During my pregnancies we didn’t find out what sex the babies were. Because we wanted the surprise, we told people. I mean, you know. The occasion of childbirth can be a bit of a yawnfest otherwise, right? We also didn’t tell anyone our prospective names for our little frogspawn. That was partly because The Bloke and I couldn’t agree on what they should be. We got stuck trying to calibrate a position between my family’s naming tradition (my brother and I each have the most popular name for boys and girls respectively in the years we were born) and his (he and his two brothers have names so offbeat that their parents also gave them each a “normal” middle name that they could choose to go by if their given names proved bigger than their personalities). But we didn’t even tell anyone the leading contenders in our name contests. I really wanted to sometimes. They sat on the tip of my tongue, ready to be said, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to say them. Part of it was that we didn’t quite make up our minds ourselves exactly which names would “win”. I didn’t have a single favourite that I was determined to push. In fact, though I daydreamed sometimes about motherhood, I never formed much of a picture of my babies before they were born. As the days they would be born came nearer, I imagined them somewhere in that inner darkness, dreaming themselves into being. And I loved that. I couldn’t quite bear to bring them yet into the world of language.
As soon as we give them their names, we give them labels, handles. We start subordinating them to the world of language. They begin to mean something to people, something that’s actually got very little to do with them: Oh, I had a teacher called that; I hated her. Oh, that was my uncle’s name! Ooh, it’s a bit posh, isn’t it? Wow, very “out there”. And really, that’s only the first of the ways in which we use language to start shaping them before they even arrive. We talk about what they’ll do, what they’ll be like, whether they’ll take after you or me. When we imagine futures for them, in fact we shut down the truly infinite possibilities that their existences really represent. There aren’t enough words in the world to account for all the boundless possibilities of a life that’s yet to begin. Instead, we read baby books, and they talk in authoritative tones about “how Baby will sleep”. That capital B shapes them. Baby is already determined. Baby is an entity, a being — but one who will do as we predict, as we forecast. Baby is a name. The first way in which they exist in the world, in our harsh and bright outside world, is as something spoken. We speak them into being. Inside, or so it appears, they dream. But they dream without language, because they don’t understand any. They dream without images of the world, because they’ve never seen it. They come into life free from words, unbounded by words, and I love the idea of letting that last for as long as it can. Letting them stay in the limitless, wordless dream.
It’s autumn here now and the night air is cold and smells of bonfires. I’m no more immune to the preppy, pumpkin-spiced-latte stereotype of the season than is anyone else in my demographic, and my toes tingle with nostalgia for childhood walks scrunching through fallen leaves and excitement about the winter festivities to come. I try to create scenes culled from memory, hope, and yes probably the John Lewis advert. I bake jacket potatoes and serve them up steaming with the curtains drawn against the dark, warding off the night and promising to fill everyone with warm contentment. And my daughter, the selective eater, cries because she can’t bear even the thought of one of these awful jacketed things on her plate. My autumn mirage falls apart. It’s one of the biggest wrenches in parenting, these moments where how it really is trips over how I expected it to be. I am not the patient parent that I supposed I’d be. I am not a natural at this, and things that I assumed, inasmuch as I ever thought about them, would “just come to me” in fact do not. I shout a lot, and I go wrong a lot; I get ashamed, and I feel disappointment in my children, and orders of magnitude more disappointment in myself. I notice that phases and stages of my children’s development are over, and that there were things we never did. That never-worn dress we bought too big and put away until it was too late. That class we meant to attend but didn’t quite fit in. That friend we should’ve seen more who moved away.
The existential philosopher Kierkegaard argued that anguish was one of the foremost conditions of humanity. Anguish, he said, comes from possibility — from that moment when we come slamming up against the truth that we have absolute freedom. That we can do anything. That the moments of our lives are composed of an endless string of choices we are free to make, but obliged to make. Anything is possible. Isn’t that terrifying? It’s agonising. Anguish, for Kierkegaard, was a condition of our innocence, because so is possibility. For that unborn baby dreaming wordlessly inside, possibility is at its greatest imaginable height, and therefore so is anguish. And we can’t really forestall it by cutting down, with our talk, the kaleidoscoping avenues of possibility that lie before our children. As Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst, observed, the moment a baby begins to make its own demands — and goodness knows they don’t hang about with that one — it starts to escape from the subjection of others’ language, from the reality we try to impose on the child from without. The child’s demands show up as clear as day the fact that there’s more to her than what we might say about her, than what we imagine she’ll be. So naming them, talking about them, really does them little harm on that count (albeit, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, no favours either). And yet, besides Kierkegaard’s anguish of possibility — the anguish of what might be — there’s a bittersweet anguish you notice only in the passing, the anguish of what was not.
A list I made ten days after The Bee was born says these things:
I’m sad about his name. I want my Alex*.
I’m sad about the little girl I didn’t have. I want my Anna.*
I’m sad about the homebirth I didn’t have. I want my newborn cuddles in my own bed.
I’m sad about the Christmas I didn’t have. I want my toddler’s eyes lighting up as she opens her first ever stocking.
It’s ungrateful to dwell on the things that didn’t come about, when what did come about was so wonderful. But this dark twin to the anguish of possibility, the anguish of possibility unrealised, walks silently beside all parents as these small slivers of the ever-expanding, ever-collapsing future unfurl before our eyes.
*Those aren’t the actual names I wanted or wrote. The real names, I can’t somehow bring myself to put into words…