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Post from the Past: Give Thanks for Purple Helmets

By Carissa Tobin

THU FEB 18, 2021

This post was originally published on Thanksgiving Day, 2018. Little L is three and a half now and I haven't thought to check the shape of her head in years.

For all of you who haven’t seen any photos of Little L recently, she’s not rocking her purple star helmet during the daytime anymore. It is now a sleep helmet – like a nightcap, but, well, more durable. 

For those of you who haven’t seen Little L or her photos for the past half-year, she wore a head-shaping helmet because her head got a little flat on the sides from the way she was sleeping during those super-pliable early days. 

Every three weeks since Little L got her helmet, she and I have visited our now-friend Mallory, who checks on the progress of her head, writes calculations on a post-it for me, adjusts the helmet, and calls me “Mom.” 

When we first got the “she could really benefit from a helmet” diagnosis, we weren’t thrilled. Besides it being a hassle, I was worried what people would think. 

But this is the way I’ve come to see it… Allow me to quote myself. I recently emailed a local author whose book about her preemie’s birth I had just read. I mentioned the helmet as one side effect of Little L’s early arrival to Planet Earth.

She (the author – not Little L!) wrote back to me that she liked what I had said. A real author, not only reading and responding my email, but quoting my email back to me! I felt like that guy in When Harry Met Sally, one of the few pop culture references I'm equipped to make, when he said, "Nobody has ever quoted me back to me before."

So this is what I said: 

I thought that it would bother me trying to explain it to people, but I think it's actually been good for me. I think she looks adorable in it, and it will help her "toaster head" as the NICU nurses called it. Her journey into the world wasn't exactly standard, so why not have a cute purple helmet to prove it?

In my memory – and in my photos, of which there are many – Little L's transformation from infant to toddler took place in the helmet. I mean, she did wear it 23 hours a day! Learning to roll, sleeping on her tummy with her face smushed into the mattress and her butt up in the air – how many times have I looked on the monitor to see an astronaut sleeping in Little L's crib? A fashionable astronaut with a purple helmet.

The first time she rolled herself from her own room to the living room, slapping the wooden floor and grinning at me. Crawling towards her sound machine with a giggle that gave away her plans for grabbing the cords. Laughing as a dog licked her face. Trying to crawl out of the "superdrum" the kids were sitting in during music class and a mom saying with a nervous laugh, "She's fearless." Learning to pull herself up those first times – onto the glass table at my sister-in-law’s house in California. We all felt better knowing she was wearing her helmet.

I am happy for Little L that her head can breathe easier now during daytime hours; she seems perfectly content wearing the helmet just at night. According to Mallory, soon we will hang it up for full retirement (will we keep the helmet? Keep a piece of it? How do you keep a piece of a helmet? A friend said she still has her fourth grader's helmet). 

At the beginning, I over-explained the helmet to strangers on the elevator and servers at restaurants. But as time went on, I only accounted for its existence when I felt like it.

I didn’t feel bad about it and I don’t think Little L did either. She rocked that purple helmet with pride.

I love her in her helmet and I love her without it. One of my favorite helmet snapshots is driving home from Joanie and Wendall’s house in early spring. They keep their heat a little warmer than we do, and Little L was overdressed, plus, you know, wearing a helmet. I stripped her down to her onesie and left her in her reduced clothing state on the ride home. I could see her in the review-baby-mirror: pantsless, grabbing her bare feet, sporting her purple helmet, snow passing by outside. 

I thought, “That's happiness.” 

Some people need helmets to shape their heads temporarily. Some people need helmets for longer periods of time because of health conditions. Some people don’t wear helmets when they ride scooters through downtown Minneapolis. They should.

On our last visit to Mallory, Little L walked back to Mary’s office with a grin on her face. I remember our early days when I still brought in the entire carseat carrier from the car. She now has a mouthful of teeth. On this visit she spotted the little doll modeling a helmet – her same purple helmet. “Baby! Baby!” she said, and I gave her the doll. She proceeded to take its helmet off and then got frustrated when she couldn’t get it back on. 

It didn't fit on her own head either, but not for lack of trying.

“It’s really up to you,” Mallory said. “We could be done now or we could try another three weeks. Her soft spot is still a tiny bit open, so we might get a little bit more progress. But I’d have to see if I could make room in the helmet.” 

“Can you try?” I asked after just a couple seconds of reflection. I'd been given this option at least three times before, and I kept making the same choice: Helmet On.

Mallory was gone longer than usual - I have a feeling she had her work cut out for her trying to make more room in a helmet that is probably past its peak. 

When she came back in, Little L was standing looking at herself in the mirror.

"She's my tallest patient!" Mallory said.

I handed her the “baby,” slipping its purple helmet back on. “She played with this.” 

“That’s what it’s there for,” she said. 

My pediatrician recently said that I probably know Mallory “almost as well” as I know her. I laughed – Little L and I see Mallory every three weeks; luckily we don’t need to go to the doctor’s office quite that often. 

“I got it sized a little bigger,” Mallory reported. “So let’s see what happens in another few weeks.” 

Exactly. We’ve come this far; I don’t see why we would quit now. 

I'm prepared that the end of the Helmet Era is quickly approaching, that one of these Monday morning trips to Mallory's office will be the one where she tells us, “Have a good life.”

But I know that when I hear Little L's giggle or watch her wobbly Frankenstein walk, I'll remember her purple helmet. And this says a lot: I can't promise that I'll get rid of it.

Whatever your version of the purple helmet is, be proud of it. Wear it with pants if you like, or maybe just with a onesie. If someone in your life wears a purple helmet, ask them why. It’s there to serve a purpose. It is part of who they are.

So today, maybe during a trip to the bathroom for some much-needed Introvert Time, check in with yourself: what color is your purple helmet? Have you been wearing it? If not, it might be time to pull it out. As Mallory would say, try it just at night. That might be enough to make some progress.

Happy Thanksgiving. Helmet On.

Two years later, Little L's purple helmet still sits in a box in her closet. It occasionally comes out as an accessory for Oso or Baby.