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My son was born with a large brown birthmark on his neck. We didn’t notice it much at first. For the first few months of his life, the birthmark was light pink, and looked like a slight discoloration around his neck. But as the months went on, it darkened and definitely appeared to be a “thing.”

When I showed it to his pediatrician, I assume he’d say that it was a birthmark and that it would disappear in time. My younger sister had a strawberry birthmark (hemangioma) on her forearm as a young child, and it disappeared as she got older: I thought it would be the same for my son. His pediatrician told us that he couldn’t diagnose it, but that it didn’t look like the kind that disappears over time.

We took our son to a pediatric dermatologist when he was about a year old. The doctor examined the birthmark and told us that it was a congenital nevus. “It grows as your child grows,” he said. He told us that the only way to remove it would be through surgery — likely several surgeries. It was the kind of birthmark that needed to be excised; not even laser treatments could remove it.

My heart sank. The idea of removing the skin on my little child’s neck sounded terrifying. “Do we need to remove it?” I asked. The doctor explained that this would be something we could decide as our child got older. Some children are comfortable with it, he said. The more we are able to normalize it for our son, and teach him that it’s a special part of him, the better.

This plan worked for some time. Yes, there were times that my son had to deal with some less than polite peers — like the time a fellow preschooler asked if he had poop on his neck. But for the most part, my son learned to live with it. One of my biggest concerns was bullying at school, but aside from that one remark, most kids would simply ask him what it was, he would tell them, and then they’d just accept it for what it was.

The plan of my son embracing his birthmark as something unique seemed to be working. When he was 5 or 6, I remember asking him if he’d like to get it removed someday, just so people would stop asking him what it was. He quickly responded, “I love my birthmark. It’s what makes me special.”

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All of that changed when my son was about 7. Interestingly, it wasn’t that he felt ashamed of the birthmark, but the birthmark itself started to be physically uncomfortable. The nevus had thickened, was rough and dry, and would become chapped in cold weather. We applied all kinds of dermatologist-recommended creams to it, but the problem still persisted. Sometimes the itchiness would wake our son up at night. Often, it would become inflamed and bleed.

We asked the dermatologist if there was anything else we could do to treat it, but he said surgery was really the best option at this point. Thankfully, my son was on board — anything to make the discomfort go away. So we scheduled the surgery.

Interestingly, as the surgery came closer, my son’s relationship to his birthmark evolved. He started to have more negative feelings about it. He wanted it off now, and he would get upset when people would ask him what it was or why he had a brown thing on his neck.

I tried to just go with it and honor his feelings, even though it was painful to see him having such a difficult time.

The surgeries themselves were challenging. After the first one, where a large portion of the birthmark was removed, my son wouldn’t move his neck much for about a week without pain and discomfort. Having surgery was also a deeply emotional experience for him. He seemed traumatized at times by it, and dreaded the next surgery.

The reason more than one surgery was needed was because the skin on my son’s neck had to grow and expand before another piece of the birthmark could be removed. In total, my son had to have two more surgeries to get it completely removed. In between, he had bandages for weeks at a time, half-healed scar tissue, and remaining birthmark intact.

So he continued to field questions about what was on his neck. As time went on, he became less comfortable talking about it, and answering people’s questions. Maybe it was because of the state of birthmark/scar, or maybe it was because he was older and kids were becoming more likely to be tactless or cruel, but some of the comments about the birthmark were getting worse.

I’ll never forget the time when he was about 8 and a kid mockingly told him that when he looked at his neck, he wanted to throw up. My son got so upset and began lashing out at the kid. We had to quickly move him away from the child. I worried that something similar would happen at school (it didn’t, thankfully).

Now my son is 10, and though some of the surgeries got delayed because of the pandemic, he is basically done with that part of his journey. His scar is still healing and his surgeon might do a few touch–ups down the road. My son doesn’t have a birthmark on his neck anymore, but he does have a noticeable scar.

I won’t lie: things were tough for a while. Between the pandemic and the birthmark surgeries, he had a rough few years.  There were times that his self-esteem seemed to be affected by having his birthmark; he’d complain about how it looked, and would make other disparaging marks about his self-image.

But just in the past few months, his intense feelings about the birthmark and surgeries have dissipated. Now that we are mostly on the other side, I can see that the experience made him stronger. He is not afraid to be someone who is different — he’s a creative, thoughtful person with a unique style and tons of interesting opinions and hobbies. He loves to sing and act. He just got a starring role in his school play.

It’s such a relief to see him happy and thriving after these past few years, and after all the years that I worried how having his birthmark would shape his life and personality.

The other day, I was telling him how proud of him I am, and that I think he’s a standout type of kid — someone who isn’t afraid to be different, and who follows his own path. Without skipping a beat, he connected that idea right back to his birthmark. “Mom,” he said. “I’m not sad that I don’t have my birthmark anymore, because I’m still a special kid.”

Yes. Yes, you are my love, and you always will be.

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