On the Fine Details of New Life, and the Names We Give
Sarah Knott in the Moments After Birth
So an event becomes a thing. A newborn. An offspring.
What we see, and what we have seen, when we look at a brand-new baby depends on who is looking. A modern midwife or doctor focuses on a set of vital signs. A suspicious father might search for signs of his paternity, while an anxious mother might scan in hopes that her transgression does not show. A nurse might see a cranky baby to be dealt with. A hastily arriving minister might see a soul to be saved. A surrogate might see an infant to pass over. Often people already know what they are going to see: a returning ancestor, a beloved addition to a family, a ward of the parish, the boy or girl they have been waiting for, a future king or slave, a bastard, an orphan, an adoptee, an addition to the mother’s clan, the spitting image of an aunt.
Otis Burger’s baby was seen not by her, but by the hospital nursery staff. The laughing gas had worn off, but the new mother lay awake in a private room until the wee hours, reading novels: “I had seen so little of her, and imagined her so rarely, that I quite forgot my reason for being here.” These immediate separations were common hospital practice until recently. In 1967, the young London housewife Ann Oakley watched two medical students in white gowns stand with their backs to her, counting her crying newborn’s fingers and toes. Was there something wrong with him?
A Cherokee mother of the 18th century might have touched near the newborn’s soft fontanel, that sweet spot in a baby’s skull where a soul resides that has memories and lives forever. Perhaps she looked hard at limbs and tummy and face. Outside the wattle-and-daub cabin, people might have asked, “Is the baby a bow or a sifter?” “Ballsticks or bread?” (Would this new person hunt and play games or sift flour and make bread—was it a boy or a girl?) Usually, a husband covered and buried the placenta. Inside the cabin, a boy was wrapped in a panther skin or a girl in a deerskin to signal their distinctive future roles.
My own seeing is rosy with hormones: long purple feet, splayed limbs and barrel chest, dark hair matted into fine streaks, some smears of white stuff in an ear, scuffed and shining face, cleft chin. Expansive eyes of dark oil look back at me. Hello, you.
For the gift of an hour or two, the baby is alert. He has an unhurried gaze and a strange air of self-sufficiency, which clings for a few days until he fully realizes he has arrived outside. He seems to know what to do, clamping onto my nipple and then sagging away with his cheek against me. He sleeps behind bruised, wafer-thin eyelids, mouth shaped into an O and fists nudging the edge of a lip. There is a bizarre kind of drained bliss.
Hospital staff come in and out: Here is how to swaddle. The baby should sleep in the see-through plastic crib. That was a good latch. The hearing test department can fit you in at two tomorrow afternoon. Humbling devices and small horrors wait in the bathroom: a vast swing-lid garbage can for dressings, a bloody tiled floor beneath my feet, a pulley for emergencies. I am at extremes of joy and humility, and I’d quite like to go home and get back to normal. The baby is labeled “Knott baby boy” around his wrist, as if we were not yet certain of his name, and our wrists too are circled with name bracelets. They have bar codes which suggest that the hospital has just manufactured a baby and two parents. The paperwork for a birth certificate appears.
K and I had tussled over possible names. Each sounded more and less right, based on the shape of a surname or the name of a school bully or a character in a film or a stereotype. A girl’s name came easily, a boy’s name did not. In the car one afternoon, the seat belt pulled as taut as my fraying patience, he had offered a set of four good names plus one I probably would not like. Start with the probably not, I urged—and that was the one. Now the name from the parking lot enters our strange new present and seems to fit.Events become things, but events are always untidy. Ritual seeks to contain them… but there is rarely a neat before and after, even with birth.
There’s lots of intention in a name. Just occasionally adults have named themselves. Elizabeth Howell, John Powell, and Samuel Stephens did so. These late-18th-century Philadelphians belonged to the first generation of their city’s free black community. Under slavery, Elizabeth Howell had been Susanna. John Powell had been Jack. Samuel Stephens had been Jammy, short for Jamaica. Slaveholders did not bother with last names, their business records filled with short forms such as Betty and Ben. Now, freed of slave owners after running away during the American Revolutionary War or through the particular provisions of Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation legislation, former bond people gave themselves new last and first names, both. William Trusty, James Jones. Though they left few literary traces, their decisions showed up in the port city’s legal records, tax lists, baptismal accounts, and census.
Sturdy, proper. Such new names etched a sharp line between living enslaved and carving out an independent future in a white-dominated world. Freeman and Newman were among chosen last names, making the determination clear. Free black Philadelphians rejected the many kinds of names, most usually bestowed by colonial masters, that they associated with slavery: not Cuffee or Cajoe (after African days of the week), nor Cato or Caesar (from the classical past), nor Glasgow or Bristol or Jamaica (where planters did business), nor Venus, Mistake, or Moody (each a dangerous or derisive name to carry). People like Susanna-turned-Elizabeth-Howell did the same when it came to the more mundane task of assigning a new baby a first name.
