READER essayWhen Jack, our first child, was born with red hair we were pleasantly surprised. Neither of us has red hair nor does anyone in our immediate families, or so we thought. We figured it was a genetic fluke, a loose chromosome that found its way into the family gene pool. We’re both Irish and Scottish, but we never bothered to investigate our lineage. We were new parents and just happy to have a healthy, beautiful baby. When people asked us where the red hair came from, we said it must have been from all the Guinness we drank in college. Truthfully, we had no idea.
All we knew about redheads were the freckles and the trademark fiery temperament. The movies of our time portrayed redheads as the quintessential brat. I started to panic, thinking our son might grow up to be just like the school bully, Scut Farkus, from the movie "A Christmas Story." In our ignorance, my wife and I approached anyone with red hair and inquired about their childhood—as if to uncover hidden secrets to raising a redhead. Instead we learned there would be lots of name calling: carrot top, ketchup head, bozo and Howdy Doody to name a few.
Shortly after Jack was born, we also learned about the eczema and sunburn. As if around the clock diaper changes and middle of the night feedings weren’t hard enough, we had to bathe our little redhead in three kinds of lotion 24 hours a day. And while there’s not a lot of scientific evidence, it seems as though redheads are more prone to allergies. We discovered that the hard way. Jack was allergic to wheat, soy, peanuts, green peas and all forms of dairy until age 4. We raised him on rice milk, lime green Jell-O and hot dogs.
But when our second son, Eddie, was born with red hair, we started interrogating our relatives. We pulled out old family albums and scoured the Internet for answers. We found that only an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is born with red hair, due to the recessive nature of the gene that produces it. And you need two copies of a certain version of that gene to end up with red hair. We discovered that my grandmother on my mom’s side was the generous donor, but we are still searching for the source in my wife’s family.
The rumored explosive anger was starting to be reality for Jack and Eddie, especially towards each other. Sibling rivalries are commonplace regardless of hair color, but when two red-headed brothers square off it’s like a backyard donnybrook. We instituted a tougher than normal stance on bad behavior. There is no "one-two-three" warning policy in our house. It’s one and you’re done.
In the meantime, we assumed a new identity as the redheads’ parents. Suddenly our anxieties about raising a child with red hair were replaced with elation. We felt blessed and grateful to not only have one, but two healthy and happy redheaded children. Given the odds, it seemed a miracle. What’s more, our boys were treated like celebrities everywhere they went—especially around March 17.
We realize the attention they receive now will one day be peppered with the occasional cruelties of childhood bullying. Let’s face it. The red hair and freckles make them an easy target for ridicule. So while we can’t prevent the eventual teasing, we can help them prepare for it.
We are learning, though, that the pros to having red hair far outweigh the cons. Sure, we have to buy sunscreen by the gallon, but we never lose the boys in a crowd. We often joked that the world needs more redheads and we were trying our best to fulfill that need. That led to our third child born with red hair, the mighty Quinn.
Maybe it’s genetics. Maybe it’s the Guinness. Or better yet, maybe it’s the luck of the Irish. Either way, Jack, Eddie and Quinn provide us with more happiness and good fortune than all the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Steve Tullis is a full-time fire fighter in Hinsdale and a freelance writer. He lives in LaGrange Park with his wife and his redheaded boys.
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