The other week on my way to pickup I ran into the mom of a toddler who also attends my son’s day care. We greeted each other with the semi-crazed enthusiasm of two parents just off work and rushing, side-by-side, down the sidewalk to day care. We made small talk about our jobs and our summers and then the mom transitioned: “And how,” she began, “is … your baby?”
It took me a minute to get it: She’d forgotten his name. And guess what! I’d forgotten her kid’s name too (“And how is the summer going for you all?” I breezed back). I am 80 percent certain her child has broken my son’s skin with her teeth, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to call her.
Unfortunately, a baby’s name is easy to forget. Babies are people you’ve only just met; their names are bits of information you’ve only just learned. Babies require someone else to introduce them. Babies don’t have email addresses or signatures. They don’t have their names attached to phone numbers in your contact list. Babies don’t have Twitter accounts or Facebook profiles (well, some do, but that’s a story for another day). Small babies lack in discernible personality and rarely do anything good or bad enough to make a lasting impression on your brain.
Finding out a baby’s name is an indirect effort, entirely dependent on what that baby’s parent is sharing and where. Let’s face it: Forgetting a baby’s name is understandable, unless it’s your baby. And here we reach our difficulty, which is that a baby’s name is easy to forget and not something any parent likes to experience.
This is also understandable. People spend a lot of time and effort getting their babies, and they spend a lot of time and effort naming them too. They choose carefully, picking names they believe will make durable impressions. After all that work, no parent is happy to see you entirely bypass the product of their energies. Baby names are fraught; forgetting any baby’s name is a high-stakes social situation.
Luckily, I think there are a few things you can do to ameliorate the situation. First and most important: Bulk up your list of name stand-ins. Ask someone how their “little one” is. Even just saying “the baby” (with confidence, and no ellipses) can work. Here’s another simple one: you. “Look at you!” Other ideas: kid, baby, cutie, a pronoun.
The second solution is a bit more creative, but requires a baby who’s really a toddler (or older). If you come face-to-face with a friend and their kid and the kid’s name still hasn’t stuck, try tricking the kid into saying it through playfulness. Pretend not to hear or see the child in the room as they address you: “Who’s speaking right now? Do you hear that? Who could it be?” You can even involve your own kid, if you’ve got one: “And what is that baby called?” If your kid forgets the name too, then your kid is much more likely to be forgiven.
No matter what, if you’ve forgotten a baby’s name, you’re going to be perceived as being in the wrong. You can fully expect your friend to rail about you the next opportunity she gets. This kind of indignation is one of the pleasurable burdens of early parenthood, a lot of pride mixed with silly outrage. Like the chosen name, a baby is yours for life — for defending and looking after and muddling through a world of forgetful and careless people. There’s no sense in trying to choose a name that can guard against forgetfulness; a weirdo or strange name is just going to fall victim to a different kind of social pain. What should you do if you forget the name of your friend’s baby? The same as any parent, whether you’re one or not — try your best.