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.