Care and Feeding

My Daughter Keeps Calling Herself by a Nickname We Don’t Understand

It’s funny, but we can’t figure out why she chose it.

A smiling toddler girl looking pleased with herself.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Roughly a year ago, my now–2-year-old daughter, Lucy, started calling herself “Neen” (pronounced “nin”), and although she clearly recognizes her actual name and responds to it, she only refers to herself as Neen. We have no clue where this name came from or why she has decided to call herself that—there’s not a single person, cartoon, Disney character, etc., in her life with a name that sounds remotely like this. Increasingly, she’ll say things like “Help Neen please,” or, if she wants to do something herself (she wants to do everything herself), she will say “No, Neen!

We find it pretty funny, and my husband goes along with it so much that he almost exclusively calls her the new name now. Do you have any insight as to why a toddler would change her name as a 1-year-old and keep that up for so long? Like, what in her brain is telling her to call herself by an entirely different name?

—Neen’s Mom

Dear NM,

This is an adorable nonproblem, not entirely divorced from the predilection that toddlers have for referring to themselves in the third person as they learn to sort out language, and I can totally relate.

Picture it: Chicago, 1988-ish. When I was slightly older than Neen/Lucy, I heard Golden Girls’ Rose Nylund refer to someone as “picky picky,” and it stuck with me. My parents were in the process of trying to explain that I was African American, to which I’d respond, “No, I’m Picky Picky,” and I identified as such for quite some time. One of my earliest childhood memories is how much I liked that phrase and that it, somehow, felt like me. Despite what some devoted C&F readers may assume, we weren’t talking about racial identity every day in my house, but I was definitely reminding my family that I was “Picky Picky” on a daily basis.

It sounds like, for your baby, this new name just feels right. You see Lucy; she sees Neen. She may have heard a word or name that sounds similar and simply fell in love with the sound. She also could have babbled the sound to herself and discovered it to be pleasing to her ears. Perhaps when she gets a little older, she’ll be able to explain to you where it derives from.

Also, the concept of being named by your parents is certainly more sophisticated than a 2-year-old can rightly be expected to grasp. If she chose her red shoes over her blue ones, Cheerios over oatmeal, or even saying “Mommy” versus “Mama” or “Mom,” picking out a name isn’t a strange proposition at all. “Neen” has all the makings of a lifelong family nickname or fodder for a story that you’ll be able to embarrass her with when she’s a teenager (“Is Neen short for Janeen?” “Um, not quite … ”). What a delightful letter to get during such a gloomy period. Hope you and Neen/Lucy have a great week!

If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is in eighth grade and on the girls’ track and field team. There is a new student, “Lily,” who has become the star athlete on the team. Lily is a trans girl and has the build of a boy, which gives her some advantages over biological females like my daughter. I am very pro-LGBTQ and am 100 percent supportive of Lily’s transition. She and my daughter have started to become friends, and I’m delighted to see that. I also should mention that my daughter is not terribly serious about track and field and doesn’t care about winning, so this is mostly academic. I would never try to stop Lily from competing in a sport that seems to bring her so much joy. But there’s a tiny voice in the back of my head that says it is not really fair that someone with, for all practical purposes, the body of a boy should be competing with biological girls in athletic competitions. I want to be a good ally, and I think I mostly am, aside from this small nagging voice.

—Am I the Asshole?

Dear AITA,

Yes, you are, though I’d put an asterisk by the designation.

Be clear: Lily does not have the body of a boy, though I understand why you (and many others) still believe that. She has the body of a trans girl, and as is the case with cis boys and cis girls and trans boys, that does not mean that she was naturally inclined to be a gifted athlete or superior to the young women with whom she is competing.

There are trans athletes who suck, just like those of us who are cis and suck on the field, and there are cis kids who have “advantages” (such as being significantly taller, or being the child of gifted athletes, or having worked with a private coach since they were very small) that can seem mighty unfair as well—especially when it’s your kid who may seem less gifted by comparison.

However, let’s just pretend for a minute that being a trans girl comes with inherent, indisputable athletic advantages over cis girls. Considering all the discrimination, harassment, violence, and trauma that so often meet people of trans experience, I personally could not care less about such an insignificant helping of unearned privileged. Cis girls will not lose their opportunity to participate in the sports world, nor their social positioning, because trans girls may show up and outperform them. Stop referring to Lily’s body as that of a boy and cheer for her. She just may help your child to get closer to a championship season.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am unsure if I want kids. I just turned 25, so I have plenty of time to decide. My partner is also uncertain if he wants kids and leans further on the no side than me, but he isn’t completely closed to the idea. My hesitation is I think I would be miserable while pregnant. I also have severe anxiety and some depression problems, and I worry those will worsen with a child in the picture. For example: When we take our dog to day care, I have to watch him on the webcam all day because I worry something will happen to him. My partner is of the mind that he likes his life the way it is and is hesitant to let a kid change that.

I have a close friend who is expecting her first child in a few months. She is also my first friend who has become a parent. Most others are still in school or just starting their careers. I think spending some time with her baby will help my partner and me greatly in deciding this issue. I’ve thought, “Hey, why don’t I offer to babysit for her and her husband after the baby is born,” but I’m unsure if I should be trusted with that responsibility since I genuinely have zero experience with infants. Is it wrong to try to use my friend’s baby as practice for my own? How do I approach this with her?

—Down to Try

Dear DtT,

You absolutely have plenty of time to decide! You didn’t mention if you see your partner as the person you’d most likely want to start a family with if you decide to do so. But I think it’s important that you think about parenthood in terms that center your own desires as opposed to whether he would want to have children (and he should do the same). Relationships do not come with any guarantees, and you shouldn’t make a choice that is wholly contingent on what someone who may or may not be your life partner wants to do. That means no arm-twisting in either direction, and no acquiescing to desires that may not be your own.

Spending time with your friend’s child is a great way to begin exploring this matter. You aren’t renting the baby for practice, nor should you rush to try to get one-on-one time with the infant considering that you don’t have experience in that area. However, you can be supportive of your homegirl during a time when it’s possible that some of her friends may be less present than ever and get a glimpse into the beautiful and crazy world of new motherhood all at once. Make yourself available to help clean up or to go on walks or lunch dates together. As you become more comfortable with the tiny person (and the tiny person and her parents become more comfortable with you being in her space), you may be able to start watching her while her mother washes her hair or takes a nap, then ideally you can graduate into the role of babysitter.

And as a mom who suffers from both anxiety and depression, I’d urge you to work diligently on these issues before becoming a parent. It becomes even more critical that you have some semblance of peace more often than not when you are responsible for another life. Pregnancy and parenthood can further exacerbate these issues, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a happy, well-adjusted, and highly functioning mother—just that you’ll have to be very intentional about becoming one. If you are able to access therapy and aren’t currently doing so, now is a great time to start. Sending you all the calm and the clarity you need to find a path that brings you joy, with or without a baby.

—Jamilah

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I have gone back to work recently, and my mother-in-law offered to pick up and watch my elementary-age kids since her stepkids go to the adjoining middle school (she married a widower three years ago). This would be a godsend (and save us thousands of dollars in day care) except my mother-in-law refuses to feed my kids according to our principles (vegan and healthy). She told me if it wasn’t something that could kill them, she wasn’t going to go out of her way and she had too many kids running around to make “special” snacks (she babysits a half a dozen different “friends” of her stepkids and neighbors). These are her grandchildren, but my husband just shrugs and says “take it or leave it” has always been his mother’s way. I am ready to tear my hair out by the roots.