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The Ugly Duckling: A Story of Love & Acceptance

A friend was coming to meet my new baby. I watched her as she walked up the path to my front door, holding a box wrapped in blue paper decorated with teddy bears. She smiled when she saw me waiting there. "Look," I told her, "there's something you need to know before you see the baby." Her smile wavered, then disappeared. I took a breath and told her the truth.

"He's not cute," I said. Like others who came before her, she thought I was exaggerating. Until she saw for herself. "Well," she said, as we stood together at his crib. "He's certainly...little, isn't he?"

At 4 1/2 pounds and 20 inches, Sam didn't even have a chance to be cute. Those pointy little bones. Those enormous feet hanging from his skinny legs. The wrinkled face. In the hospital, my mother took one look at him and gasped. "I had such pretty babies," she said. She turned to my husband. "He doesn't look like our side of the family," she said. "Well, he doesn't look like my side either," replied my husband.

After we had Sam home for a few days, my husband and I had a talk. "We have to admit it," he said, gazing down at our son. "He isn't very cute." There. It was out in the open, the thing I had known from the moment I first held him. Even in our birth video, giddy from the miracle of having my son, I sputter, "He looks kind of funny, doesn't he?" I was more than a little surprised at his appearance. In fact, I was shocked. How could he have missed out on my husband's chiseled features and on the adorable Hood nose?

"Is it okay that he looks like this?" I asked the midwife. I suppose I was really asking it of myself.

Like most mothers, I'd imagined my baby would be 100 percent cute. The kind of baby who smiles out at us from ads and baby food jars. I had read, of course, that newborns can be kind of scary looking. Coneheaded from being pushed through the birth canal. Wrinkled from the pressure of birth. But within a few weeks the wrinkles smooth out and the head takes on a rounder, more human shape.

However, as the weeks passed, Sam did not grow cuter. He developed such a bad case of infant acne that for a while, he actually looked worse.

Before I had Sam, I wondered if mothers knew when their babies weren't adorable. Now I know that we do know. And that we don't care.

What we do care about are all the other things that make a baby special. After all, what is "cute" anyway? Although everyone stops to "ooh" and "aah" over a baby with pudgy cheeks, twinkling eyes, and a perfect toothless grin, cute is a lot more than the sum total of a face. It's more about the way a baby peeks out from under a wide-brimmed hat, or smiles like Bogey, or picks up one foot and easily plops it into his mouth.

Watching Sam take his first clumsy steps almost broke my heart. His good-natured perseverance, his awkwardness, his lifting his arms to me for comfort, resonated with cuteness.

When I recently told another mother what an ugly baby Sam was, she couldn't believe it. "But he's so handsome!" she said. I glanced over at Sam, now 5, busily climbing a jungle gym. She was right. Somewhere along the line he got cute. Very cute. Once I came clean about what an ugly baby he was, his looks became so unimportant that I didn't even notice when the transformation took place. Back in his ugly days he grabbed onto my heartstrings and didn't let go.

My second baby was born absolutely cute. But unlike her brother, Grace had no interest in trying to sit up on schedule, or reach for her toys, or crawl. "Let's face it," I told my husband one night, "she's cute, but she's an underachiever." We both looked over at her, smiling and looking, well, cute. When Sam was her age he was already saying "mush" in all the right places during Goodnight Moon, in a voice that made me positively elated. Grace couldn't care less about interactive storytelling. But I feel the same way about her that I felt about Sam: I love her despite all she isn't, and because of all she is.

Ann Hood's seventh novel, Ruby, was published this past fall.