“When it comes to breastfeeding,” author Shannon Payette Seip opens If These Boobs Could Talk, “people want to know: How is baby doing? Is she latching on? Is he eating well? How is baby’s weight gain?” Her wry lament continues: “Baby this, baby that. Baby, baby, baby.”
Baby indeed: Seip is onto something more than just the underappreciated toll nursing takes on a new mother. Note her usage of baby: “How is baby doing?” and “How is baby’s weight gain?” Not my baby. Not your baby. Not the baby. Not Baby with a capital B. Not even a baby with a name. Just the unmarked baby, a noun as naked as a newborn. What is going on with this—let’s call it “undetermined”—baby?
The undetermined baby is increasingly prevalent online. Take mom blogs. An article on Mom.me addresses “Why Is Baby Crying? There’s an App for That.” Circle of Moms takes up this question on its forum: “When is baby old enough for juice or other beverages?” On social media, tweeters ask new mothers, “How is baby doing?”
In an extended example in the Huffington Post, Raquel D’Apice puts to rest patronizing queries about how she spends her days with baby as a stay-at-home mother. Here’s an entry in her punchy blow-by-blow:
10:05. Get bored of playing with baby. Attempt one of the things from overzealous to-do list. Baby immediately crawls out of my vision and begins eating dog food. I abandon list and pull the dog food out of his mouth. He becomes sad. I cheer up baby by pretending to eat his hands.
Surely all these babies have names. They belong to parents. They even have a sex. So is this plain baby an outgrowth of our digital shorthand, like the nuts-and-bolts telegraphy of a text message, the get-to-the-facts stenography of emails, the hashtagged, emojied cipher of 140-character bursts of communication? Does the modern, busy parent have no time or patience for grammar?
Perhaps internet language exerts an influence on it, but the undetermined baby isn’t purely motivated by the economy of tech talk. For one, many users still drop articles and pronouns from baby in tweets well before they run up against any character limits. For another, longer texts employ the nominally nude baby as well. A section in a pressure cooker cookbook, for instance, offers advice about “when it is time to feed baby.” Your Baby’s First Year for Dummies notes how many hours “baby should be sleeping” each night. Plus, Google Books yields many examples that predate the internet, including one that reaches back into the late 19th century, well before a famous 1949 example from film, And Baby Makes Three.
Perhaps the undetermined baby is just cutesy baby talk? Infant-directed speech does feature a simplified grammar, including the omission of more complex parts of speech in favor of a sweet-voiced, streamlined SVO. And certainly many parents coo such utterances as “Time for baby’s bath” to their babies. Yet in the instances we’ve seen so far, adults aren’t directing their language at infants. They’re addressing each other, grown-up to grown-up.
So is this baby a term of endearment, a pet name? No doubt parents—and their friends and family—express intimacy when they post “Baby is happy” on Facebook. Some couples even display a similarly silly (or saccharine) baby talk with mommy, wifey, daddy, and hubby: “I love it when hubby brings home pizza!” But unlike these usages, baby is employed in far more (and far more serious) contexts. Here’s a passage on pregnancy from the Australian website Virtual Medical Centre:
In terms of routine tests there is an anatomy scan done at about 19 weeks or so and that is an ultrasound scan to have a look at how the development of the baby is going because by that stage baby is fully formed. Obviously baby is not fully grown, but is fully formed.
The author even switches between “the baby” and “baby” in the same sentence. This is significant, for it evidences that baby has its own subtle grammar.
Grammatically, the undetermined baby is acting like a proper noun—a name, which doesn’t require a determiner like an article or possessive pronoun. Say baby’s name is Caleb. Your mother could FaceTime you eager “to see baby.” We can substitute Caleb for baby and the meaning is unchanged. (I suspect the undetermined baby originates either as such a substitute, a way for parents and professionals to refer to the as-yet-unsexed, prenatal child in a humanizing manner, or as a shortened attributive phrase, e.g. baby boy or baby girl.) But say you are in the waiting room at your doctor’s office and you pick up a pamphlet. “So You’re Having Baby?” you read, furrowing your brow. We wouldn’t say this. We wouldn’t say “So You’re Having Caleb?” Because the undetermined baby refers to a very particular kind of baby.
The undetermined baby—if your childless male author can risk mansplaining the evidence—is the baby of the collective experience of infancy, that joyous tumult when a living, breathing, screaming, shitting being is completely dependent on the new parent to mind-read its every need. With the undetermined baby, parents can index their idiosyncratic efforts of managing a soon-to-be-born or newborn while simultaneously appealing to a broader community of baby whose parents survived it before them.
Compare, then, the different signals each of these baby usages might send out in an online message board. When is a baby ready to eat solid food? This has the generic abstraction of a Wikipedia page. When is my baby ready to eat solid food? This depends on your baby. But when is baby ready to eat solid food? This sounds a communal note, inviting dialogue, identification, and, as ungrammatical, infantilizing, or internet-y as the undetermined baby may feel to some, the wisdom of experience. The undetermined baby, it turns out, is quite determined.