We don’t know what happened to Dinah, a twenty-year-old woman who tried to free herself by running away from the city “with the last of the British troops” when she was “big with child, and near the time of her lying-in.” Was her infant born safely, and how did she name the two of them? The free black people who did make their home in Philadelphia carefully fused their new surnames with baby names associated with autonomy, freedom, and their local church. Charlotte and James Forten, among the more economically secure of free blacks, carefully knitted local benefactors and business people to their family through naming. Robert Bridges (1813), Sarah Louisa (1814), Mary Isabella (1815)—these names also appeared among the family of their white benefactor, Robert Bridges. Thomas Willis Francis Forten (1817) gave a nod to a paternal grandfather and to a local merchant. The baby was baptized with four names, where a Dinah or a Susanna had only one. Naming can be a heady business, can help a child or a family find their way in a rapidly changing world.
Intention flows also in more mundane settings, in places of less distinct flux and lower stakes. In the tiny villages of fisherfolk in late-20th-century Scotland’s East Sutherland, first names repeated, and just three surnames accounted for most last names. There were many Hugh MacDonalds or John Sutherlands. Fishwives birthed large families in which babies were named after grandparents. Usually the parents swapped turns: the father had the naming of the first child, the mother of the second. Every family had at least one boy and one girl bearing the most popular name. These naming habits made for fine labyrinths of connection among tight-knit communities. Shared names could tie families on dry land to the fishermen plying the herring shoals, the North Sea having no shortage of bad weather. The East Sutherland fishing folk solved the problem of multiple Hugh MacDonalds and John Sutherlands by giving their “fisher bairn” by names: nicknames used to refer to them, if not to address them in person.
These Scots’ contemporaries among the black Seminole on the frontier of Texas also deliberately repeated names. Several habits kept the same names appearing. Namesaking after a relative was one. Esther Factor’s son was called Hardy, just like his father. Swapping given names for surnames or vice versa was another, as was reversing male and female names. Clara Dixon’s son was given Dixon as a first name. These shared names extended a black Seminole heritage that stretched from Africa to Florida to Texas: a usable past. To differentiate among people with similar names, Texan Seminoles used what they called basket names: entirely alternate names, many of which honored an African heritage. On a Texan frontier, as in an East Sutherland village, being able to tell people apart oils the wheels of a society. Names are filled with communication and social meaning, with personal hopes and historical happenings, with attitudes to life and cultural values.
The baby is wordless and new, and any kind of name seems formal. Hello, you, I find myself repeating each time M opens his eyes, as if to welcome him back into social existence and mark his arrival again. Hello, you.
Events become things, but events are always untidy. Ritual seeks to contain them—the coronation of a king, the confirmation of a judge—but there is rarely a neat before and after, even with birth.
The movement from inside to out, from pregnancy to maternity, is less crisp than I expect. It’s barely inches. Immersed in late pregnancy, I thought that the baby’s arrival would usher in physical separation and a somewhat welcome autonomy, that the baby would adopt a distance I could more readily perceive. From the outside, birth appears as one body leaving another, extreme unity followed by extreme separation. (“Your baby is seven pounds one ounce.”) But in close-up, it is starting to appear otherwise. The frog kick I recognize from inside. When the baby sleeps with arms crisscrossed against his chest, like a priest in pious repose, I am reminded of the awkward position that apparently explains those many hours of pushing. (The pious repose looks pompous and, worse, funereal to me, but I daren’t say that aloud.) He is content only next to my skin.
Since the mass entry of laboring women into hospital in the 1920s and 1930s, hospitals have often supplied the rituals for the ending of birth. For two decades in late-20th-century Britain, it was customary for a National Health Service midwife to carry the baby to the hospital’s front steps and then hand it over to the father. Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian immigrant, describes the hour just before departure: the big, open maternity ward of the 1960s hospital, full of young mothers comparing nightgowns and cards, and the leave-taking that entailed dressing the baby in his first proper clothes and new shawl, with everyone cooing and remarking on how smart he looks. In Emecheta’s autobiographical novel, the young immigrant hides in the corridor, imagining all the women laughing at her poverty and her blackness, while a nurse shows the baby around. Maternity wards could be places of companionship, in which new mothers befriended one another over stays of two weeks (this was, she remarks, when Britain funded a full welfare state). But the wards could also be places of isolation. Even if the women are friendly, she has the wrong color skin and the baby’s shawl is much used. To the 20-year-old, not having a new shawl is the end of the world.
I am transported to the hospital’s side door in a wheelchair, with my back to the master of this last ceremony. I see a flash of the orderly’s blue clothes, but not his face. As the door swishes open to a gust of cold air, I wonder at the purpose of the wheelchair. Who does the hospital think is greeting us at the other end? Can’t I walk? The baby crumples into the outsize car seat, and I voice some first maternal worries to K: Do you think he’ll get cold? Should we tuck another blanket around him? Why didn’t we think to bring warmer clothes? Gift givers have been more farsighted than we have: thank goodness for the car-seat cover.
It’s a slew of maternal worries, and I am not a worrier. Not usually, anyhow.
Excerpted from MOTHER IS A VERB: An Unconventional History by Sarah Knott. Published by Sarah Crichton books, and imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux April 2nd 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Knott. All rights reserved.