Father and son surf lesson in Morro Bay, CA 12 of 12

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat with another mom at my tween son’s futsal game. (For the uninitiated: think fast soccer moves on a basketball court with fewer players and a smaller, weighted ball. That’s futsal.) We were commenting on how tall both our boys had grown lately, and then she mentioned how much she thought my son looked like me and my husband.

“What? Looks like me? No one ever says that.” My son looks nothing like me. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “I think he may be the most perfect combination of two people I’ve ever seen. He’s got your build and your husband’s face. He’s totally the two of you.”

I stared at my son as if I’d never seen him before. She was right.

For a single second, I felt a rush of pleasure–my son looks like me! Then it was over. But I don’t care if my kids look like me, and I never have. So what was that moment of delight about?

Nearly twelve years ago, I gave birth to a baby boy who had blue eyes, a full head of blond hair and features that in every way resembled his father’s. This likeness was commented upon by every person who met him, and that was understandable: our baby really did look like a “Mini Me” version of my husband. I didn’t mind the comparison–it was true, and he was a beautiful baby–but I couldn’t help noticing how many people asked if it bothered me that my son didn’t look like me.

“No, of course not,” I answered for the fifteenth, twentieth, thirtieth time.

When we began to consider whether we wanted a second child–a child we knew we would add to our family via adoption–one person close to us asked me, “Are you sure you don’t want to try for one that looks like you?”

I laughed and thought, Who cares?

Between our two children, our adopted, now eight-year-old daughter probably resembles me more, though she and I aren’t even of the same race. My daughter and I both have dark brown eyes and dark brown hair that shows hints of copper in sunlight (though, truthfully, my copper has morphed more to white now, as my daughter likes to point out). My Caucasian eyes even have a slight almond shape to them, though not nearly so much as her Asian eyes. But, as she and I have discussed, that’s where the resemblance ends.

Both of my children have, at various times, been curious about the origins of my daughter’s physical features and certain aspects of her personality. I’ve had more conversations than I can count with my daughter about what comes from genetics, what you get from the people who love and surround you and what comes from just being you. Both kids know–I hope–that it’s fine to examine the question of who you look like, but while it may be interesting as a curiosity, it doesn’t determine who you are.

In contrast, I do sometimes wonder about the origins and consequences of some non-physical traits. For example, my daughter is a never-ending talker, living in a family of relatively quiet people. Are her biological origins in a family of constant chatterers, where everyone talks at once? Does this mean our family is tough for her sometimes? My son doesn’t like to discuss his feelings, but my husband is the same way, so my son’s got someone who understands him there. What about my kids’ senses of humor? Sometimes my daughter tells a joke and I haven’t got a clue what she’s talking about. This causes her to stomp off to her room in frustration. But this scenario rarely occurs with my son, because his sense of humor is very much like mine (except for the adolescent fart jokes).

But sometimes my daughter and I roll our eyes and grimace together at my son’s gross, eleven-year-old boy behavior, and she and I talk, for hours, about the sixteen different things she wants to be when she grows up and the twelve things she wants to do tomorrow. We try different foods together and tell stories. We talk about the arts. She offers insights into people I find astonishing for an eight-year-old, we read each other’s expressions and discuss her favorite authors. And, God help me, now she’s starting to pick out my clothes when we go shopping.

All of these exchanges shape our relationships in ways physical appearance can’t touch. The substance of our family lies here. So why do people focus so much on physical resemblance? Is it a stand-in for the intangible connections that really matter? What do I make of my own fleeting, positive reaction at the recognition of my son’s resemblance to me? Does it date back to some primal instinct we all carry in our genes, whereby physical resemblance of offspring proves to the world that one’s child is truly one’s own? Is this why physical resemblance is so important to people? If so, where does that leave the adopted child?

As I thought about these questions, I remembered something my daughter’s third-grade teacher had said to my husband and me a few days earlier in a parent-teacher conference. She had taught our son when he was in fourth grade, and she noted the similarities between our kids.

“They have so many of the same mannerisms. You can tell they’re brother and sister.”

Recalling that comment, I realized: I’d felt the same rush of pleasure upon hearing the teacher’s words that I’d felt upon hearing the comment at the futsal game.

Physical resemblance is not what makes a family. It’s just the thing you see first. What makes a family–besides the elements of love, commitment, care, etc.–are all of the little behaviors, traits, inside jokes, experiments, traditions, arguments, resolutions, stories, similarities, differences and more that you grow together. Within a family, there will be resemblances in these, and there will be variations. Because every family is made up of individuals–individual pieces that weave together to form the whole.

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