Gene Shorts

Babies are boring, at least intellectually. You’re not going to engage a newborn in a rousing game of Go, discuss your favorite economic theories or concepts*, or chat him up about the last book you read. It’s all pretty mundane, really, at least for Babies #2 and beyond. The first baby is exciting and new and you spend most of your time freaking out about what turns out to be perfectly normal. Joshua, our oldest, had a huge lump on the side of his neck when he was a few months old. It appeared seemingly overnight. We, being new to both parenting and sleep deprivation, immediately assumed it was probably Something Fatal, and actually discussed between ourselves how fortunate it was that Joshua would die so young so that we wouldn’t be as attached to him had he lived longer. It was, obviously, not Something Fatal, but an enlarged lymph node from having a cold. Now that we’re on Baby #3, it took actual rectal bleeding before we decided there might be a problem.

Normal baby stuff is repetitive and requires no real thought, useful because thinking without adequate sleep is a challenge for which I am particularly ill-equipped. I have no problem staying up half the night, so long as I can sleep long in the morning. Obviously, babies care not for your sleep preferences, so being able to change a diaper and feed them sometimes literally with your eyes closed is an invaluable survival trait in the species.

Because they’re so boring and because they do so little of interest**, you spend a lot of time staring at them and, between wakeful naps, thinking about what they look like. Or who they look like, to be more precise. Gregor Mendel may be the father of modern genetics, but countless fathers before him studied their progeny for evidence of relationships to relatives. Grandmother’s eyes, Cousin Helen’s nose, the milkman’s curly hair — we keenly examine our babies’ bodies in wonder at the currents of DNA coursing through our generations.

And because we’re bored and tired, we tend to think ourselves experts in all things genetic. How quickly we go from simply being relieved at the baby having the correct number of fingers and toes to offering lectures to visitors on how that one great aunt used to hold her hand just so, and isn’t it interesting how the baby does the exact same thing?!***

It’s really an excuse to indulge in vanity, finding something in yourself in someone else’s self. My hair, her nose, my ears, her fingers. It’s tied into seeing the human race continue. We call it reproduction for a reason; it ain’t innovating.

What has been interesting to us with our kids isn’t so much who they look like as that they look NOTHING like each other. They act quite differently as well, though given their different ages, that’s within expectations. Our great hope for Harper was that she would unite the boys and help them resemble each other in some way. But aside from all of them being pale as a hipster’s ale, they might as well all come from different families. I look like I’m running a day care service whenever I take all three of them out.

Joshua resembles his mother in every meaningful way. When he was small, I took him to a play class at the local gym. The instructor commented every week how much he looked like me. I smiled and demurred, but didn’t bother correcting her. At some point, Jen took Joshua to the class with me and only then did the instructor see it. She remarked, “I used to think he looked like you, but he looks nothing like you next to her!”

Our oldest son is not the apex of human evolution. Hardly. His body type could best be described as “dead for the last few months.” He has very little muscle and almost no body fat, a fact which makes his core temperature swing by alarming degrees in the course of:

  1. Getting undressed to take a bath (drop 2 degrees);
  2. Getting into the bath (increase 3 degrees);
  3. Getting out of the bath (drop 5 degrees).

In the span of twenty minutes, he can go from comfortable to shivering with a brief stop at sweating. But if you ask him to compute math problems in his head, he’s as good as any scrawny-ass calculator you can buy.

Jack, meanwhile, represents my best effort at human cloning. He shares no notable features with his mother or brother, but instead looks like I found a Fountain of Youth and sipped a bit too long. My mother was never wild about the idea of us having a second child, but upon seeing the baby, her heart grew ten sizes and she gasped, “He’s like a tiny Phillip!” She’s loved him ever since.

Jack does not share his brother’s skeletal frame. Rather, he skews the other way. He’s not overweight by any means, but he doesn’t lack for padding, either. “Meaty” is the word we use most often to describe him. It’s all the more surprising as he spends most of his days moving. He doesn’t walk if he can run, doesn’t go around if he can climb over, and doesn’t sit still unless absolutely necessary, and not always then. His waking hours are spent in perpetual motion. Only my cursed genes keep him from being trimmer and leaner. On the other hand, he’s always ready for winter, no matter the season.

And then there’s Harper. I love my daughter, perhaps moreso because of her medical issues, but she looks very little like any of us, and she’s not a great-looking baby in general. I’ll fight anybody else who says it, but the truth is, her ears stick out, her wispy hair looks like she licked a wall socket, and her gigantic, bulbous baby eyes bulge a lot. She looks like Yoda, Gizmo the Mogwai, and Wembley Fraggle had a drunken night together. Look, by the time you hit Baby #3, the gene pool is getting pretty short on water and you’re just happy to float a bit.

Shortly after she was born and before she started gaining weight appreciably, her doctor compared her to Sting’s character in the movie adaptation of Dune, Feyd Rautha. For comparison, and as a reminder, allow me to sear his image onto your corneas.


Now imagine that face yelling at you at two o’clock in the morning when you’re barely clinging to consciousness. It’s delightful.


*Mine is “creative destruction” which also roughly describes life as an at-home parent.

**They do so little that you note with joy the first time they hold up their own heads. The baseline for interesting is really low.

***It’s not at all interesting.


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