Thursday, February 7, 2013

Children with Unfortunate Names

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Try telling that to any modern seven-year-old named Bertha or Edith. Or ask the boy in my high school driver’s ed class named Mike Hunt (say it out loud).

Bad birth names are life’s biggest misfortune. Name your daughter Janessa or Caj and she is sentenced to a lifetime of repeating or spelling her name for strangers. Name your son Richard and at some point he is sure to be called Dick.

Conversely, a good birth name is a blessing. My best friend from high school named her sons Cannon and Colt. They may as well be named Awesome and Hottie. Those boys will always know that from the very beginning their mom thought they were matchless and special, not a Regular Joe or Dear John.

Feeling the way I do about names—that it is the first and most important gift a parent can give a child—it's surprising that I settled when it came to naming my own children.

It’s not that my children have horrible names. They’re just not the names I wanted, or even on the list of names I wanted. I am creative. I come from a family of writers. I could do better than give my children names that could be found on a monikered tchotchke. But I didn’t. On this very important decision, I settled.  

In my family, thoughtful name choice goes back a few generations. My grandmother named her seven children Joyce, Jeanne, Joan, Jackie, Janet, Jenny and Bob. She gave each of her girls a first name that began with J and a middle name that began with E. With a last name that began with M, my grandmother could then pronounce, “They’re all my little JEMs.” It was a statement to the world that her girls were precious but strong.

My mother—who always hated that people called her Joanie, not Joan—purposefully named me Heather and my brother Blake, neither of which could be shortened to end in an ie or y.

I don’t know if it was because of this family history of name consideration or just because I was an odd little girl, but ever since I could write I’ve kept a list of names for children I might one day have. The names on my list changed over the years based on actresses I thought had good hair (Julia) or surfers I thought were hot (Kelly).

When I found out I was pregnant for the first time, I went straight to my lists to see if any of the names still excited me. Some did, most did not. We didn’t find out our baby’s gender beforehand, so I had lots of research to do.   

Throughout my pregnancy name contenders came and went as I checked out baby name books from the library and read them introduction to index. I’d shout from the bedroom,  “What about Cameron? Judd? Henry?” No answer. My husband was never ready to discuss names. “Later,” he would say. Eventually I gave up, stopped asking and picked my own finalists.

Our son arrived two weeks early. When our families visited the hospital and asked his name I shared the one I liked. My mother-in-law strongly disapproved which meant my husband wouldn’t consider it. We had discussed no other names, so on the first copy of my son's birth certificate it says Baby Boy Lambie.

When he was two days old and it was time to check out of the hospital, a large, grumpy woman clearly over the “magic of childbirth” part of her job, waved the birth certificate in my face and said deadpan, “You can’t take this baby home without a name.”

I told her we still hadn’t agreed on anything. She said, “What names do you like? You did all the work. This is your opportunity to name your baby.”

I should’ve told her, “Henry,” and been done with it. But I didn’t. I called my husband who was out walking our dog and said, “We have to pick a name right now. How about Logan? We can use your name as his middle name.”

“OK. I like it,” he said.

And that was that. After nine months of pleading for discussions, he agreed to the first new name I spit out. Logan was the last name of my best friend in college, and she had always said she’d name her first child Logan. I hoped she wouldn’t mind.

Though I had never once considered it while pregnant, I was OK with the name Logan. That is, until we got home and I searched baby name websites to see how our last minute choice ranked. Logan was a top twenty name for the year my son was born. What had I done? I’d bequeathed to my first-born a common name. He would be one of many Logans in his class, forever identified as Logan L. in a class with Logan T. and Logan W. Oh, beans.

With my second pregnancy, I resolved early on that I would not to let exhaustion or desperation determine my child’s name. I again researched books and website lists, this time making sure I didn’t choose anything that was in the top 50 most popular names for the last couple years.

I chose names for my next son or daughter and decided not to share them with my husband, who never brought up names anyway. However, around month seven out of the blue he said, “If it’s a girl this time, I really like Kimberly or Stephanie.” I scoffed. I had grander plans for a daughter. I wanted a JEM of a name.

“Since you brought it up,” I said, “what about Liv?” My husband’s mother, who had died a year earlier from breast cancer, was Olivia. Olivia was too popular at the time based on the baby name websites, but Liv was nowhere on the list.

“My sister says she’s using Olivia if she ever has a daughter,” my husband said. “Liv is too close.”
“As a middle name then?”
“That's fine.”

Great. We had a middle name for a girl we may or may not have. I was encouraged that he’d peeked through the discussion door and pressed my luck with first names.

“I like Lake for a girl. Or Hazel is cool. I loved my Great Aunt Hazel. Or Savannah—we could call her Van!”
“Too weird.”

I should have dug in my heels and defended my “weird” names, but all my energy was consumed by heartburn and bloated cankles. I conceded to discussing names my husband considered not weird. I suggested Meghan spelled with an H as a nod to my name, and he agreed. Then I suggested Craig, my father’s middle name, for a boy and without argument he agreed.

When Meghan Liv was born, I was underwhelmed with her name, but I justified it because Meg means pearl in Greek. My husband and I had honeymooned in Greece, and pearls are both strong and beautiful, as I knew she would be. I could live with it.

When my kids were babies, mothers with older children would say, “Isn’t it funny how once you name them they start to look like that name and you can’t imagine calling them anything else?” Um, no. I obsessed about and regretted my children’s names long after they were out of diapers. At one point, when Logan was three, I wondered if I could legally change his name before he started school so that everyone would only know him by his cool new name, and “Logan” would be a distant memory.

I even tried calling my kids by completely different names at home—“nicknames,” I called them. Whenever I’d try one out, my husband just smiled and shook his head, and the kids would turn their heads to see if I was talking to someone else behind them.

Though my nicknames for Logan never stuck, in third grade he dubbed himself “Awesome” and surprisingly, people started associating him with that name. He even writes it at the top of his school papers, and his teacher doesn’t correct it. Neither do I.

As for my daughter, on a recent sunny afternoon as she sat at the dining table doodling hearts and rainbows around her name on a piece of yellow construction paper, she shouted, “Hey Mom, did you know that Meg spelled backward is gem?” Huh. So it is. I had always loved my daughter, but in that moment I fell in love with her name.

My children, now ten and seven, are far wiser than their mother. They know that labels only mean what you let them mean. I know that I’ve raised two wonderful kids who—no matter where they end up—will surely make a name for themselves.

This post answers the question: Share how you came up with your kids' names from
Mama’s Losin’ It


  1. I'm a little obsessed with names too. I had a girl name picked out since I was about 12, but, alas, never had a daughter. My husband and I, without talking about it at all, both came up with the name Jude for our son - I loved it because of St. Jude, my husband because of Hey Jude. And when we told each other our favorite name, and it was the SAME name, we knew it was destined.

  2. Perhaps those names came to you for a reason, after you had spent so much time on them. Great post!

  3. This is really sweet (and well written). I love that Meg is gem backwards- seems meant to be :) I really enjoyed this, you took me on a journey with you. I chose this prompt, too, and it sure is a good one.

    1. Thanks, Helena! (I really loved Helena as a name potential too!) I'm going to go check your story out now...

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