Searching for My Face in My Daughter’s
Writer Leah Bhabha explores belonging and exclusion through her desire for an unmistakable family visual identity – how she ultimately found the closeness she thought she sought.
- Written By
- Leah Bhabha
- Lucia Vinti
“How do you two know each other?” the cab driver asked. I must have been 11 or 12, old enough for the experience to permanently imprint, but too young to remember many of the particulars, like where my mother and I were going or why we were in a cab rather than our own car, “Well,” my mother said with a cock of the head and a slightly furrowed brow, “this is my daughter.” I can still feel the searing discomfort of that moment; the notion that a stranger might think we were acquaintances rather than a close mother and child. But to him, there was no obvious physical resemblance. Why did he ask this question? I recall the feeling of being affronted, of having to explain an unequivocal fact of my existence. A sense of rage still rises up, snake-like and angry, through my chest.
In those days before screens dominated our moments of transit, cab drivers were conversationalists, usually older men who had mastered the metropolis of wherever you’d found them, there to learn and share—in the liminal, transitory space of a cab ride—fragments of personal history and experience. But the truth is that even then, I had feelings about the awareness that my mother and I shared little resemblance. Her skin is white, her eyes are green, her face is round, and her nose is thin and straight. My skin is a darker shade that few can place, my face is long, my nose more prominent, my eyes brown. But even with our different features, we could look alike, but we don’t. During ballet class in elementary school, I often noticed another mixed race family where all three children were a clear combination of their parents, immediately recognizable as related. I hadn’t articulated it then, but I now know I felt jealous of it. “Our bodies are the same shape, look how similar our toes are,” I’d point out to my mother. “Of course they are, darling,” she’d say.
As my body swelled with evidence of the impending arrival, I became ever more curious. Standing in the shower, I held both sides of my growing stomach, tracing the unfurling linea nigra. “Who are you?” I whispered. “What will you be like? Who will you look like?” Aware that personality traits wouldn’t be apparent at least for the first few months, I mused on her appearance. Would she emerge shockingly blonde as my nephew had? Would any hint of her Indian heritage—though just a quarter, at this point—be apparent? Whose nose would she have? Mine or my husband’s? Neither? I knew, of course, that newborns look more like old men than any immediate relative and had seen the undeniable paternal imprint on the faces of so many of my friends’ babies. But ME. I wanted her to look like ME, not because of any illusions of vanity (or perhaps, maybe some), but for reasons of belonging.
Matilda emerged looking like herself, whatever that meant at one minute old. A Cesarean birth made for minimal facial swelling, though the comically large bow of the hospital-provided hat obscured much of her tiny face anyway. As we left a few days later, a nurse remarked to my husband, Quentin, that the baby resembled him. “So you know she’s yours,” she said. “I hope she ends up looking like my wife,” he replied. What struck me most in those days, was that Matilda looked unfamiliar. So many things I had expected to be seamless and “natural” felt unfamiliar in those moments: the shooting agony each time she latched, her hunger cries, which were more animal-like than I could imagine, the bandaged part of my stomach that I couldn’t bear to examine.
But her, her face. I felt an unmistakable closeness, a profound overwhelming love and urge to protect that swallowed me whole, but she also felt like another. In those early days, babies are hardly others. They are connected to you physically, if you choose to breastfeed (and even if you bottle feed) much of the time. But I had moments, I must admit, fueled by hormones roiling through my veins, when I wondered. “Is she ours? Are we positive this is our baby?” I confirmed that yes, of course she was ours, the miniature hospital ID bracelet which encircled her miniscule ankle starting a few minutes into her life made sure of this. I wonder now what I was looking for. A carbon copy of myself? Why did I feel I needed that? Was I already feeding into a society obsessed with appearance? Of course, I know now that in that period, it’s impossible not to obsess and fixate, not to allow the sleeplessness and fear and fragility and hormones to entirely engulf you.
“She has nothing of you,” my mother said to me, when her granddaughter was 8 or 9 months old. Though I couldn’t totally recognize it then, Matilda at that point looked indisputably like Quentin and would continue to for most of her first year. Such a statement from my mother was uncharacteristically unfeeling, as she knew how passionately I wanted to share a resemblance with my child. “Really?” I asked, as I poured over my childhood baby albums to find a shred of similitude, maybe an expression; were our eyebrows similar? She was unaware of the power of those words. Nothing. Of. You. After 9 months of living off the food I so carefully consumed, watching the app as she developed from one sized fruit or vegetable to the next, she had nothing of me. My body had grown hip bones, kidneys, a heart. And nothing. Friends would urge me that of course she did look like me, though they could have just been saying what I wanted to hear.
I created a photo stream a few days in. As Matilda’s face developed and deepened, my mother’s came into view, a fact acknowledged by many friends and family. After decades of wanting my own appearance to mirror that of my mother, I felt a sublime satisfaction seeing it in my daughter’s.
After 15 months, Matilda’s face has, I think, morphed into a combination of Quentin’s and mine. It’s hard to parse which features belong to whom, but looking at her I feel a powerful sense of familiarity, and not because of the hours I spend with her. No, this is a primal experience of familiarity, a feeling deep in my bones that I *know* her, that she is my kin. She just looks familiar to me now. How much changes in a year.
It’s tempting to assign traits to children that likely have nothing to do with genetics at all. “Oh, she gets [insert obscure habit] from your side.” But, a few months back, when I was away seeing a friend, I returned and asked how Quentin’s weekend was without me. “I missed you, we missed you,” he said. “But, I felt like I spent the weekend with you. She’s just a smaller you.” And, from her obsession with food and books to the scowl she makes when displeased, to her expression of joy when the Beatles or Rihanna flood the speakers, it’s hard to deny our similarities. Traits do pass on, though I may be putting too much stock in the aspects of her young personality.
Parenthood comes in myriad forms and whether or not you’re genetically related to your child, whether their hair is the same shade as yours or their nose has a familiar bump doesn’t and shouldn’t define your relationship in any way. As my daughter begins to talk, letting me know in no uncertain terms what she does and doesn’t want, I realize more and more that our closeness, the way she pronounces “mama” while pointing to my nose and automatically runs her fingers across my bracelets while we read books, that’s what I have been looking for. The relationship I have with my own mother, the indelible bond, that’s what I want to replicate, whether or not a stranger can pick us out as relatives.
Leah is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and copywriter. She focuses on a number of topics including food, travel, style, and motherhood and writes for publications like Vogue, New York Magazine, and HTSI. She has a one-year-old daughter, Matilda, and a miniature dachshund, Strudel, both of whom are as food obsessed as their mother. Read more of her work here.