When Baby Arrives
Like many areas of life, pregnancy has its own jargon. In corporate America, we think outside the box. In the tech world, we’re all about seamless integration. In pregnancy, we inquire about Baby. Not the baby. Not your baby. Just Baby, like this is Dirty Dancing. We might ask who else is preggers, or if there are any other preggos in the house. We request bump pics. We provide encouragement with Mama, you got this!
It’s embarrassing to admit, but one of the things that always put me off the idea of becoming pregnant was the language. I felt the same about getting married. I didn’t want to change my name, I didn’t want to become a bridezilla, and I didn’t want a hubby. I did eventually get married, and I didn’t change my name, but every Christmas, the cards still come addressed to a stranger, and I never stopped cringing at the twee marriage terms. Because ultimately, it’s about more than just words. It’s about your place in the world.
Experiencing the infantilized language of pregnancy feels like stepping through a gateway. Hey, you, growing a human inside your body! Welcome to the club. It’s time to buy a mini chalkboard and post a clever announcement to Facebook or Instagram. Wear a form-fitting top and take monthly bump growth photos. Start adding items to your online registry, and enlist your BFF to plan a baby shower. Send your partner out to buy appropriately colored confetti and potentially deadly fireworks for the gender reveal party.
Because that’s who you are now, Mama. And it’s all just laying the foundation for who you will become. More than just the mother to your children, you’ll become “a mother” in a categorical sense. You’re already this crudely drawn character at doctor’s appointments, but soon you’ll be “mom” at pediatrician’s appointments and “So-and-So’s mom” at PTA meetings. And for some bizarre reason, from the time you pee on a stick until the moment you drop dead, you’ll forever be known as “Mama” to the grown women you interact with on social media.
I’m months away from giving birth, and I’m already sinking into this quicksand. There’s no escape. I’m stuck here, signaling for help, flailing my arms around in the ether, as the world begins taking swipes at my identity. Diminishing me, ordering me, seamlessly integrating me into society, keeping me from straying too far outside the proverbial box.
Living in England as an American has added a whole other layer to my parenthood language issues. I live in a fairly diverse community, and I mostly just get on with my life, often forgetting I even have an accent. People understand me, and I understand them. All is well and good.
But suddenly, even my husband and I speak different languages. A stroller or baby buggy is a pram or pushchair. A crib is a cot. A pacifier is a dummy. A diaper is a nappy. Your blood isn’t drawn — your bloods are taken. Your water doesn’t break — your waters do. And, of course, there are no mommies, only mummies.
None of these words or grammatical differences bother me in and of themselves. It’s just that they’re not my words. And once again, it feels like a loss, like something being taken, like the universe incessantly pointing out that I’m not cut out for this. We all know that language is a code, a way to make sense of the world, a system of naming the unnamed. And here I am, in a culture that’s not my own, naming everything incorrectly. In an unfamiliar role I now inhabit and will forever embody, over which I have very little say.
We’re always told that being a mother is an honor. That it’s the hardest job in the world. And it can be both of those things. But most of us also understand that it’s not the only thing. I don’t think of my late mother — the most influential person in my life — as just a mother, though she was very good at it. She was an entire complicated, messy person. An artist, a colleague, a friend, a partner, a million other roles, many of which I will never even know about. The relationship we had was but one of many.
I fully grasp that being an expectant parent, and then a parent, is an experience that changes you, but it doesn’t magically transform you into someone else. That’s why it feels peculiar that it requires a whole new vocabulary, a completely novel way of interacting and existing within the order of things.
After all, becoming a parent doesn’t wipe your slate clean — you are an evolution, a work-in-progress. You remain the sum of all of your experiences, including this one. When the baby is born, there will not be two brand-new people, two babies. There will be a new child, yes, made of new flesh and new bones, blank, completely unknowing. And then there will be you, an adult who has lived a life and listened to your friends and read some books, and who will piece together what to do, learning from the mistakes you make along the way.
Because the thing is, if you’re like me, you are still very much you.
I know that my irritation with the linguistic details of pregnancy and parenthood says more about me than it does about the people using the words. After all, there’s no real harm in any of this — these aren’t slurs and no one is being misgendered or attacked. Women call each other “Mama” online as a way to connect, to empathize, to say, “I get it. It’s hard. But you’ve got a community here.” People drop the article and just say Baby because it’s cute and twee and there aren’t many times in adulthood when you can get away with such silly, fanciful things. Seize the day and all of that.
Perhaps more than anything, I’m afraid. Not of giving birth or being a mother, but of being defined solely as a mother. Of no longer being me, or at least no longer being perceived as me. It’s something that most men don’t have to grapple with. Men take fatherhood in stride. It comes with minimal baggage. We all know that the price is heftier for women — we don’t just get a baby, we get a heap of expectations, lofty standards, unfair judgments, unwanted words. We get new names. We get new fears. We get saddled with the knowledge that it probably can’t all be made better with Mama, you got this. Because, Baby, maybe we don’t.