parent opinion

Why am I so annoyed when someone calls my baby a "little man"?

"It’s a boy!"

The receptionist at my obstetrician’s office cooed down the phone after confirming my blood results. 

I thanked her and booked my next appointment. Before the call ended she cheerfully sang out, "Congratulations on your little man". My body convulsed. "And so it begins," I sighed.

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I can’t be the only one who finds the term "little man" when referring to a newborn baby or toddler, deeply unsettling... can I?

If the bulk of the pregnancy and birth announcements I’ve seen lately are to go by, I am definitely in the minority. 

For me, it conjures up images of Benjamin Button style babies wearing tiny old man suits, or gaggles of tiny little man-babies sitting in offices doing our taxes or writing our government policy.

Maybe it’s the men I’ve known throughout my life who truly fit the description due to their refusal to behave like the adults they are. In any case, these aren’t the images I want to be associating with my precious new bub.

The thing is, babies are all just babies until they’re able to begin adapting themselves to fit with our culture’s gender norms. 

There are some obvious biological and developmental differences before the age of two for bubs assigned male at birth, but for the most part, little ones are all the same mix of squishy, needy, and adorable, regardless of their biological sex. 

As parents, our dreams and expectations for who this tiny person will become are what determine how we start referring to them from an early age. Some of us choose to keep things as gender-neutral as possible, others follow the cues from their little ones, and most of us just do our best to get through without thinking too deeply into it. 

These approaches are all equally valid. So why am I so deeply bothered by this choice of language surrounding my baby boy?

I’ve never heard anyone introduce their new baby girl as their "little woman" and believe me, I’m thankful for that.

Girl baby announcements tend to be coloured with much more, well, baby-appropriate imagery like "introducing our precious girl" or "our little angel has arrived".

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Honestly, I can’t quite pin down exactly why I’m so irked by this phrase. I’ve always been deeply affected by descriptive language and this has long been on my big list of banned phrases. It sits up top next to "missus" and "hubby".

I think it speaks to a deeper fear I’ve always had that I don’t actually know how to raise a good man. I grew up in a family of strong women with a feminist father and I always just assumed I’d be adding another little girl into that mix. 

I’m a little thrown by my little one’s sex and I want him to have the chance to become the beautiful creature he was born to be without my fears getting in the way. 

I think the labelling of him as a "man" before he even has a chance to be a baby, a tot, a kid or a boy deepens this fear in me that he’ll become someone he’s told he has to be rather than who he is.

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In Australia, our boys are taught from a very young age that strong emotions are to be suppressed. 

They're shown that gentleness is a sign of weakness and self-expression should be limited to a strict set of masculine activities, generally more physical than verbal.

These messages can help shape the idea that to be feminine is to be weak, to be weak is to be less-than, and so women are therefore inferior to men.

This belief can then play a role in shaping their relationships with women as they grow.

I believe these distinctions in our language from the moment of birth between little boys and little girls are integral in interrupting this process. 

Using gentle feminine language when referring to our girls while saying "toughen up mate" to our little boys reiterates a toxic patriarchal paradigm. 

Referring to our girl babies as 'darling' and 'sweetheart' while calling our boy babies 'mate' or 'little man' only helps to rob our little boys of the gentleness and nurturing they both need and deserve.

I know I could easily be accused of reading too much into this. 

It's just a term of endearment after all. But language is powerful, and it's especially important to interrogate the words we choose to describe our little ones. 

I'm sure I have many more full-body cringes ahead of me. And maybe I'm being too sensitive here, but just for now, just as a favour to me (and all mankind), little or otherwise, can we just agree to cool it on the "little man" talk?

Hannah Vanderheide is a writer, actor, and voice artist with a beautiful new baby boy. She's also a body-neutral trainer, eating disorder survivor, and wellness industry sceptic who loves to write about the sensible side of health.

Feature Image: Getty.