My Mom Took Meds While Pregnant And My Scar Haunts Me Still

Photo: J. Astra Brinkman
I don't like the "scar" on my lip, caused by my mother taking a prescription medicine while pregnant with me.

Get my good side ... or do I even have one?

Maybe you don't notice something different about my smile, but I do. In photos of myself, it's all I can look at: that crooked nose, too much tooth and gum on one side, and the scar that isn't even a real scar running down my philtrum, cutting through my lip, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world but felt by me, back up inside until it disappears into my gums.

Scars sometimes have stitch marks that show trauma. But I had no trauma. Baby, I was born this way — with a scar for a wound that never quite materialized.

Back in the early 1960s, when pregnant mothers were still smoking and not wearing seat belts, prescription drug effects on the fetus were just being studied. The world was still reeling from the Thalidomide tragedies of 1957 to 1961: pregnant women used a drug that caused gross deformities in their unborn babies.

My mother was given a prescription for an anti-nausea medication and took it just a few times early in her pregnancy. The fetal face is being formed in the sixth through eleventh weeks of pregnancy; in that time frame, just a few doses of that unknown drug was enough to almost cause a disruption in this baby's face. I wasn't born with a cleft lip, but a scar in that place is just enough to suggest a near-miss.

I don't remember even noticing the almost-cleft until I was about seven when my brother started making jokes about a hare-lip (which is what people used to call a cleft lip, because it supposedly looks like a rabbit's split face). I was embarrassed, even ashamed of my face, and my self-esteem took a hit.

As I became a tween and a teen, I focused, even obsessed, on my face. My nostrils are uneven. My smile is crooked. I felt deformed and ugly, and have struggled with that inner voice over my inherent common sense for decades now.

And now, thanks to pre-menopause, another line between my nose and lip has appeared like a red stripe, a warning flag. Thanks, hormones!

A wiser voice might have prevailed upon me to accept my good fortune. But instead of feeling grateful that I didn't have the birth defect, that I didn't need the repair surgery, I've met the ongoing assumption that I did have a cleft lip: from strangers, from a priest who warned me not to risk having children, and from doctors who assume my face is scarred.

"When did you have that surgery?" they ask. Or when I've indicated that I never had any facial surgery, they question my veracity.

"No," I say."It's just my face."

I'm an author now and I tell stories; I speak in public. I have to get publicity headshots done once in a while, and it's always a trial to smile for the camera, to choose the best photo, when, to my eyes, I see this split face, this broken mouth. I seem to be smirking. I look lopsided. Get my good side ... or do I even have one?

And then, in the barrage of nonprofit begging letters that come in the autumn, I see an envelope with nightmare-quality images, from SmileTrain and other organizations that perform surgeries to save the lives of children with cleft lips and palates in third-world countries. For all my obsession and self-stigma, I have it way better than those poor children who don’t stand a chance at school, marriage or jobs with their clefts unhealed.

I started donating to SmileTrain a few years ago and I'm reminded, month after month, what important work they do when the envelope arrives in the mail, a bright photo of a before-and-after baby on the front. The envelopes are a double-whammy for me — a blessing and a curse.

When I see the photos of the afflicted children, I want to turn away, throw the photos into the shredder as soon as possible. They reflect the part of myself that I've loathed for so long. But they also give me an opportunity to give them something I still seek: a chance to feel better about their smiles, their faces, their lives.

On most days I try not to think about what looks back at me from the mirror. I know there are bigger issues on the planet and that it's a negative self-image that lives in my head. On bad days, I see a deformed freak.

My husband says, "Don't believe everything you think." Sometimes I think he's right. Some days, I know I have to try a little harder.


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