When the doctor removed the bandages from Grace’s bloodstained ear, all the breath left my body. I would let my beautiful sixteen year old daughter have the operation. I was responsible for what she had done. Overwhelmed with guilt and panic, I passed out on the floor.
Grace was born with a constricted ear deformity, also known as droopy ear. Without the cartilage to support the skin, it did not develop properly and therefore folded back.
I barely noticed her when she was born. At 31, I held my daughter in my arms, and she was perfect for me. With the doctor’s assurance that it wouldn’t affect Grace’s hearing, my husband Mark* and I thought that was it.
Over the years, our plan was not to mention her ear unless Grace did, and then we would just reassure her that everything was fine.
At first it worked. When, at the age of nine, she looked in the mirror and said, “What’s that on my ear, mom? my heart sank. But I kept it airy, pretending I had never noticed it before, and the moment passed.
Then, three months into high school, Grace suddenly refused to do her hair. When I asked why she said ‘Mom, I hate my ear. Why is it like this?
It wasn’t like before, when she could be reassured by a cheerful remark and a hug. The pain and anger in his voice was crystal clear. She hated something about her body and I was devastated.
Things came together quickly. A few days later, Grace refused to see her friends, deeply unhappy, all she wanted to do was hide in her room.
A growing fear in the pit of my stomach told me that something even worse was happening, and when I asked if there was anything she wanted to tell me, Grace showed me her arm. She had tried to cut herself.
It is impossible to describe my horror, the panic that rocked as I tried to find the right words. Somehow I stayed calm, thanking her for telling me and hugging her.
Inside, I was devastated. Seeing your own child in such distress is bad enough, but I was also struggling with a tsunami of guilt. Because it was all my fault.
I had had epilepsy all my life, with many nocturnal seizures that made me feel like I was going to die. When they got worse during pregnancy and the doctor increased my medication, I learned that there was little risk of birth defects.
I brushed that aside, and now here I was, sitting with my perfect child who had tried to hurt himself. It took everything I had to keep it together.
We found a private therapist, who explained that Grace suffered from anxiety and depression, triggered by what she felt about her ear. It was a relief to have a professional on board, but the guilt I felt only grew.
I hid the extent of my feelings from everyone, even Mark, who knew all about the medications I had taken while pregnant. It was all my fault, and I deserved to bear this burden alone.
Then, at age 14, Grace announced that she wanted cosmetic surgery to “get her ear back to normal”. We told her how beautiful she was, that all of our bodies are different and that’s fine. It didn’t dent what she felt. In her misery, I could see she was absolutely determined.
Every few weeks she would mention surgery, how as soon as she was 18 she somehow found the money herself. Mark and I discussed it endlessly. We knew it was possible from the age of 16, and it was as if Grace’s life was on hold. Wasn’t it cruel to keep her waiting?
When I sat on Grace’s bed soon after she turned 16and birthday and told me she could have surgery, her reaction surprised me. Guilt crossed her face as she asked about the £3,000 it would cost. But reassured that we would do it anyway, she was delighted.
A month later, I left the surgeon’s office by his side and was deeply conflicted; glad we were doing something proactive and worried Grace had unrealistic expectations of what her ear would look like.