In my first hours of fatherhood some two decades ago, I began to learn what every parent must — namely, how to spot your child’s face in a crowd.
Shortly after our daughter was delivered, I left my wife’s bedside to check on our newborn in the hospital nursery. I had known our daughter only a few moments and wasn’t instantly sure which child was ours. In a maternity ward, all the infants look alike, a line of little dumplings beneath standard-issue blankets.
A fleeting sense of anxiety flushed my cheeks. What if I, the novice dad, had quickly confirmed my incompetence by losing track of our child on the first day of her life? Luckily, each bassinet was labeled, and I found our daughter soon enough. I stood at the nursery window and learned her features: the beautiful nose, the eyes like her mother’s, the tiny mouth that was hers and hers alone. The memory of these things, I told myself, would help me find her no matter what.
Child-spotting, I came to understand, is about half of what child-rearing is. That first year of fatherhood also meant the start of day care — and the unalloyed happiness of reading a room of runny noses at the end of each workday to discover the one that belonged to us.
What I also learned early is that children don’t belong only to you. You share them from the start with a larger circle — a world in which they can look so small that you want to shield them from it, although you know that part of life is allowing them, bit by bit, to find their own way.
And so there are dance recitals — those parental purgatories, of interminable length, that compel you to spot your tiny ballerina in the torrent of tutus and hope she can manage a pirouette without tipping off the stage. There are softball games in which you glance down the bleachers at your novice athlete, so seemingly anonymous among the other tiny team members, and try to telepathically will the ball into her catcher’s mitt. There are carpool lines to collect, from a multitude of sweaty youngsters, the one who calls you Dad.
And then there comes a day, like the one I had this month, when you watch your child graduate from college. The familiar, floating despair of overlooking her gave way to relief as I saw, in a sea of caps and gowns, the face I’d imprinted on my mind and heart in a hospital hallway 22 years ago.
She’ll be leaving us soon, starting a new career and a new life out of state. That means, for me, a new chapter of fatherhood, too. It’s the story of a man and his wife standing in an airport terminal and surveying the arrivals, summoning decades of experience to find the one face we cherish most of all.