When I found out I was having a boy, I assumed he would look like his dad. My husband is the spitting image of his own father. On top of their physical resemblance, both are economics professors and both ran cross-country in college. I never have to wonder what my husband will look like in 30 years–during any holiday celebration I only need to look over at my father-in-law.
But when my son arrived, he looked like me. Instead of being bald like the baby pictures of his dad, he was born with a head full of dark brown hair; instead of his father’s blue eyes he had dark brown irises, just like mine. Even my ever-eager-to-stake their genetic claim in-laws agreed: he was my child.
It surprised me how much this delighted me. Growing up I looked like none of the relatives I regularly saw. My father, who clearly resembles his Jewish ancestors who fled Eastern Europe, moved out of state when I was young. I rarely saw anyone from his side of the family.
My dark complexion stood out among my mother’s Irish-English relatives. My mother was the Queen of this Gaelic tribe–quite literally, as she was Miss America 1970. Unfortunately I did not inherit her model-esque blonde locks, green eyes, or high cheekbones. While I often longed to look like her, especially during my gawky middle school years, the fact we didn’t look alike freed me to be a bookworm and not a beauty queen. Eventually I accepted that I would rarely see elements of myself reflected in the family around me.
All that changed with my son’s arrival. When I looked at his tiny face I recognized myself, and others did, too. On every one of our “first” outings–to the grocery store, doctor’s office, shopping mall, library, diner, bookstore–people exclaimed that my Little Man looked like his Mommy. Each time someone commented on our resemblance I tried to keep my smile from going too wide, but my refrain was always the same, “Oh, thank you, but I think he looks like himself.”
But then, at 4 months, my baby’s hair began to lighten. His limbs grew and he took on the long, lean frame of his father. First strangers, then Facebook friends, and finally family members, began to remark that my son–our son–looked just like his dad. Suddenly, looking like himself meant looking more like his dad and not like me.
Initially I wrote this off as a simple biological response. Babies are supposed to look like their dads, according to evolutionary psychology. The resemblance is meant to prove to a man that he is in fact the father, which encourages paternal protection and bonding. A 1995 study in which strangers more successfully matched photos of babies and fathers than babies and mothers, published in Nature, seems to support this theory. While later studies aren’t quite as conclusive, the reasoning is similar. People, including moms, feel the need to prove to men that they are the dads and the way to do this is to say that a baby looks like his father.
My husband, ever the social scientist, decided that our son was a Rorshach test to see who knew each of us best–if the person was closer to me, voila, the baby resembled me, and vice versa. When my dearest friends started saying my Little Man was a little version of his Daddy, I realized I had to let go of the unexpected joy of our shared appearance and see my son as the autonomous person he already is.
Now, when people ask who my son looks like, I reply the same way–“I think he looks like himself”–but all my inner smugness has vanished. In the end I know it doesn’t really matter who my son looks like because how he acts matters much more.
But, let the record show that the kid’s got my eyes.