The Name Game

One of the things that smacks you in the face the minute you become a mother, or a mother-to-be, is the fact that you are going to be the one making all the critical, far-reaching decisions for this new little person from now until forever.

After that realization has sunk in and you begin to breathe again, you have another thought: You have absolutely no training whatsoever in making weighty decisions of the momentous variety at all.

The panic begins to build as you experience the first of many initiations into the crazy world of parenthood. Like it or not, you have become the boss, the go-to person when it comes to this child. And there’s no turning back.

It starts the minute they’re born when some kind person asks you to fill in the name on the birth certificate. How are you supposed to know what this kid’s name is? That’s a serious thing! It’s going to matter! What if it’s the wrong name? What if he hates it later on and blames you?

It’s not like you haven’t thought about it, though. You’ve spent nine months agonizing over every detail of that frikkin’ name. How does it sound with your last name? How many syllables should it have? Where does it come from and what does it mean?

We agonize. We fret. It all feels a little surreal, especially the first time around. It’s not enough that we have to figure out one special name that we like and are willing to go public with, which would be tough enough. We also have to get our spouse to agree.

This is no easy task: “What do you mean you don’t like Mariel Elizabeth for a girl? It has a gorgeous, lilting sound and looks beautiful written down. Plus it will work for her when she’s little and once she’s grown-up, too!”

If only it ended there. But then there are all those other people and their opinions to consider as well.

The novice name-giver typically makes a couple of big mistakes while trying to come up with the perfect name. The first one is deciding to test out her favorites on her well-intentioned friends and family:

“Have you picked out any names yet?”

“Oh yeah! We love the name Andrew! What do you think?”

“Are you serious? Andrew? I had a kid in my class named Andrew and everyone hated him. He used to pick his nose and put it under the desk. He was disgusting.”

Your heart sinks and you realize from that moment on, the name Andrew will always bring up an image of the fourth grade loser you just heard about. There’s no way your child is going to get that moniker. And so it goes. As the weeks go by it seems like every person you come in contact with has a story to tell about why your current favorite is a dog.

Another mistake about-to-be parents make is asking honored members of the clan to offer their sage suggestions. It starts out innocently enough at, say, a family dinner when you magnanimously suggest that the two of you would be delighted to consider favorite family names.

But before you can say “Stop the car! I have to pee again” Great Uncle Bill has dropped by with what he thinks is the answer to your prayers: “I’ve given your question a lot of thought and I believe I have the answer for you!” he says with a twinkle in his eye and more enthusiasm in his voice than you’ve heard in 10 or 11 years.

“Melvin Cornelius, after my father and your great grandfather. He was a highly regarded, remarkable man and your child would be honored to carry his name.”

And now you have to figure out how to break the news to Uncle Bill that you are going to be going in another direction but appreciate his suggestion anyway. Seeing the look on his face makes you realize he’ll be carrying that grudge for years.

When our first one was warming up for his grand debut, I went through countless, demoralizing  rounds of “What names have you picked out?” myself. My in-laws were particularly curious about our progress and asked about it regularly.

Being young and wanting to please, I was quick to offer up our choices during the first few months. But after hearing about all the dead-beat, unattractive, dim-witted people associated with the names we liked, I decided to shut-up and take another tack.

So at a luncheon party when my mother-in-law innocently asked again about names, I cut to the chase, wanting the questions to stop. Had I been braver at the time, I could have simply said we were still thinking and perhaps she would have graciously taken the hint.

But no, I went with drama. Without missing a beat, I told her that we had picked the boy’s name. I said that we wanted to name him after someone strong and special, someone who had made a huge impact in the world and who we really admired. So we had decided on “Mahatma” after Ghandi. “It means ‘great soul,'” I added, with a wink.

The color drained from her face, her eyebrows shot up and and she suddenly became fascinated with her salad. Not another word was spoken regarding baby names until the big day came when our son, their first grandchild, was born. When we called to give them the news that Benjamin had arrived, they were thrilled and delighted. And they absolutely loved the name. The relief in their voices was palpable. “Not Mahatma?” they asked. “No, we decided to go with something a bit more mainstream,” my husband fudged, trying hard not to laugh.

It’s funny about those names, though. You just can’t win. After all the hours spent sweating and struggling to come up with just the right one, once the ink dries on that birth certificate and we finally get everyone to respect and honor our choice (“It’s James, not Jimmy!”), half the time we can’t even remember it ourselves.

When my youngest son, Ethan, started coming home from nursery school with the name “Bethan” written on his art work I was puzzled. I asked his teacher where “Bethan” had come from and she swore that he had told her it was his name. He was adamant.

Where did he get that idea, I wondered? But later, as I was calling him into the kitchen for his snack it hit me. I caught myself flipping through the names of my other children as I tried to come up with his.

And since his brother’s name is Ben, my shout-out to Ethan came out as B-Ethan. So much for the perfect name, I thought to myself. After all that work, he doesn’t even know what it is!



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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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