February 12, 2009

Birth days

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:46 pm

It was my birthday this week and, as usual, I claimed the day as my own and demanded that everyone pay attention to me and be nice to me and give me presents and cards — which mostly they did.  Everyone who knows me knows I take birthdays, especially mine, very seriously. 

Nevertheless, when I became a mother I began to think perhaps the wrong person was getting all the birthday attention: exactly who did all the work and had all the bother?  So tell me again who deserves the presents and congratulations?

On my birthday I really ought to have telephoned my mother to apologise.  But, according to convention, instead she is meant to send me birthday greetings.  Her email said,  “The sun was shining the day you were born.  I remember it streaming in the window of the delivery room.  Your hair was red.”

i’ve heard the sun in the delivery room story before.  I know my mother tells it when she especially wants me to know that I am loved, because that is the moment she first feels me conjured into being, when all the waiting and the pain focussed, like the sun’s rays, on that wet, red haired, shining creature.  That’s me, to my mother, even fifty five years on.

I am not so kind (or brief) in the stories I tell my own children.  For example, I usually spare my eldest child, the son who made me a mother, the little details, like the midwife’s firm, raiser poised threat, “Now we are just going to give you a little shave down there.” (Though luckily he emerged so fast after that she didn’t have a chance.)  Or the nurse’s next morning careful explanation of neonatal jaundice, “You may have noticed your baby is a little yellow…”

But  I do like to tell the story of how hard I had to sue to get out of hospital, and what happened while I was otherwise occupied with learning to be a new mother.  In those days in England a “full stay” on the maternity ward was 10 days, a “short stay” was 7, and “early discharge” for a first baby was a mere 5.  I had to fight to be out in 4. 

While my new baby and I were in hospital my husband helpfully registered our son’s birth,  and when we both arrived home he presented me with the certificate.  Under mother’s name it had my first name and my husband’s last name.  I was furious.

You know I never intended to change my name! I shouted.  THAT IS NOT MY NAME!

My husband said calmly that he assumed I meant I wouldn’t change my name in the every day world.  Of course I could hang on to my name if if it was important to me.  Only he never thought I meant I wouldn’t change it when it came to things that mattered like our son’s birth certificate.  How would the boy know his parents were married?

(Reader this was the very beginning of the 80s.  The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there — especially in England.)

The next morning I bundled up my barely born son and marched smartly into the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages office in Oxford.  I presented the perfect child and faulty birth certificate and demanded immediate redress.

The grey haired man at the counter was kindness itself.  He understood my unhappiness, but he shook his head sadly.  What I asked was in no way possible.  The details of the child’s birth had been recorded in the Registers and he was powerless to change them. 

At home I telephoned the number that I had eventually wrung out of the grey haired man and I explained my story.

I’m sorry, said the voice at the other end, but no alterations are possible once a child’s birth has been officially recorded.

I asked her if just anyone could record these details.  Was she aware that paternity was merely a matter of opinion (these were the days before DNA testing was even thought of), but I could prove that I was the mother of the child?  How dare they take a mere putative father’s word?  Did they have my autorisation for him to register the birth?  They did not!

Her patient explanation made it clear that official policy was that any man generously willing to put his name on a child’s birth certificate was assumed to have the authority and competence to provide all details. 

I said, Do you mean to tell me that if my husband had said my name was Humpty Dumpty that is what my son’s birth certificate would say?

There was a very long pause.  And then she answered, Well, yes, I guess it would.

Several supervisors later I finally received a concession: if I would swear an oath that the name recorded as mother’s name on my son’s birth certificate was not my name, had never been my name, and never would be my name, they would make the correction.  I thought the future covenant was was a little extreme, but at least we would have an accurate record of my son’s parents.

This being Oxford it was all done in a gentlemanly way.  One guest night at College, when the women wore long gowns and the men black tie, my husband and I withdrew to the Senior Common Room, along with the College Solicitor, between the main course and the passing of port, claret and sauterne, where I swore the necessary oath, which the solicitor duly notarised.

I posted the notarised oath to Somerset House (which, with good reason, features in British murder mysteries) and in due course I received notice that the error in my son’s official birth certificate had been recognized and that an amended certificate, under these extraordinary circumstances, would be issued.

I returned triumphant to the registry office with my authorisation for correction.  In those days birth certificates were written out in long hand with a fountain pen and I watched, astonished, as the grey haired clerk wrote everything as before, including mother’s name with my husband’s surname and not my own. 

When he had filled in every box, exactly as before, he returned to the mother’s name box and added an asterix.  In the bottom margin he wrote, next to an inky asterix, the words, This is an error.

Then he handed me the amended certificate.

I’ve had more decisive victories.


  1. First of all – happy birthday!

    Second of all – funny! But it makes me think, it’s not entirely clear what the error was – perhaps you are not really your son’s mother after all, at least according to the registry office?

    Comment by Liz — February 12, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Happy Birthday, Duchess (it’s still Feb 12th here!)

    I guess you had to learn the hard way that you can’t fight city hall … or any other kind of bureaucracy.

    Comment by Tessa — February 12, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  3. Happiest of birthday wishes to you!

    Comment by Twenty Four At Heart — February 12, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  4. First of all, let me wish you a belated Happy Birthday.

    Secondly, you should have seen my chin hit my chest when I reached the end of this (highly entertaining) story.

    It would have taken surgery to remove the fountain pen from his nasal cavity, had it been me.

    Comment by Jan — February 13, 2009 @ 2:59 am

  5. Love, Love, LOVE this story.

    Comment by Darryle — February 13, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  6. A great story compellingly told. You had courage and commitment at a time when your insistence on retention of your own name would have been seen as bloody minded perversity.

    My name is Jones; my partner’s name is Semple; our kids are Semple Jones (sans hyphen.) If any name changing is to take place, it’ll be me doing it: after 60+ years of mere Jones, I quite fancy the nominal doubling up.

    Comment by Dick — February 14, 2009 @ 7:53 am

  7. Happy birthday, Duchess! I also like to make a big deal out of birthdays. Thanks for sharing this story. It made me laugh to go to all that trouble and then only have it redone the same with a marked error. Sorry.

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — February 15, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

  8. Happy belated Birthday, Duchess. When my youngest son was born on my 38th birthday, I stopped having my own special day and I truly miss it. I wonder if he feels the same and wishes he had his own unique birth day that he didn’t have to share with his mom? I’m sure someday I’ll know the answer to this question.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — February 15, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  9. Happy belated birthday and thank you so much for the very amusing tale. Thank God the world has changed enough to recognize separate last names for married couples!

    Comment by Barbara Weibel — February 18, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

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