I will never for­get the day my three-year-old heard my given name and real­ized for the first time that I was some­body else besides Mommy. She looked at me and frowned, “You’re not Elis­a­beth. You’re Mommy.” When I explained that Elis­a­beth was my given name just like Adele was her given name, the frown did not go away. I con­tin­ued in an effort to erase the frown.  Since she was our only child at that point, I said, “You’re the only one who can call me ‘Mommy.’” That seemed to help. It was star­tling to see my three-year-old try­ing to fit together dif­fer­ent pieces of her mother’s iden­tity. At age three, she was begin­ning to learn that iden­tity is not sin­gu­lar but multidimensional.

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  • Does this essay stir up any mem­o­ries for you?
    I can remem­ber hear­ing my mother addressed as Betsy and think­ing that I didn’t know that part of her: for me as a child, the world of Betsy was an unknow­able, unpos­sess­able aspect of my mother. I remem­ber that this mys­te­ri­ous aspect of my mother forced me to won­der how much I really knew or could know my mother. As a child, this comes as a surprise—that we can­not know other peo­ple com­pletely, not even our own moth­ers. Under­ly­ing this aware­ness is, of course, our child­hood desire to be in total pos­ses­sion of our beloved. Under­stand­ing that we can­not totally pos­sess our moth­ers helps chil­dren develop healthy rela­tion­ships with oth­ers in which they real­ize they can never totally pos­sess another indi­vid­ual. Parts of our friends and loved ones will always be unknow­able and unat­tain­able. One of the ways we first learn these lessons is through under­stand­ing our mother’s dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties through her dif­fer­ent names.

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