Demanding. Gratifying. Life-affirming.
Of all the words used to describe the parenthood escapade, you never hear anyone call it “startling,” “icky,” or even “really flipping disconcerting” — all of which I find it, at times, to be. Anyone who’s ever had to cut an infant’s fingernails, attach her own breast to an electric pump, or search a scalp for headlice knows what I’m talking about.
I can stomach almost anything if I know it’s coming. Given a decent heads up, for example, I might have been able to handle the oddest phenomenon in my first decade of parenting: The discovery that my in-laws’ faces are plastered squarely — audaciously — on the front of my children’s heads.
I mean they’re right there. Staring back at me as though they had every right to be there. Looking to all the world like I gave birth to my husband’s 68-year-old, Sarah Brightman-loving parents.
I’m sorry, but eww.
The resemblance isn’t actually glaring. It presents itself in minor features (the tip of a nose, the arch of a brow) and familiar flashes of expression (the Fake Photo Smile, the Disapproving Frown).
Still it’s rattling to realize that someone you love with utter abandon — someone whose apple-juicy breath you cherish, whose perpetually sandy toes you chew on — is forever branded with the chin/earlobes/nostrils of a man you still don’t kiss on the lips and a woman you hope to never see in her underwear.
And you know what’s even weirder? Gazing down at your nursing newborn and seeing Grandpa winking back at you.
I should say here that my in-laws aren’t unattractive folks. In fact, they’re likable in every way: Hard-working, kind-hearted, generous.
But they’re not…my people.
Their foreheads are foreign to me, their cheekbones exotic. Theirs are not the faces I grew up studying, the twinkling eyes and freckled skin of my parents, cousins, and even (yikes) exceedingly homely Aunt Antoinette — people whose coloring and bone structure and smiles have flooded my vision from my first moments on earth. In other words, my family’s kissers aren’t cuter. They’re just more ingrained.
I get biology. I know gene pools work like jigsaw puzzles, pulling a smidge from here and a dash from there, combining dissimilar attributes in seemingly impossible, but ultimately elegant, ways.
My husband’s face, for example, is an artful blend of his parents’ mugs. But, you see, I knew him first. I fell in love with his upturned eyes and narrow nose before I ever even met his parents — and pinpointed their unmistakable origin.
I’ve spent enough Thanksgivings now sitting across the table from my in-laws that I recognize the curl of their eyelashes and the curve of their jaws when they glint at me from my kids’ faces. It still startles me from time to time, that nagging “how did that come out of me?” sensation overriding my basic understanding of biology.
But I’ve come to see it as a cool thing, too: an invaluable visual reminder that our kids are not our clones. They’re their own unique entities made up of countless chromosomes from innumerable generations. It’s true of their talents and temperaments as much as their looks.
I know my husband sees it, too, when my dad’s laugh comes bursting out of our boys, or my mom’s grin alights across their faces. I look over at my spouse to see if he’s enchanted or unnerved by the recognition and I know at once exactly what he’s thinking.
Thank god it’s not Aunt Antoinette.