When I was pregnant, another expectant mother confided that she didn’t care if her baby was a boy or a girl, as long as they were born with a full head of hair. I almost gasped out loud. We were allowed to say things like this? I hadn’t realized. My entire pregnancy, I’d dutifully repeated the expected line: all I wanted was a healthy baby. Of course, I did want a healthy baby. But I also wanted my baby to have hair. I wanted her to be a girl. And I wanted her to be beautiful.
When she arrived, six weeks before her due date, my baby was a girl, like I wanted, and she had hair, like I wanted. In fact, Esti had more than just the silky brown hair on her head; her arms and upper back were thickly furred in lanugo, the fuzz that keeps infants warm in the womb. Prior to Esti’s birth, I’d seen pictures of babies born with lanugo on Instagram and thought it was freaky. On Esti, it was almost unbearably beautiful. Same with the milia, white dots on her nose. Gross on other babies, but so delicious on Esti, like miniscule spots of cream. Sure, my baby was premature, and jaundiced, and she’d have to stay in the hospital a few weeks, but she was also incredibly, insanely, supernaturally beautiful. Her beauty said to me: yes, I’m a bit early, but I’m going to be alright. It said: don’t be scared. It said: behold. I held and beheld. I reveled.
From the start, Esti’s beauty meant more to me than beauty. I watched her sleep in her little incubating box, tuning out the beeping monitors, breathing in her beautiful tiny face, her beautiful long-nailed hands, her beautiful furry skin. Her beauty was otherworldly. I had nothing to compare it to, and still don’t. It was like looking directly into the sun. She was enchanting, and I was bewitched.
In those early days, between pumping, changing diapers (hers and mine), and schlepping to and from the hospital, I thought constantly about Esti’s beauty. It worried me that I was mother to the most beautiful person on Earth. The fact that she was so beautiful was either, I reasoned, a gift from the divine, or it was a result of my own skewed perception, my descent into insanity. I knew that postpartum hormones triggered a major transformation—physically, psychologically, biologically. Was Esti actually as beautiful as she seemed to me? Or was she, like most newborns, slightly alien-looking, and I just couldn’t see it?
Sitting next to Esti’s humming incubator, I kept remembering a promise I’d made to a friend in high school: if I ever had an ugly baby, I’d be the first to admit it. At the time, we’d been lightly making fun of someone who insisted on posting pictures of her less-than-adorable baby on Facebook. This mother’s behavior horrified and embarrassed me. Come on, moms, I remember thinking. Do better. I swore that no matter how much I loved my future children, I’d never become the type of person who could not acknowledge reality.
Now, gazing into the perfect, wrinkled face of my newborn, my sense of objectivity was rocky. I wanted to know if I was still the self who had made that promise, still sharp and relatively fair. But the nurses were perfectly polite, which did not reassure me of my sanity.
This pattern persisted even after we finally got to bring Esti home, almost two weeks later. I pestered my friends and family to tell me if they thought my baby was beautiful. “Of course she’s beautiful,” everyone said. What I really wanted to ask: are you a little bit shaken, almost disturbed, by how beautiful this child is? No one seemed to be seeing what I was seeing, the incredible, supernatural light that Esti seemed to emit. My friends’ kind, placid reassurances didn’t come close to the affirmation I was seeking.
It was settled. I’d lost my mind.
Why was beauty, and my ability to discern it, the metric of my own sanity? My whole life, I’d worried about my own appearance; who doesn’t? I saw how the world treated pretty people, how attractiveness opened doors and softened blows. How much easier it was for pretty people to make mistakes and be forgiven. To be loved, respected, and admired. When Esti was born, I couldn’t help but transfer some of this knowledge to how I saw her. I wanted the best possible life for my daughter. I wanted to gift her the ease that beauty brings. Esti already had to surmount the huge obstacle of being born prematurely; I wanted everything else to be smooth sailing. My obsession with Esti’s beauty was as much a sanity and reality check as it was me trying to figure out what kind of world my daughter would be facing—and wishing, I admit it, that my experience of Esti’s beauty were shared by others.
“I know she’s beautiful and we love her,” I said to my mom after Esti had been home from the hospital for a month, “but objectively, Mom, objectively. Is she beautiful?”
My mother, who has spent pinched hours in front of dressing room mirrors, sighed.
“Maybe not objectively,” she said finally. “But it doesn’t matter, Ariel. She’s beautiful to us.”
Looking back at photos from those early months, I can see what she means. Esti was a gorgeous newborn, even objectively, but somewhere in her first month, things took a turn. She developed terrible acne, thanks to receiving my postpartum hormones via breastmilk. A crusty yellow rash bloomed on her forehead, beneath a scaly case of cradle cap. She kept scratching her cheeks with her too-long nails (so difficult to trim!), and areas of her face were gouged and scabbed. She had done a great job gaining weight, but most of it seemed to settle in her upper body, ballooning her head and shoulders above skinny legs. Her persistent jaundice gave her a ruddy orange complexion, like a cheap fake tan.
