Six days after our daughter, Pippa, was born we took her to the post office to apply for a passport. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could still travel internationally with an infant, even if it was only to Canada to visit family for a few weeks.
Wrangling a passport for a newborn seemed a daunting, deeply suspect mission. Pippa weighed seven pounds. She had patchy dark hair, a receding hairline, and the crumpled face of an organ-grinder monkey. When she wasn’t crying, which was practically never, she could pass as human, but just barely.
I consoled myself that it would only be a matter of months (weeks, I hoped) before she’d lose her scrunched-up capuchin look and enter her angelic-I-belong-in-a-baby-commercial phase—at which point her passport photo would be completely obsolete. And by the time the document expired in five years, she’d be unrecognizable, a different animal altogether: an actual kid.
My mother had done the legwork. Our first day home from the hospital, while Pippa and I lolled catatonically in bed, she made the rounds of the state offices downtown, collecting the baby’s birth certificate and a passport application procured from a postal employee named Ramona. In careful blocky writing, my mother filled out the form on her granddaughter’s behalf while I dictated from the couch. When she got to the applicant’s height, we had a good, long laugh. “21 inches,” my mother wrote, trying to suppress her giggles. “Or do you think by now she’s 22”?”
They grow up fast, but not that fast. I told my mother to stick to the facts. “Occupation,” she continued, snickering. “Should we put ‘sucking’?” I mustered a half-hearted laugh, strictly for appearances.
Three days later, my husband, Steve, and I schlepped Pippa to the post office to make it official. My mother had briefed us on what to expect: We’d present Ramona with the form, our own passports as proof of parenthood, and a check to expedite the process. Then we’d pay $15 for Ramona to take Pippa’s photo. It sounded so simple.
Ramona had long, shellacked bangs that arced stiffly over her forehead, and her mouth formed an unbudging straight line, like a zipper sewn shut. On the phone with my mother, Ramona had been helpful, even friendly, but in person, she was steely and impenetrable. There was only one other person in line ahead of us, but when Ramona summoned him to her desk with a disgruntled flick of her finger, she informed him that he’d filled out the wrong application and would have to start over. Our turn.
“How old is the baby?” Ramona barked, barely making eye contact. “Six days?” I said nervously, extending Pippa toward her as though for verification. Ramona didn’t look up from her paperwork. “Oh, boy,” she said instead. “This is going to be tough.”
As though to prove it, she gestured to a piece of white poster board leaning against the wall. “Lie her flat on the board,” Ramona commanded. It took my brain a minute to catch up. I’d envisioned holding our placid newborn up in front of the camera, but I hadn’t factored in her wobbly raw-poultry neck, which made that anatomically impossible. I shot Steve a pleading look but he shrugged and nodded sheepishly—a gesture that seemed to say, we answer to Ramona now.
The floor was covered in dingy grey wall-to-wall, and the scuffed poster board looked like it had been recycled from an elementary-school art room at least a decade earlier. I closed my eyes and imagined looking at it through a microscope, the whole skuzzy surface crawling with bacteria and virulent superbugs. (At least it was summer: deathly viral microbes would be at a minimum.) Sensing our distress, Pippa began to fuss.
Surely if I could survive 30 hours of labor, I should be able to put my six-day old infant on the dirty post office floor for 30 seconds. I tried to channel the bravery and valor of childbirth, but all I could see was me, tethered to an IV and a Pitocin drip, begging for mercy—or at least an epidural. It had been my idea to try to give birth without pain medication, but 18 hours into labor, I was ready to fold. Somewhere inside of me, a living, breathing creature was trying to claw its way out.
“I can’t do it,” I whined to Steve, my mother, and my doula. “You are doing it,” my doula replied with far more certainty and cheer than the circumstances warranted. “The only way out of this is through it!” And so it was. At just after 4 in the afternoon, Pippa emerged: first her squirrelly brown head, then her curled-up body—neither a wolverine nor a weasel, but a tiny perfect baby, whimpering only a little.
Now that same tiny perfect baby was on the grungy piece, eyes squeezed shut, hands balled into hard little fists, squalling angrily. Ramona seemed just as bitter. “Her eyes need to be open,” she barked from behind the camera. “I told you this was going to be hard.” I knelt on the floor beside Pippa, stroking her temples and trying to summon the ancient maternal soothing instincts that had so far eluded me. For a second, Pippa settled and opened her eyes, sapphire marbles staring back at us.
“Did you get it?” I asked Ramona just as Pippa’s eyes squeezed shut. Click went Ramona’s camera.
“Try again,” I said impatiently. Pippa’s eyes fluttered open—“OK, now!”—then shut. An entire decade dragged by: click. Ramona scowled and shook her head, as though all of this was our fault and had nothing to do with her diabolically slow trigger finger or the fact that she could barely see through her bangs. After ten more minutes of the same, Pippa was howling, and the room was filling with new customers who’d wandered unwittingly into our nightmare.
“This isn’t going to work,” I told Ramona, my face red and sweaty from the peculiar shame that comes with doing something dubious to your newborn front of complete strangers. It was like putting her pacifier back in her mouth after it had fallen on the restroom floor, only much, much worse. What kind of mother was I?
“Well, you can take the picture yourself at home,” Ramona retorted. “I’ll hold your application until tomorrow.”
Defeated, we left. We had 24 hours to produce an official 2”-by-3” headshot of Pippa—both eyes open, both ears showing, a fully-formed chin in evidence, against a white background—or else we’d be going to Toronto by way of Buffalo. Compared to this, natural childbirth was a cinch.
