On the thorny question of ‘what’s in a name?’

I seem to have been caught up in several conversations about identity this week: about names and their connotations, about the selves we like to project through our names, about names given and names chosen. I know an Amanda, for example, who has never, ever been a Mandy.  I also know a Mandy who is such a Mandy that when she was standing at the podium on her wedding day I found myself wondering who was this Amanda to whom the celebrant kept referring. Why is one Jennifer a Jen and another a Jenny?  One Anthony an Ant while another is Tony?  We don’t have a choice about our birth name so I suppose all these versions and varieties are about stamping a little originality on that piece of hand-me-down clothing that we are required to wear for life?

There are other names that we do choose though, like Mummy, or Grandpa, or Doctor.  These are the names that truly reflect our life journey. They also offer the world a succinct, one-word fact about who we are, which sometimes causes us to fret about the ways that these names might be perceived.  My wonderful mother never wanted to be a Granny or a Nana, with all the old age, knee rugs and knitting those words implied; however, once we’d exhausted several other options that simply didn’t stick (you’re either a MooMaw or you’re not) the oldest grandchild fell into calling her plain old Grandma, and now we can’t imagine it any other way.   The thing is, though, that like knitting, Grandmas are getting a much funkier image these days.  60 is the new 50 (or something like that) and the media keeps showing us that seniors can run marathons, be at the height of their careers and play management roles in the lives of their offspring (although this is balanced by an awful lot of those funeral insurance ads which have got to be a little unsettling).  If you don’t think of yourself as old, then perhaps the name your grandchildren call you doesn’t matter so much?

In the blogging community there has been fierce debate about the term Mummy-Blogger (see The Truth About Mummy for some commentary), which for some is a nifty catch-all to describe the myriad blogs springing up to help parents navigate the choppy waters of childrearing and establish communities in a creative way.  For others, this term is reductive, implying that all Mummies write about the same things, like recipes and breastfeeding and knitting (again).  It’s becoming an issue as the whirring machine of the marketing industry tries to figure out how blogs can be best put to work as avenues for product placement, as parents are the target market for a colossal range of marketable stuff.

I’m not sure exactly when the word Mummy became such a bad swear, and it strikes me as a feminist issue.   As much as we all like to joke about the pros and cons of parenthood, I take umbrage at the suggestion that my brain has completely turned to mush since I had kids and I can no longer have an opinion on anything except craft and storage solutions.  Of course I know it does feel like that some days.  And Tupperware is awesome.  Mummies discuss (and Mummy-Bloggers write about) all kinds of things, like Enid Blyton and Duran Duran, just off the top of my head.  But some people seem keen to avoid the M word like a Kmart toy sale:  to avoid wearing ‘mumsy’ clothes, and to be sure others see them as a ‘person’ and not ‘just a mum’.  There’s nothing ‘just’ about being a mum, in my opinion.  There is never a day when I don’t want to be a mother (although there are certainly days when I don’t want to be a Muuuummmmy).

In the Sunday Mail this week there was an interview with Nine newsreader Melissa Dow. She participated in the weekly column called ‘My life in pictures’ – a fine example of selective self definition where notable faces choose a few representative photos and stories to summarise their lives.  One image shows Dow with her husband, who works in the music industry, at a music festival.  She describes the way people are often surprised to see her at concerts. “I think it’s because people see you on a news desk in a suit and they think that’s all there is to you.”  So, mother or professional or some combination of the two, the real issue seems to be our desperate desire for understanding.  There is some sort of collective insecurity about the fact that no one knows who we ‘really’ are and we dedicate a considerable amount of our energy trying to round out the way we assume others see us.  Just writing it down is a little exhausting, let alone living it.

But what’s the alternative?  Particularly when ‘alternative’ is yet another word that’s come to represent a classification:  this time of all those who choose to live outside the mainstream (whatever that is) as though they too are a homogenous group.  We, as humans, rely on classification.  I fear that our heads might explode if we were asked to view each new work of art, piece of writing or human being as an entirely distinct entity.  We need to categorise and compare to ease ourselves into knowing whether we can accept something into our personal circle of trust.  This works the same for a new TV show as a new friend:  we question whether they are similar or different from the things we’ve liked before.

I wrote extensively about this in my PhD thesis, which looked at (among too many other things) the way book covers are used to activate trust.  A regular reader of crime fiction browsing a bookstore will go looking for a particular size and colour scheme of text before bothering to reading the blurb;   they are far less likely to pick up a novel that sparkles with chick-lit gloss, or that has the sombre palate of a long worthy biography, regardless of the actual content of those books.    And so, too, by putting that dreaded M word in the title of this blog I am (allegedly) limiting my readership, as intellectuals will eschew my knitting patterns, while Mummies will be disappointed not to find any here.   The clever nostalgists get that the title of This Charming Mum is as much about my fetish for British pop music as it is about me thinking of myself as a mum, or indeed as charming.  Am I thus limiting my readership even further by whittling it down to an elite few who liked their tunes with a dash of melancholy in the 1980s?  Oh, the pressure!

I suppose we can go back to the ubiquitous Shakespearian quote: “ What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Names are just words that we play with so that we don’t have to point and grunt.  We should probably try not to let them limit our potential or to use them in judgement of anyone else’s choices.

4 comments for “On the thorny question of ‘what’s in a name?’

  1. Tanya Gill
    April 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Oh, Lara. Insightful as always. Thank you for bringing some philosophy into my day – which, yes, is a very ‘mummyish’ day (whatever that means): Playgroup then a Playdate Lunch :-)

    • April 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Sounds like a lovely day Tanya. Hope that means that the kids have other kids to occupy themselves and you get to have a coffee and a chat. Thanks for reading x

  2. Fiona
    April 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Loved it Lara! It sparked the thoughts where my ‘Mummy’ status was used like I was some kind of social pariah. A male dared to suggest that I appeared very homely, even using the word ‘Mumsy’ upon giving me feedback as to why I didn’t get the job as a P.A. in a male dominant industry. I put the phone down in disbelief!! Obviously my 10 inch stilettos and bikini were at the dry cleaners for that interview!! The other was a couple of weeks ago where I handed over my perfectly good money to exchange it for British Pounds and was asked my occupation. Answer: Stay at home mother. “Sorry, you need to give me something like a real job”. I now know why these people are encased in a glass cage……so mental stay at home mothers don’t slap them across the mouth for saying such a thing!! Great blog! :)

    • April 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      Oh Fiona, you really have to wonder sometimes don’t you? I have always worked in universities and public service sorts of places where it’s harder for anyone to get away with clothing-based interviews, but you only have to walk through the city at lunch time to know that they must still have ‘waist measurement’ and ‘skirt length’ on the selection criteria in some industries. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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