Worst of all, Esti started losing the silky newborn hair that I’d been so happy to see. It slipped off in handfuls. When I kissed her head, strands stuck to my lips like spiderwebs. I tried to kiss more gently, to stop touching her scalp, but it was impossible. She was nectar and I was a bee. Plus, it fell off whether or not I touched it, coating her bassinet sheet, drifting to the carpet. Soon, she was completely bald, except for a ring of hair around the base of her neck like an old-school friar.
I remember considering, at the time, that the friar look was a little avant-garde for a newborn. I was aware of the rashes, the scratches, the jaundice, the acne, and I noticed that her cheeks were plush while her legs were petite. But I honestly couldn’t see my perfect baby as anything but the most gorgeous creature in the world.
My mom’s honesty finally clued me in: my objectivity was shot. I was the fawning mother I’d feared I’d become. I hadn’t just tipped away from sanity, I’d swung. I tried to keep up appearances, make jokes about it. I thought I was putting other people at ease. “I know the rash is gross,” I’d say, or “She’s our little baldie.” I felt like I had to apologize for Esti’s appearance to show to friends and family that I was still myself.
But these jokes also felt like a betrayal of Esti, my mesmerizing daughter who had come into this world eagerly, who couldn’t wait to join the party, who was innocent of beauty standards and self-consciousness, and who accepted all love without hesitation or second thoughts. What were my jokes apologizing for, really? For feeling slightly unhinged? For losing my cleverness, my fairness, my reason? For wanting Esti to be beautiful—for this to be a thing I worried about? Because I did care whether or not the world saw Esti as beautiful. I cared, and I felt badly about caring. I hated that something so superficial—something as trivial as baby curls, or skin, or proportionality—meant something to me. I made jokes and apologized to offset my own discomfort with the fact that other people might not see Esti the way I saw her: incandescent.
I wanted to be the first to the punch. I wanted to deflect, to laugh it off, to be witty and wiry and sharp. This is the way I learned to protect myself, after harrowed years of middle and high school, after endless hours on Instagram, after glaring at the mirror. It didn’t make me kinder to myself, but it did make me armored. Until Esti was born, it was almost enough.
Once I met Esti, my instinct was to extend my hard-won protection to my baby. But obsessing over looks and making deprecating jokes meant putting Esti down, and putting Esti down wasn’t protection at all. It was harm. I sensed it whenever I said, “Sorry about her rash,” whenever I joked about her bald little head.
This was not the mother I wanted for Esti. I wanted Esti’s mom to be her champion. I wanted Esti’s mom to model self-love and self-compassion, so that Esti learned it early and easily. I wanted Esti to live in a way that she didn’t need armor. I wanted her walk to be lighter. And being beautiful, I was realizing, had little to do with that.
Many of the weeks and months following Esti’s birth contained less-than-beautiful moments for me, physically and behaviorally. I felt fat, I cried, my skin went nuts, and I smelled incredibly bad (another gift from postpartum hormones). My breasts blistered and bled. I was rude to my husband’s grandma, and later to my sister, who had flown in to help. I was irrational, demanding, and ugly.
And through it all, my husband, Samuel, treated me with the most unbelievable gentleness and love. I was cradled, kissed, and held. My baby nuzzled up to me and slept on my bare chest for hours. She loved me without question, without irony, without judgment. She loved me with instinct, as I loved her.
And a little bit at a time, I loved myself. I was messy, crazy, and leaky. But I was making milk for my baby. I was shuffling tenderly to the mailbox. I was setting boundaries with visitors. I was up in the middle of the night, pumping and singing along to an old song while Samuel fed Esti a bottle.
Loving Esti taught me about love in general. About what we can offer each other, if we give ourselves permission.
One afternoon, my friend Hannah visited. Esti was peering around the room, making pigeon-cooing noises and blinking up at everything. “Sorry about her acne,” I said. Then I said, “Never mind. I’m not sorry.” Hannah laughed, and spent the next few hours cuddling with Esti and grinning. The room was full of love. It had been there the whole time.
It took time to fully stop apologizing for Esti’s looks. It was hard at first, and then it got easier. Her rashes faded, her hair grew in. She became beautiful, objectively. It didn’t matter. The people I loved never cared what Esti looked like. They didn’t care what I looked like, either.
And the people who did care—the mean high school girls hunched over their cell phones—I wished them well. I knew well their hurts and hungers. I knew their pain and heavy armor. I wanted to give them some of my milk, to kiss their makeup-caked foreheads, to tell them they’d be okay, that it’d work out okay. That they might become mothers with ugly babies, that they themselves might become ugly. And that they’d be loved regardless. Loved easily and without condition.