few lines across my brow or smile lines on my face. I learned ages ago that people who are worth my time notice the beauty that radiates from within, and time  maintaining  that kind of beauty is well spent (not to mention cheaper)! I embrace my imperfections as part of my uniqueness and view my birth defect as the catalyst by which I’ve learned to live a richer, more authentic life.

Having a cleft palate taught me courage in the midst of adversity, that strength of character trumps power or popularity, that kindness makes the unbecoming beautiful, that truth breeds lasting relationships, and that too much drama is misspent energy. Oh, and I also learned that sometimes you just gotta thump the bully on the head!

© Beside Still Waters, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Beside Still Waters with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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44 thoughts on “Living with a Cleft Palate: Lessons on Becoming Real

  1. This is what makes you so beautiful. What proof that God indeed knows exactly what He’s doing when He forms us. What, by outward appearances, is an “imperfection” is in reality, the perfect expression of beauty and His glory revealed!

  2. This is beautiful and timely! My best friend has a son with a cleft lip and pallet. She runs a charity outing for Shriners since he gets his care there. I shared this with her and she loved it.

    Thanks for being authentically you!

      1. Would you mind if we used your story at our outing? It would only be on the website, we’d give you credit and would read it at the outing? I can share with you how we use it–whatever you need.

      2. Amanda, I would be honored if you would use my story! That’s why I put it “out there.” I would love to hear how you use it just because it would bless me. Check your email for more information.

    1. Victoria 🙂 This is a wonderful story! I, too, was born with a cleft lip and palate and found it a daunting task to go play on the playground…..but that no longer matters to me as I strive to finish my college degree in Communication Disorders, while speaking Internationally, on behalf of Shriners Hospitals for Children, as they are the ones that provided my care as well.

      @Amanda, I know Connor—he was in my video that Shriners produced about me! He is such a spunky little guy! 🙂

      1. Mollie thanks for sharing! Sounds like you have made the most of your challenges. Kudos to you and congratulations! I love all these stories! Keep them coming!

  3. What a wonderful story. Our grandson was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. (Connor in Amanda’s comments) His Grandpa and I worry all the time about the “play ground comments” that he will soon be facing as he starts kindergarten in the fall. He has such a love of life and has more confidence that any 4 year old should have. We often feel like this was God’s gift to him for handling the play ground arena! Thank you for your beautiful story and for sharing your mother’s love. This grandma may have to thump a bully every now and then and I will always think of this lesson in life. I am sure I will be sharing this story with our gandson as he grows.

    1. Thank you so much Peg for sharing about precious Connor. You are right – his confidence will serve him well as he navigates the playground! That was a gift I lacked. I know it was more difficult for my parents to watch me struggle through some of the more challenging times than it was even for me. I’m sure you are already well aware of this phenomena being a mother and now a grandmother yourself. I am glad to see however, that children these days seem to be a little more tolerant of “differences” than in days gone by. My own daughter has a friend with a very visible defect, and I’ve been pleased with the way her teachers and others in authority have guided the students in acceptance, and how to treat all people with dignity. I hope that will be Connor’s experience as well. Or else, like you say, bullies beware because grandma just might have to thump ya!

  4. I remember the depth of your mother’s love for her beautiful daughter. Having also raised a daughter with physical challenges, I also remember a few “head thumpings” myself. Watching you, your mother and my daughter overcome the challenges you faced, has made me so proud to be a part of this wonderful family. I have been truly blessed to have all of you in my life.

  5. Vickie,

    Thank you for sharing. Even knowing your mom the few short years that I did, she conveyed to me over and over again how proud she was of the beautiful young lady you are. Not only on the outside, but more importantly on the inside. You could not have had a mother who loved you more!

  6. Thank you for sharing this. Obviously, your wonderful mother taught you that real beauty is from the inside -out! She was a delightful woman of God to know. I enjoyed her friendship very much, and miss her smiling face and sweet comments to me.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this insight with us. You were a very big part of your mothers ministry. She shared some of her thoughts about that time in all of your lives and it certinly was a big part of who your mom became..But she never had the time or maybe it was such a private thing that were never knew the whole story, You are a beautiful mother and a beauthful woman of God and definately the apple of your parents eye . Isn’t wonderful when we can look back and understand more clearly and see Gods hand in all things…God bless you and thanks again

  8. Enjoyed your article and your complete honesty in conveying the feelings of a young girl surviving victoriously through such difficult circumstances. I know that your mother would be so delighted with you and how you are reaching out to others going through similar cirumstances.
    You were taught by one of God’s best teachers – gave me a big smile when you shared the adventure when you were nine years old. I can just see her protecting her precious child at all costs. Blessings to you always, Gloria

  9. I hope that my 18 month old son, Calder, has as much wisdom as he grows. Your words are beautiful and honest. Our cleft journey has been life-changing in a very positive and fulfilling way-thank you for sharing some of yours!

