What’s in a name?
Berenice Paulse’s powerful story on how we are marked from the moment of our birth and how the process of naming is deeply embedded in gendered constructions of power.
My only brother was born eight years after me, on a pale-sunny Sunday morning in the heart of our South African winter.
I don’t think I even understood that my mother was pregnant, or that ‘the stork’ was about to drop a parcel under our roof. I have memories of sitting by myself under the massive pine tree in our back garden, gazing at the watery, winter sun. The rest of my family were inside, enamoured with the new baby. Although I was too young to fully understand the what and the why, there was an instinctive awareness of a momentous change. The adults around me offered no explanation; my three sisters hardly seemed to notice. It filled me with anxiety, this feeling of something important, yet undefined and unnamed.
As the visitors descended upon us the rest of that Sunday, my feelings of apprehension intensified. The women from our neighbourhood visited with our mom; counted the new baby’s fingers and toes, commented on his dark skin(‘so like his sisters’ they murmured politely), and drank heaps of tea. The men retreated into an obscure corner outside with my father. General back slapping for my father, who declared that the baby would be christened with his own first name. My father was very proud of his ancestry and his family name. As the only son, my new brother would be bestowed with our father’s full names. Some more back slapping. Happiness all around. All day long.
And then it happened, I finally understood. The something important was this baby born unexpectedly (to me at least) on that Sunday morning. His birth was nothing short of a miracle after countless daughters and after my father had almost given up. In our household, his birth was akin to that of the baby Jesus.
My baby brother grew up, not quite walking on water, but was doted upon nevertheless in a household crowded by women. My mom managed to veto my father’s first name, and it became instead my brother’s middle name. My father’s revolt found passive expression in him teaching the little boy how to introduce himself using first, middle and last name – a sort of guerrilla warfare with our mom. People would ask, “What’s your name, little boy?”, and my bother would rattle off the full salvo like a well-trained soldier, up to when he was old enough to make up his own mind not to. Growing up in a poverty-stricken household, on the fringes of Apartheid South Africa, I understood that the most treasured legacy my father could bestow on a child of his was his name. There was uninhibited pride in my father teaching his son to take advantage of his full name. Years later, I would learn that in addition to my father’s name, another family heirloom would revert to my brother on my father’s passing; a bible that has been in my family for more than a century. It was a gift from our great grandfather to our grandfather, to our father and will eventually become the inheritance of my father’s son. It has both familial and currency value. There was never any question about it being my brother’s rightful inheritance; he is a male, and so it would be his, along with our father’s names.
I, of course, have no personal recollection of the circumstances surrounding my own birth, except for my mom’s birth stories. My mom’s stories always centred on the circumstances surrounding the birth; what she was doing when she went into labour, and my father’s inevitable absences, if not before, definitely during and immediately following the events. In my mind at least, his absenteeism became intrinsically linked to the gender of the child, as it was different with my brother. As for my mom, she never made the connection herself, and if she did, never confided this to any of her children.
Birth stories have been with us for centuries, primarily as a way for women to initiate other women into the birthing experience, or at least shape their attitudes and expectations. Such stories emphasise the biological experience. My mom’s stories, on the other hand, tended to be a therapeutic exercise and a way for her to validate her own experiences. Unspoken, but infused in the fabric of her stories, was the residue of unspoken pain lodged in the memories of the birth of her daughters.
I was once asked what I recall as my first gendered experience. To me it seems that it was the day I was born. My brother’s arrival and naming linked the experience with consciousness, manifested in the conferring of my father’s legacy through his name. “What’s in a name?” we often ask in jest, not anticipating a serious response. However, the reality is that for far too many wives and daughters, the answer is often a lifetime of heartache and rejection.