What’s in a name?

My two-year-old has learnt a joke. She muddles up our names, on purpose, and then she laughs. “I’m mummy”, she says.

“You’re mummy? I thought I was mummy”.

I’m not mummy” she retorts, as if I am an idiot, and screams with laughter. I sort of get the joke.

She is very pleased with herself. Not content with that, she has come into views about how she should be styled. She is fed up with the diminutive, she wants us to call her by her proper name.

Naming a child is a big responsibility. I didn’t want it. There comes a point when a name becomes entrenched; an adult severed from his name is a frightening thing, a product of amnesia or some more deliberate reckoning with self or past, or a lover of disguises, someone whose identity is too weak or too malleable. But when a child is born it’s really just called baby.

Discussing names with other parents is a minefield. People who pre-name keep their lists tucked up inside their chests; don’t ask; it’s taboo. And what if they do tell you? It only takes one little flicker, one little muscle twitch to throw them off course, suggest that you are judging.

Midwifery cuts though it all. From before birth until contact ceased my girls were just called baby. Where will baby sleep? Baby needs an extra blanket. Baby wants her milk. It drives some women up the wall. When they turn their minds to it, they accept that midwives can’t be expected to remember all those names (there isn’t time; the budget went elsewhere), but they suffer the loss of the article. It’s so cutesy, it infantilises the mother at a time when her identity is already under heavy bombardment. Why not suggest that the baby might like a nap?

The outrage misses the mark. Baby isn’t a noun in this context, it’s a name. Wait and see what your baby looks like when its born, if you like, if she looks like a Maria or a Kat. But you’ll probably be kidding yourself, chances are she’ll look like a baby.

My heart melts with a peculiar mixture of tenderness and malaise every time I encounter a personal pronoun in a sentence with my daughter. She wants her milk. She needs her nap.

An infant’s world is so primitive, a hot mix of desires and sensations without language or identity. We cast out our finite, delimited words as a rope into that primeval swamp, that unarticulated need. Not milk. Not some milk. Her milk. Your milk.

Welcome to the world, little one, you’re not really old enough for a name, barely more human than a kitten, but we’ll start to bind you in with these little connecting words. Soon you’ll be old enough to tell us what we ought to call you.

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