    1. Kalissa, your great attitude is sure to spark just the right kind of character in dear Calder. Blessings on the rest of your journey – and may it continue to be a positive one!

  10. Victoria, I came across your story on someone’s facebook page. My son is 11 weeks old. He was born with unilateral cleft lip and bilateral cleft palate. His first surgery is next week (4/13) and they will be repairing his lip. As you know this is the first step in the long journey that lies ahead. In my eyes my son is perfect the way he is. I love his face and surprisingly dread that fact that in a week he will change forever. I have never looked at my son’s cleft as a burden, but instead a gift. He has two older siblings. One is only 15 months old and oblivious to the fact his little brother is “different.” However, my 8 year old is well aware and despite my fears adores her little brother and has fallen in love with his cleft as well. For her especially, her brother has taught her to be more tollerant of others, and a gift to see past one’s differences. I have noticed she has changed. We passed a man in a wheelchair last week who had a leg amputed. In the past she would have stared and started asking me a million questions. This time she glanced at him, and it didn’t even phase her. Kinda of strange!! I love when I am able to see and her stories of people who grew up with a cleft. It gives me so much hope as a Mother. I belong to a group on facebook called “Cleft Lip and Palate Foundation of Smiles.” It’s a group of people some who have had a cleft, but it’s mostly moms who’s children have clefts. We share stories, and just are there for each other through surgeries and even setbacks. You should really check it out. I know many other moms would love to hear your story as much as I did. I can’t thank you enough for taking your time to share it.. It means alot to me =)

    1. Kelly – I will say the same to you, thank you for taking the time to share your story. It means a lot me! …and thanks for directing me to the Facebook page – I’m a new fan!!!

  11. Thank you Victoria for sharing your story. You are an amazing lady who had a very wise Mom. We are grandparents raising our granddaughter who was born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate. We got her when she was 4 months old from immature parents who could not deal with her medical needs. Six surgeries and 3 1/2 years later she is such a wonderful blessing in our lives. Raising a grandchild is difficult but Taylor’s needs do not increase the difficulty…rather she has taught us love, compassion and patience we might not have known. She shares your name (Victoria is her middle name) and I hope one day she shares your strength and openness. I expect as a “Re-Mom” I may have to thump a few heads on her behalf. And good for your Mom that she is encouraging us new cleft Mothers today! 🙂

    1. Jennifer – Thank you so much for sharing your story! It sounds like your special girl has just the right kind of grandparents to give her the courage and strength she’ll need to thrive and blossom into a truly beautiful woman!

  12. Thank you for sharing Victoria. It’s a wonderful story. You are an inspiring person, especially to those with a cleft palate. Hope many people can read this blog and get inspired by you.

    As you may know already, there are many children who are in need of a surgery. Operation Smile is one of many organization that accepts charity donations. Thought you might be interested in helping out these children.

    Once again, thanks for the story. I fully appreciate this post.

  13. You got me with this one Victoria. You have such a unique writing style. Thank you for allowing us to feel your heart on this matter. So glad you were able to feel your mother’s love for you in that moment.

    1. Thank you friend. I’m such a work in progress. I feel like I’m standing on shaky feet as I learn to be transparent and vulnerable – because otherwise, what’s the point right?

  14. I read this for the first time just now. I will be sharing it with my cousin and wife. Their middle daughter was also born with a cleft lip/palate. She is now 10 and has had at least 3 surgeries, and one planned for this spring.
    Your writing is very inspiring. Thank you for sharing!

    1. It’s been very healing for me to put this part of my story out there for all to see. It’s something I’ve downplayed for much of my life, but it’s such a huge part of who I am. I hope my story resonates with your little cousin. Thank you for sharing about her!

  15. I agree! I experienced much of the same and never took the time to slow down enough to realize the blessings that came along with this “defect”. Thank you for sharing your story, it has encouraged me!

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