I have a photograph of my oldest son, taken when he was just a couple weeks old. His hands are clasped together under his cheek which is plump to the point of looking swollen. His lips are all squished in a frown. His forehead is wrinkled with a cascade of horizontal lines interrupted by the red V of a “stork bite” caused by stretched blood vessels. His temples are coated in grey fuzz and his hair, for all the world, looks as if he is the victim of male pattern baldness. His skin is blotchy. His eyes are heavy-lidded, unfocused and pointed in different directions. His expression is one of world-weariness. He looks less like a newborn you might find yawning sweetly in a television commercial and more like Terry Bradshaw regaining consciousness after a particularly destructive week of binge drinking.
This is, by far, my favorite baby picture. That’s not because it’s the cutest baby picture (there are far cuter baby pictures of both of my kids) but because it’s an authentic baby picture. Truth is, babies often don’t look right.
We are rarely presented with authentic newborns — not on commercials or in movies or on TV shows like when Murphy Brown somehow had a months-old sized “newborn” back in the 80s. When we are given a glimpse of real newborns, it’s by adoring parents who have gotten over the bizarre look of their kids and are forcing their acceptance upon you. The thing is, they no longer see the kid looking wrong. One week in, the kid looks right.
This is why so many parents tend to be shocked in those first days with the baby. You shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself gazing on a fresh baby with a potent mix of confusion and concern, wondering, “What exactly am I looking at here?”
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The answer is pretty simple: the last few weeks in the womb and the trauma of exiting it affects the way a baby’s body looks. Also, human babies are born with a lot more development to do before they look like the baby parents probably expected.
That pointy conehead? Totally normal. The skull of a newborn is designed to be flexible so it can fit through the birth canal. It takes a bit before it becomes a nice round noggin. Unless of course, your kid was born via c-section, in which case their head is shaped as you’d expect. Lucky them.
That nightmare of blotchy, strangely colored and blemished skin? Normal. After all, the kid has been floating around in an amniotic soup for months and has emerged into a world of new microbes. Babies often have acne, birthmarks, and freaky-sounding skin conditions like pustular melanosis, erythema toxicum, milia and maybe even a yellow hue from jaundice.
Newborns also arrive with bowed legs, flat, puggish noses from being squished up in the womb, a coating of fine downy fur, and a weird waxy coating that protected their skin while in the womb. They might have floppy bent over ears and they probably won’t open their eyes very often. This is all incredibly normal, albeit shocking to anyone who assumed a cuddly little cooing baby version of themselves.
The good news is that the gremlin that you brought into the world will start looking more human right quick. For one, the trauma of birth on their body will fade. They’ll fill out in the right places. Bones will fuse properly and cartilage will stiffen.
Furthermore, parents get used to their weird-looking baby. They spend so much damned time looking at the baby, seeing if they’re asleep, why they’re crying, staring into their eyes as you change a diaper, that all those wrinkles and smooshes and marks become normal. You’ll see around the acne and notice their eyelashes, tiny toes, and baby-blue eyes (squinting through pug-like lids). You and your relatives will see them as adorable and precious because they are exactly that, despite how messed up their face might look. It’s a wonderful reminder that looks aren’t everything.
And in the end, that’s why I adore the picture of my hungover Terry Bradshaw baby. It shows me that even when life looks weird, it’s still just how it was intended to be.