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Reflections on a birthday

04 Jun 2012


My eldest son turned 18 yesterday. Evidently, this was an occasion to look back on his youth, and apart from all the personal and intimate memories we shared, it also occurred to me how many moments of ‘identity management’ he has gone through already. As a newborn in the hospital, he had a wristband to distinguish him from the other babies. Not that we would make a mistake, I hope, but for the nurses they must indeed all look alike. We also bought him one of these pre-formatted baby books, with a family tree, and chapters like ‘Your parents’, ‘The Big Day’, and ‘This is You’. The ‘You’ was defined by gender to begin with; day, date and time of birth; astrological sign; weight and length; colour of his hair and eyes; blood type and head perimeter; and some special features. At the time we thought he had remarkably big feet.

We named him Tom, in full Thomas Adriaan Willem. Tom simply because we liked it, Adriaan after my father, Willem after my husband’s grandfather. I remember there were some students at the maternity ward at the time, doing research about what names meant for parents. The only association I had, embarrassingly, was with a somewhat well-known national hockey player. It probably would have pleased the researchers if I therefore had hoped my Tom would become a hockey hero, but  instead I only hoped - lame but sincere - that  he would be healthy and happy. For the record, though: at 18, he is healthy, seems happy, and plays hockey heroically .... in our eyes.

All of this was even before we had to officially register him at Amsterdam city hall. Countless registrations followed, of course: for preschool, for school, for health insurance, for track-and-field, for baseball; for skating lesson and for hockey; for hockey and holiday camps. For swimming lessons, and more swimming lessons, and more swimming lessons. At 14, the Dutch state forced us to get him an identity card which officially, he needs to have on him, always. Yet, when you google him, he does not have much of an online presence yet, and although he did have a profile on an early Dutch social network, he doesn’t  find Facebook very appealing.

Now that he is 18, he can vote in the next Dutch elections, which are only months away. He has received offers from all kinds of organisations who want him to consider health insurance, bank accounts and study loans. He has not only become a full Dutch citizen, but also an independent client and consumer. 18 years ahead, he will be 36. He’ll only need to talk to his bike to unlock it; he’ll travel without documents because he has acquired trusted traveller status; his wedding ring also opens the doors to his house, to his office, and to the lockers in his gym. He has a pocket implant on his left arm which holds his smart phone: without it, he would be no one, he would be disconnected, he would cease to function..... that sounds familiar.