The only way out of this is through it, I coached myself the next morning as I placed a milk-sated Pippa on the bed in her nursery and climbed up next to her with my camera. If I stood on my tiptoes and stretched my arm as high as it would go, I could frame her face against the white bedspread. I held my breath and braced for an outburst, but for the first time in her very short life, Pippa wasn’t crying, she wasn’t nursing—she was just watching. Hovering above her, I clicked shot after shot: two huge, inky eyes, a pair of pixie ears, and one dimpled elfin chin.
That afternoon the three of us went back to the post office. When Ramona saw us, she grunted in recognition, or maybe dread. I cringed as I handed her the head shot, expecting a surly rebuff, but Ramona surprised us. Her mouth actually moved, creasing upward into a shy sliver of a smile. “It’s just about perfect,” she said.
The passport arrived a few days before we were scheduled to leave, and there on the second page was Pippa’s laminated little face. Already she looked different in real life: less larval, more baby-like. I’d been dreading the flight—certain she would cry all the way to Canada while we huddled in our row, mortified and inept—but Pippa, in her fleece sling, conked out to jet-engine white noise for the duration. Compared to putting a tiny screeching newborn on the dirty post office floor, it was a cinch.
The only hitch came in Toronto, when the customs official mistook the blob on my husband’s chest as some sort of weird man purse, not in fact, a seven-pound, passport-holding international traveler cocooned in a fleece sling. All that trouble, and he barely glanced at the thing! I cleared my throat. “Uh, could we please have a stamp,” I groveled, thrusting the document, open to her photo, into his hand. “It’s her first trip.”
A year later, we flew back to Canada. Pippa was blonde now, with chubby cheeks and sturdy legs and a mouthful of teeth. Her official occupations were walking, babbling, giggling, and squirming—especially in small, confined places like the inside of a plane. She was a professional toddler. This time, as the Toronto border agent studied Pippa’s passport photo, trying to reconcile it with the real article, I composed imaginary defenses in my head. “Oh, it’s really her, alright. Can’t you tell by the eyes?" I needn’t have bothered. Pippa wriggled in my arms and gave the man a monkey grin. “Cute,” he said, and waved us through.
This summer Pippa turned five. Before we flew to Canada for our annual family visit, her baby passport would have to be retired, and a new one procured. I approached the task with casual smugness—been there, done that. She could ride a bike, ski, write her letters, follow multi-part instructions when she wasn't being stubborn, and beat me at Kings Around the Corner. This would be a breeze.
I positioned Pippa against the whitish wall of our living room and snapped a few photos with my iPhone. No one who didn't witness her wrinkled larval phase would ever recognize this girl as the crumpled-face baby in the original. She has white-blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and—in the handful of pictures I took—the frozen smile-slash-grimace of someone who's spent her entire life posing for pictures. Only her dimple is still the same, but, as I learned, that's contraband.
"No smiling allowed in passport photos," the man at the camera shop responded when I emailed the files to be printed. "You're going to need a blank facial expression." Blank facial expression?! Clearly he did not know Pippa, whose main profession is yakking constantly and moving at the speed of light. She can cycle through all the major emotions in less than a minute. I tried a few more. "Don't smile," I instructed Pippa, who looked confused and then immediately cracked a grin, just to be devilish.
In the end, after a dozen unsuccessful attempts, we gave up and went to the camera shop for professional help. Pippa stood in front of a white projector screen, the manager snapped three photos, and five minutes later, we had our State Department-approved passport photos. She wasn't smiling, smirking, or frowning. She was looking straight at the camera, with a sly, knowing look I recognized from somewhere. It was the same one she'd given the camera when she was six days old—the uncanny, wise-old-Buddha baby expression from her first passport. Time flies, but some things never change.
Tips for Getting Passports for Babies
If you plan to travel internationally with kids, you'll need a passport, no matter how young they are. You might as well get one right off the bat, on the off-off chance any irresistible, last-minute invitations come up. Rule #1 in parenting: Be prepared. The State Department provides detailed, step-by-step guide to the application process on its website, including tips for what to do when the applicant sleeps 20 hours a day and can't hold her head up on her own. Don't despair. Applying for an infant passport doesn't have to be harder than childbirth if you follow these simple shortcuts.
- Get the birth certificate processed right away. If you need the passport soon, make sure the wheels are in motion before you leave the hospital. Same goes for the social security card—required for passport applicants of all ages. Follow up with phone calls, so these key documents don't fall through the bureaucratic black hole.
- For babies, take the picture at home. Keep a camera at the ready and photograph them from above. As long as the background is white, and their ears, eyes, and chin are visible, it doesn't matter if they're lying down. Both my daughters were swaddled when I snapped their passport photos; it kept them from flailing their arms in front of the camera. If you can actually catch them when they're awake, taking their picture now is easier than when they're older and can move. Bonus: Most babies under six weeks old don't know how to smile anyway.
- If you're in a big rush, the State Department will expedite your application for an extra $60—well worth it if you're within three weeks of travel. Turnaround time is 2-3 weeks, but often passports arrive much sooner.
- Print out the State Department checklist and triple check it before you go to the passport office. While you're at it, triple check your local passport office's hours; ours is closed more than it's open. In addition to all the required documents, fees, and photos, all minors under age 16 must be present at the time of application. You'd hate to drag the baby in only to find the agents out to lunch.
- Use it. Now that you've got it, flaunt it. Newborns make great traveling companions—especially before they learn to crawl and babble.