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  • "It looks like a bird, a lizard, or a fish."

    I was born six weeks early, to parents who had very little personal experience with babies, who if fact had no intention of having a child, and had been using an IUD at the time I was conceived. Whoops.

    My father has a younger brother, but my uncle G. was born with a long list of health problems; he spent the months immediately after his birth in the hospital, and continued to do so for on and off for years afterwards. The rambunctious, headstrong and loud youngster that was my father was not welcome on the pediatrics units of the 1950s, so he saw little of his Baby Brother.

    My mother was the youngest of four, whose father died suddenly of a heart attack when she was four years old. Our extended family is large, though, and as she got older, there were aunties a-plenty to dote on the many younger cousins who came after her. She had some experience caring for her niece and nephew, but the trauma to her body, the direct result of having birthed me - exacted a heavy toll, so she was - to put it mildly, a "little out of it". She wasn't supposed to have gotten pregnant at all, you see: the doctors had issued grave warnings about how the pregnancy and birth could trigger an acute and likely degenerative bout of her Multiple Sclerosis. Certainly by the time I had officially entered the world, she was weak, in pain and suffering. To make matters worse, although her water had broken, she'd not actually gone into labour, and because my parents had only moved far from their home just a couple of weeks earlier (thinking that left plenty of time to get settled before my arrival) my mom's medical records had not yet arrived. The local doctors had no idea that one of the less endearing quirks of my mother's M.S. is a tendency for her to react to some drugs in a manner completely opposite to the way they are intended to function. Labour inducing drugs essentially put a stop to almost everything contraction related in her body, so to speak. Not only did this cause confusion, but it made the doctors in the local hospital wary of beginning a C-section. Labour ended up taking 3 days.

    When I did finally emerge into the world, I was a bit of a surprise to all involved. My mother began her pregnancy petite. 90lbs with a pixie cut, she looked like a strong wind could whisk her away. In the seven and a half months she hauled me around, she'd just over doubled her weight - a fact she reminds me of this day. (I disagree. She drank almost a case of Pepsi every day --- 24 cans of Pepsi!!!! --- before, during and after her pregnancy. Her bizarre maternal craving was for Habitant Pea Soup - the thick, lumpy stuff that almost needs to be scooped from the can. Into this, she would crush an entire sleeve of saltine crackers, creating a mass that could have been used, in a pinch, as mortar between bricks. Every night, she would consume this substance. Every night she would get sick. I maintain that the getting sick was my protest to this vile concoction, because to this day, the slightest whiff of that pea soup, just the first crack of the can being opened, is enough to send me flying from a building. I suggest that eventually these strange dietary habits caught up with her metabolism.)

    But I digress -

    Terribly premature, seven weeks early, I entered this life at 8lbs 6ozs. I was the rolly polly giant of the NICU. My father is well over six feet and for some reason, my parents had expected me to be long and tall. I was not. I was round, round, round. Both of my parents had been very fair as children, so my parents had expected me to be blonde. (Recall that I mentioned my parents didn't have a lot of experience with newborns!) Being so premature, I was born with my fetal hair - thick, coarse, black as coal, and tightly curly. (My father claims I would have made a very effective pot scrubber, had he been permitted to take me home, and up-end me over a sink of dirty dishes.)

    I was, in short, nothing like anything my parents had built up in their minds as the baby they "would" have, that they expected. The top contenders for girls names, at the time that I arrived so unexpectedly, were "Stephanie" and "Leanne". In my parents' minds, however, these names were both attached to a set of expectations - which included "tall" and "blonde". From my very existence to my timing, from my size to my colouring, I was nothing my parents expected or had planned for. I threw everything off kilter just by being what I was, even though at the time, I couldn't even understand that I existed, at all.

    Nonetheless, the nurses were demanding a name.

    We humans are fond of labeling things. We name everything. We give things numbers. We categorize and sort. Learning language is hardwired into our brains -- we learn it whether or not we mean to, and if no one really teaches it to us, we sort of make it up. Names give us standing in society. Without a name, you cannot have a birth certificate, without a birth certificate you can have no Social Insurance Card, you can never have a Passport, legally hold a job, get married, get a Driver's Licence, own a home, or property. The list goes on and on and on. In short, you don't exist, officially, without a name. Socially, you need a name. When we meet other people for the first time, one of the things we first do is exchange names. Our names connect us to our family lineage, to a culture or language, sometimes to a religious background or to a location. Sometimes they have a specific meaning.

    Names can be important.

