When he was 4 days old, I clutched him to my bare chest and begged my husband, “Please don’t let him be the last baby!” And Sunny won’t, though he will be the last from my body and that comes with its own special brand of mourning—a hard mourning for me who attachment parents and breastfeeds.
Sunny, now 2 ½, has two older brothers; they are 4 and 6. When Sunny was teeny, the needy 2-year-old and rambunctious 4-year-old separated him from the herd, giving him a quick designation: the Baby. Every parent does this, to some degree: The Baby needs to be changed; the Baby isn’t sleeping; the Baby smiled today. We did it with both of our older boys. I worried no one would ever call my sons anything but Baby Blaise and Baby August. But with each of them, at around a year, right when they started to walk, the Baby wasn’t such a baby anymore. People dropped the designation like leaves falling, gradually and easily.
No one dropped the Baby designation for Sunny. Maybe because he has older brothers, because he’s the youngest. Maybe because I didn’t get pregnant with another brother when he was 15 months old. Maybe because I just kept calling him the Baby, and so did my husband. There were so many children to sort through. You have to differentiate them somehow. Maybe because, combined with all this, he kept nursing, and in public. I nursed his older brother until 4, so a 2 ½-year-old nursing wasn’t anything to make us look twice. And yet.
Around 2, Sunny began to talk in earnest. I expected him to say his name. Instead, in response to Sunny, he stamped his tiny foot: “No! Me Baby!”
“You’re Baby?” I asked.
“Me Baby,” he assured me.
I believe that everyone has the right to dictate what others call them. It goes to the core of identity; it gives agency and control to the named. He wanted his identity to be the littlest, the smallest. The baby. He’d leave it behind eventually. But until then, try to stop using “baby” as an endearment for your children. You’ll find it nigh on impossible.
So Baby it was. I called him by his chosen name about half the time. You could argue I encouraged it, and I suppose I did, but he had chosen Baby, and Baby he’d be called. And yes, some part of me thrilled: I still have a baby. Maybe my baby doesn’t want to be wrapped up on my back, but he still calls himself Baby.
My husband tries to talk him out of it. “But you’re so big!” he says. “You can do so many big-guy things like walk and talk!”
“Baby walk and talk.”
“But you’re big!”
“No, me not big! Me tiny!” Baby said, and burst into tears. He gets very upset when accused of being big. Maybe it’s a way to set himself apart from his “big” brothers. Or maybe he just wants to be tiny.
I suspect the latter. I check with him, from time to time, “Do you want me to call you Sunny or Baby?”
“Baby,” he says without hesitation. Then I heard him babbling in the backseat: “Tiny, tiny, tiny. Baby tiny.” Even though Baby weighed in at a chunky 27 pounds during his last pediatrician appointment.
He’ll introduce himself to others that way. I’ll say, “This is Blaise, this is August, and this…”
“Me Baby,” he’ll interrupt. OK then.
Some people would argue that in my grief for another biological child, I’m keeping my youngest child in amber, the perfect Baby. And yes, I still nurse him, and he still sleeps in our bed. But I no longer wear nursing clothes. He can’t easily access my breasts the way he could before, and that’s not the way to keep him a baby. I’d still be prancing around in snap bras and tank tops if I wanted to stunt his growth. And as for sleeping in our bed, we’re working on that. The only person who wants Baby there is Baby.
Others, including my husband, argue that we’re stunting his growth by calling him by the name he’s chosen. It shows, they argue, a desire to remain small and dependent: sleeping in our bed, nursing. But he asks for “milkies” much more often than I say yes. He calls himself “Baby,” but he still learned to walk and talk. He tells us, in fact, when we argue that babies can’t talk, “Baby can talk.” And he’s talking more every day, using more words to say more things. He walked in Target today and helped me put things on the conveyer belt. He’s not stunted by his name.
“Baby” is, in the end, an appellation. It’s the one my third son prefers. One day, he’ll prefer another, and we’ll probably continue to call him “baby” as an occasional term of endearment. But until then, it’s the name he chose. It’s the role he’s comfortable in. He’ll move out of that given time and patience. And understanding.
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