I play a game with myself sometimes. I pretend I am in a room of children and I don’t know which ones are mine. I scan faces, I consider jawlines. I rub strands of hair between my fingertips like worry stones. Given the chance, I wonder, would I be able to pick my own flesh and blood out from a crowd?
There is my first son, I can tell by the eyes. They are wide-set like mine. He is fairer than I am, but we share a sharpness about the chin and the cheekbones. My second son’s eyes give him away too, the color of espresso like my mother’s, the shape of down-turned almonds like my father’s. He is the darkest of my children, his hair could weave seamlessly into my own. My third son takes longer to find. He is the aesthetic link between the older two. I’ve spotted him now by the nose. I recognize it from pictures of myself at the same age, smallish and slightly blunt. The unruly turns of his hair remind me of my brother’s, save for the tinge of copper.
Three boys accounted for, but where is my daughter? Search as I may, I don’t see her here. My only daughter. Isn’t she supposed to look just like me? Then I notice a little girl sitting in the corner. She has blonde hair, which she lets run through fingers that are long like a piano player’s. I stare down at my own childishly small hands. She watches me do this with cornflower eyes, and despite a familiarity with the laws of genetics, I am even more uncertain now that we are related. She is smiling, though. She knows she is mine before I do. The game is over.
The joke about Phoebe is that there was some kind of mix up at the hospital (she doesn’t look like her father, either). Or really there was only ever a single baby. Phoebe is a twin, but maybe, just maybe, the stork slipped this rosy creature into the bassinet next to her olive-skinned brother and that is how we, a family I sensed was destined for sons alone, came to have our daughter. We brought home one baby that was a match to the others and one that, well, wasn’t. It was fitting, I thought, that she should be the different one. As the lone girl, she would be different anyway. It was fitting, but it made her more of a stranger to me.
That first moment we lock eyes with a new baby, we think one of two things. We think: yes, of course, it is you. We’ve met before, in some past life or in my dreams, you are the tiny person I knew you would be. Or else we think: it’s nice to meet you finally, but where, oh where, did you come from? Whether that baby feels instantly, inexplicably our own often depends on what she looks like. In the beginning, the surface view is all we have. So we obsess over her face like nothing we’ve obsessed over before. This doesn’t make us vain. It only makes us human.
There is something life-affirming about finding your own face in the contours of somebody else’s. The drive to have biological offspring stems from many places, some of which are light and some of which are darker, but there is usually, at the heart of it, a desire to pass on genes. Part of that desire is shamelessly superficial. It is about wanting to look at someone you have made and see pieces of yourself. But part of it is about the grander sweep of history and legacy and immortality.
Because faces connect people through time. I used to judge them quickly, recklessly, is she pretty, is he handsome? Since becoming a mother, however, and a devoted student of my children’s features, I look more deeply now. I look for origins. I look for stories. A dimple that belongs to a great aunt, who was also a twin; an arched eyebrow that wends its way from grandfather to father to grandson; a slope of the chin that goes back further still. The little details that string the generations together are where the beauty lies, even the ones that aren’t conventionally attractive.
My mother has strong opinions about aesthetics, most of which align neatly with convention and most of which I internalized as a girl. Blue eyes are gold dust to her. When she found my father, a Jewish man with eyes that spoke of the sea, she couldn’t believe her luck. She married him and it was that “luck” that allowed my brown-eyed husband and me to produce a blue-eyed daughter ourselves. Phoebe gets attention for her eyes and I admit a small pride in this, fluke of nature though it is. But there is also a small sadness, which I wouldn’t have predicted. I must identify with my semitic coloring more than I realized, coloring that is the same as my mother’s and her mother’s before her.
Every day Phoebe grows to look more like herself, and less like me, and every day we grow closer anyhow. Of course we do. A parent’s love doesn’t hinge on shared phenotypes. And yet, I continue to be struck by our physical differences. At two and a half, she notices them too. “My eyes are blue, Mommy, and yours are brown!” “Our hair is different, Mommy, that’s funny!” She says these things and I picture my mother, who is almost seventy years old and whose face is still the touchstone of beauty for me. I used to think this was because I can trace back to it what I like best about my own appearance. But now I’m not so sure it is to do with resemblance at all. Perhaps my mother’s face is beautiful to me for a much simpler reason: because it was always there.