    Some parents spend months poring over names, books (these days websites, too) to find the perfect name, one that will not open their child to bullying, that will "sound" good with their last name, will honour a particular person, but won't offend anyone, a name that is meaningful but not potentially offensive, can be spelled by a child in kindergarten. Some people these days even check for dot-coms to see if they can secure a digital presence for their child and then buy it up and lock it down in an attempt to try and protect their child's online identity.

    It was the early 1970s and none of that was on the horizon yet, but the nurses need a name for the birth certificate. Then wanted it immediately, if not sooner, and the nurse at the door was actually (according to my father) tapping her rubber-soled white leather wedges with stern impatience.

    "Name?"

    "It looks like a bird, a lizard or a fish"

    This in response the motions of my lips and tongue as I sought vainly for a nipple in the air. Hungry, seeking something that my mother couldn't give and was not yet on the nurse's schedule.

    Thinking he was funny, and trying to get a response from my mother, who was deeply weary and having a hard time engaging in the conversation, my father started tossing out "possibilities".

    "We could call her 'iguana'! We could call her 'trout'! We could call her blue jay - she's got blue eyes!" He chortled. My father can find himself immensely entertaining, especially when he's nervous.

    The nurse sighed. "We need a name!"

    "Halibut! No, wait We could call her 'chameleon', or we could call her 'robin'! Actually, that one's not so bad.... We could call her Robin, couldn't we, hon?"

    And so I was named.

    For a bird, and not because my parents liked the bird in question, thought it saucy, or loved spring, or liked the song of the Robin.

    I was named for the little motion of the mouth that every hungry baby has ever made - which in fact, looks like nothing a bird has ever done, since birds have no lips. *sigh*

    So began decades of bird related mocking. Kids making bird jokes, singing "Rockin' Robin" and Raffi's "Robin In The Rain" at me, and Robin Hood and Rocket Robin Hood references galore. It was just my luck that as I hit puberty I was on the buxom side, so "Robin Red Breast" got a lot of mileage from pubescent boys looking to get a reaction. Even teachers got in on the action -- I recall one in particular long-term substitute telling me to "fly off and find a perch somewhere else, and chatter at birds who cared" because she didn't want to "hear this Robin's songs".

    I know that my parents - for the most part - do not look at me and see a bird. They see their daughter. I have wished, though, more times that I could ever count, that they had taken a moment to think, really think, about the fact that a name is not just something that defines a moment...it is something that we carry with us through a lifetime. It impacts how others see us, how they choose to treat us, when we first meet them. It is not just a funny story to be told years later. It needs to wear well, like a pair of moccasins, that form to your feet, not like a pair of cheap mass produced shoes that fall apart after a couple of months, but seemed cool at the moment you bought them.

    In university, I tried to change my name - legally. It's a brutally difficult process, but the paperwork is nothing as difficult as the process of trying to get the people around you to learn to call you something different. Your name is part of your identity, whether or not you like it, whether or not its "meaning" (Robin = bright flame of God) is relevant to you, whether or not it becomes attached to negative or positive memories for you.

    My name has taught me things, though.

    My name taught me that while the old saying about sticks and stones is complete nonsense - the names and taunts of bullies hurt like hell - once you learn you can survive them, you discover you are stronger than you ever imagined. You learn that the bullies are operating from a place of fear and pain themselves, and that the only way they know how to raise themselves up is to drag others down. To paraphrase a favourite song of mine, if you look down on me, you're not going to see me - I don't choose to be there.

    Through my name, I learned that many people love robins (the real bird) because they mark the arrival of spring. People think of the robin's song as being the sound of hope, of renewal, of cheerfully saying "Tough noogies, Winter, you're OUTTA HERE!" When I came to the Yukon, I learned that my name is, in fact, more than one name - here is it "chūtsi".

    Through my name, I learned about the legends of Sherwood, and I was introduced early to lessons about inequality, about social justice, about fighting for what you believe in even when society says that you don't have the power in a situation.

    I even learned by watching the bird itself - it's a saucy little character. As annoying as I found Raffi's song when it was sung at me, robins do come early and announce spring; unwilling to wait for good things to happen - they go looking for them, and they find them. Robins are the birds about whom the saying "The early bird gets the worm" was written - not that I am into snacking on earthworms and not that I don't enjoy a good sleep in. I sort of have to admire their chutzpah --- rain or shine, puddles or lush grass, robins are out there, making things happen.

    The question, one supposes, is this: if other people choose your name for you, what do you, once that name is yours, choose to do with your name and your identity, so that you craft what comes to mind when people think of you in association with that name?

    Twiddle - dee - twiddle - dee - dee ?
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