Proud ‘Cleftie’

IMG_0582When you’re a child and teenager, the last thing you want is to be labelled ‘different’ from your peers. You want to fit in, be one of them. At least that’s how I felt.

Hanging out with other cleft children was torture as their faces only reminded me of my own misshaped face. But because my parents were founding members of our local Cleft Lip and Palate Association (CLAPA), I had little choice but to attend the annual family picnics and other events arranged for parents and children with cleft.

My parents probably thought – or at least hoped – that meeting other cleft children would be good for me, but I hated every second of those picnics. So anxious was I to steer clear of other cleft kids that I became a pro at spotting them, even from a distance.

Today, I can still recognise fellow ‘clefties’ easily, although I no longer avoid them.

So what helped change my attitude towards other ‘clefties’? Well, to begin with, making peace with my own face and learning to love myself – all of me – helped a great deal. Becoming a mother also played an important role.

The first time I showed my young daughters the photo album chronicling my first few years, which my mother had put together for my fifth birthday, neither of them reacted to the pictures of the odd-looking baby with a gaping hole in her lip. It was only when I asked them to look again that they noticed that something was different. Still, they were pretty unfazed by the baby in the pictures. To them, it was no big deal.

Some time later, my older daughter came across a picture of a child with an unrepaired cleft in the newspaper. It was an ad for Smile Train, a charity that repairs clefts in the developing world and trains local doctors to perform the relatively simple but life-changing procedure.

‘Mummy, does that boy have the same as you did when you were a baby?’ she inquired as she focused on the picture.

Talking to my daughter about my cleft eventually enabled me to start speaking more openly about it to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. A life-long taboo had been broken and it felt tremendously liberating. I had finally reclaimed my cleft and by doing so I had healed myself from the grief, shame and humiliation I’d once felt over being born different.

At long last I was free to be the person I was born to be.

Born Whole

IMG_0534The first thing the obstetrician said upon delivering me, was:

‘It’s a girl, but she’s got a cleft lip so don’t look at her.’

‘Of course I want to see her,’ my mother protested.

Hesitating at first, the nurse held me up so that my mother could look at me.

‘You were so round and beautiful,’ she’d tell me years later.

Moments afterwards, they whisked me away for closer examination. Not only did I have a unilateral cleft lip and palate, something was also wrong with my oesophagus the nurse noted as she was trying to put a tube down to remove fluids. I was immediately taken for an x-ray, which revealed that the upper end of my oesophagus didn’t connect to the lower end and stomach. Instead, the lower end of the oesophagus was fused with my windpipe.

In order to enable me to swallow at all, I required immediate surgery but since a flu virus was making its way through the neonatal ward, it was decided I should be transferred by ambulance to another hospital for the procedure. My mother, still recovering from labour, stayed behind. Two weeks passed before she was allowed to visit and hold me for the very first time.

My birth and its aftermath left little room for the kind of celebration that the birth of a baby normally occasions. Instead, focus was squarely on repairing my broken body and face, making me whole. Continue reading

Words Do Hurt


Born into a family of book publishers, you might say the power of the written word is practically in my blood. As a little girl, my parents read to me every night before bedtime, usually downstairs in our living room and with the fireplace lit during the cold winter months.

At my grandparents’, where I visited weekly, my grandmother always read to me – usually the Swedish classics – whilst I listened attentively to every word, soaking them up as if they each were a pearl of fresh water.

Even after I’d learned to read myself, the tradition of reading aloud continued and every summer holiday my mother would choose a book to read to my older brother and me. Back then she was working with children’s literature so we had the enormous fortune of receiving lots of wonderful books by writers from around the world.

So I’ve got enormous respect for the power of words. Words can heal but they can also hurt – badly. My own experience as a child goes contrary to the popular saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Because other children calling me names because of the way my face looked like hurt me much more than any physical confrontation ever did. I learned at an early age that words have enormous power to humiliate, shame and ultimately dehumanise. Continue reading



I’m on the Northern Line, heading downtown to Warren Street where I go every Wednesday to volunteer my time for a charity called Changing Faces. It’s just after nine in the morning so I’m spared the worst of the morning rush and manage to find an empty seat on the train.

I sit down, cradling my overpacked backpack, and look around. The carriage is full of people minding their own business; listening to music in their headphones; reading on their Kindles; playing Candy Crush on their iPhones. Everyone is absorbed in their own activity, encased in a bubble that separates and protects them from other passengers.

There was a time not long ago when I too sought refuge in a pair of headphones blasting my favourite songs into my half-deaf ears, drowning out the world around me. But not this time.

Neither do I pull out my book or phone to entertain myself; instead I sit back in my seat, relaxed and alert and watch the people around me.

In the past, I used to check out people’s socks, especially those of suited businessmen, looking to see whether they matched another piece of clothing; a tie perhaps, or shirt. But today, as I’ve done in recent weeks, I look at people’s faces. I try not to stare so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. Instead I gaze with an open heart at my fellow passengers’ faces.

I love faces, because I’ve discovered something amazing about them: the face of a person whose heart is open is naturally illuminated. Such beauty has nothing to do with physical features; it’s a beauty that radiates from within, and it’s the most powerful kind of beauty. Continue reading