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No Resemblance

You're the only one with brown eyes," my mother points out. We're looking at the first four-generation portrait ever taken in our family, when my firstborn was a baby. Sure enough, I'm the odd woman out. There's my mom (light green), my mom's mom (sky-blue), and my 6-month-old son (bluer-than-blue). And there's me, a brown-eyed brunette.

This surprises me because I'm used to family photos dominated by brown: All four of my siblings have brown eyes or hair (or did, before time and Clairol interceded). We look like my dark dad, whose apparently dominant genes canceled out his wife's fairer looks.

I'd assumed the dark side would triumph in my children, too (in terms of pigment, not character), until I gave birth to a light-eyed, light-skinned baldy. Two years later, Henry's sister Eleanor turned up fairer still.

Scientists used to think that infants tended to resemble their fathers more than their mothers as a kind of evolutionary safeguard. The idea was that a strong resemblance would ensure paternal devotion, since there could be no doubt as to who was the father. More recent research has squashed this notion, though evidently most of my children were destined to leave all traces of Mom behind in the womb.

It's not that I was disappointed by this. I was tickled to see Henry's hairline precisely mimic my husband George's, and startled to discover a dimple on one side that deepened just like Daddy's when he was trying to keep a straight face. It was also cool to find that Eleanor, who is named after my own mom, shares her blonditude.

But what about me? Where was the mini-me I expected?

Long before I ever met George, when I imagined a child holding my hand, she was a girl with bangs and a Brownies-brown bob, just like mine. By the time I was pregnant, the baby I talked to and patted was this same vision, albeit shrunken down. My little brown bunny, in curled-up baby size.

Every mom-to-be cradles some fuzzy image of the baby on its way, whether it's a mirror reflection or a face borrowed from her niece's Bitty Baby Doll. We say we only want it to be healthy. But secretly we embroider details: Girl. Or boy. Or curly locks or dimples. Or please not Uncle Gerald's bowlegs.

Except, of course, it doesn't work out that way. Blondes beget ravens, stork-legged supermodels have wee preemies. My stick-shaped sister-in-law has given birth  -- six times  -- to strudel-shaped 10- and 11-pounders.

These parent-child disconnects can surprise onlookers as much as parents.

"Are they yours?" a woman once asked me as I watched Henry and Eleanor collect rocks at the playground.

"Sure are," I said with pride.

"I would never have guessed."

"Oh?" "They're so Nordic looking!" she trilled. "I thought you were the babysitter!" I marveled that my splotchy denim shirt and black stretch pants hadn't tipped her off. Then I wondered whether this was some kind of veiled ethnic slur. At least, I consoled myself, I hadn't been mistaken for their grandmother.

By the time my third child, Margaret, came along, her shock of black hair and eyes as big and dark as saucers of straight-up espresso startled me almost as much as my firstborn's paleness had. I had come to count on a certain model of baby.

Then, as I took in her remarkable ruddiness there in the delivery room, I felt a shiver of recognition: This was the baby I'd expected five years earlier!

With my fourth and final child, our DNA went back to the fairer-than-fair drawing board. Page and her older sister Eleanor look so much alike, in fact, that it's hard for me to tell them apart in their baby photographs, unless there's another child around to use as a benchmark. But by the time Page arrived, I had pretty much surrendered my preconceived notions about who might turn up in the delivery room.

In the years since I first set eyes on each of my kids, they've all come into much more detailed focus. Page's coloring may be George's, but as she grows, I see that the shape of her face is exactly my own. Margaret wrinkles her nose just like her dad. And all three girls' hair, whatever the color, is my own limp, baby-fine texture.

Mostly, the ways they take after us are richer than skin-deep. Henry sometimes appears to have had a personality graft directly from me. Margaret has her dad's wit. Eleanor loves to read, like both of us. Not one of my four kids is the imaginary child I once dreamed of. That's because my future-baby had been a one-dimensional image, with the sound turned down. Each of my amazing flesh-and-blood-and-vocal-cords children has turned out to be his or her own person  -- inside and out.

I wouldn't have wished for anything different.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the coauthor of Bright From the Start.