Sometimes a fetus is just a fetus, and sometimes it’s not.
I’m Jewish, but I didn’t grow up around other Jews, and my family wasn’t particularly observant, so it wasn’t until my friends started having babies that I learned about Jewish customs around pregnancy and childbirth. The customs are a mix of superstitions and the belief that a baby isn’t alive until it comes out of the womb. You don’t have a baby shower, for example. Some folks deliberately avoid buying anything at all for the baby until it’s born, you don’t refer to and you absolutely do not name the baby in advance, or refer to it publicly as anything. J told me that she once tried to refer to her in utero son by the name she and her partner planned to give him, and her “whole Jewish family lost their minds.”
It turns out that Jews are not the only people who don’t call their fetus by the name they chose for it before it’s born. It’s kind of a thing, coming up with a nickname for your child while you’re pregnant. So here’s what these pregnant folks called their babies in utero, and why.
The technical term “fetus” was a go-to for folks, especially in early pregnancy. J used it until she was in her third trimester. M and her partner called their son fetus during the middle of her pregnancy, and she was surprised when, at an 8 week ultrasound, the tech referred to him as a baby. “We used fetus when we talked to strangers, doctors and people who weren’t close to us,” P said. Although her doctor called it “the baby,” P continued to use the term. “I found that I wanted to officially be clinical and objective and not attached, but at the end of my pregnancy when he was moving around and hiccuping and stuff, it needed a name.”
“We aren’t deciding on a name yet,” said L, a doctor in the midwest. “Even when we do, we probably won’t announce it until the birth. So it’s a placeholder name that allows me to not call him “it” or “the fetus.” And our last name is Bell, so Taco Bell!”
“When we did our embryo transfer,” said L, “we watched the doctor working on an ultrasound screen. When the doc actually implanted the embryo, it looked like a star shooting across the screen. We were both so shocked and awed by that tiny shooting star moment that we said it at the same time, star stuff, which eventually turned into Ziggy (as in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust). Honestly, referring to the fetus as a baby felt weirder and harder than calling it Ziggy. Ziggy was nebulous. It was its own thing. It wasn’t a baby. It was just Ziggy. I don’t know how people who get pregnant easily feel, but I found it hard to accept the reality of the pregnancy for a long, long time and was uncomfortable, on a variety of levels, referring to the fetus as a full life or as a baby. As much as I wanted that pregnancy and potential for baby, it’s not a baby until you’ve given birth.”
“We didn’t want a gendered name,” B said, of she and her partner’s decision to refer to their son as “Baby K” while she was pregnant. S and her husband did a similar thing, including both of their last names. It was important to A to avoid gender constraints for her son as well, so in addition to the word “baby” and the first initial of their last name, she and her husband used “they” when talking about him. “We didn’t find out the gender literally because I couldn’t stand it if people gave us gender specific baby stuff. I couldn’t start him off in life that way.”
M got pregnant via IVF, and her son is now three. “I sometimes described pregnancy as having an alien parasite take over your body,” she said. G also referred her daughter as a parasite. “Considering that your body spends the first trimester trying to expel it, and some moms get miserably sick, and the last trimester so completely taken over by a giant creature that you can neither sleep nor eat nor breathe, that’s pretty accurate.”
“Until there was a baby in our arms,” said Suzanne, “the baby was simply … my belly. It seemed to tempt fate to say more, there was a weird sense of tempting fate to name a thing that was not yet a thing.” We had the ultrasound pictures, we had the names, we had the delighted moments of “there he is!” as we felt him creep (or jet) around. But until we actually met them face-to-face and called them by their own names (and of course they both uniquely nicknamed themselves upon arrival) they were “the belly.”
“I really dislike fetus nicknames,” said S, who’s pregnant with her first child. “My husband and I just refer to “our baby” or “baby girl” to the rest of the world.” Many of the folks I spoke with told me that they did have a nickname for their baby, but they kept it between themselves and their partner. For R, who’s also currently pregnant, her decision not to give her baby a public nickname has a lot to do with how pregnant people are treated, which is basically like public property. “I like having things that are just for us,” she said, “especially since my big belly seems to be an invitation for unwanted comments and questions from strangers.”