I Gave My Children Uncommon Names
By Dina Relles
I could tell she didn’t like the name the moment she first heard it. “Ai-ven,” she rolled the strange syllables around in her mouth with exaggerated effort. As if she said them slowly enough, maybe they would change.
My mother had never heard the name before, of course, because we’d made it up. I was walking home from work one evening, pregnant with our firstborn, when some combination of letters on a real estate sign overhead made me think of it—Aiven, a variation on Aiden, a name that hovered high on our list, but which was, at the time, soaring in popularity.
We thought perhaps it sounded “Hebrew enough” to pass muster with our Jewish families and, with its rhythmic “v” and “n” sounds, would be hard to hate.
I never want to be what people expect. Not Dina, the rabbi’s daughter with the biblical name and the Eastern European ancestry. I came from a community where that was everyone else’s story too. I longed to be different. I have a cartilage piercing! I’m agnostic! I wear black nail polish! My name alone doesn’t shout these things; it takes effort to undermine automatic assumptions.
As a teen, I secretly hoped, upon first meeting, that people might infer my name derives from the Greek, “Constantina,” or maybe Italian. There was even a stretch, at age eight or so, when I sought to change it to Dana. I dutifully labeled the inside covers of all my books with my new signature, wishing I could somehow rewrite my own story.
So much of where we’re going is in response to where we’ve been. No, my son would not be David or Joshua, Jonathan or Michael.
Think of it at the top of a resume.
Call it down the street from your front porch.
People advise all sorts of tried-and-true methods to ensure you choose a passable name for your child. But I preferred to picture my son lying late night on his bedroom floor, as I once did, wondering why he’s named what he is—what it means, for his past, his future, and most of all, for himself—how he can make it his own.
By choosing a distinct name, one we expected no one else to have, my husband and I sought to say to our son, “Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t conform! Challenge everything.” From first breath to first impression, he couldn’t complacently fall back on a prepackaged standard. He would not be the fifth Ben in his class or “Jonathan R.” but one-of-a-kind, as if his name has its own story to tell.
The name for our second son, Parker, was inspired by our deep love of the outdoors, of brisk fall days spent playing in a park with our firstborn, of the park in downtown Manhattan where my husband and I had our first date and then, many months later, got engaged. Our wedding invitation bears this Simon and Garfunkel quote: Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench, quietly?
Our third son, Gray, came along, and we loved both the aesthetic, as well as the meaning his name conveys: the ambiguity and tender uncertainty of our existence—the sentiment that nothing is black and white.
By this point, we welcomed the secular slant, embraced the element of the unexpected, the idiosyncrasy of the monikers we bestowed on our offspring. I no longer minded the requisite shrugs my parents would deliver along with news of their latest grandson’s name.
My sons have Hebrew names, rest assured, for use at appropriate times—Hebrew School or Jewish camp or when called to the Torah. These are often linked to a lost loved one, connecting our children to their ancestors, their rich history, to all that came before. They are there, ready to serve, but tucked away. We wanted their heritage to be but one marker of who they are, and not one worn on their sleeve.
I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second child when the sonogram revealed it would be another boy. I circulated the news to immediate family, and, while the shock of the baby’s sex was still settling, my father responded with an email I’ll never forget:
“It’s going to be a…wonderful baby, a blessing, another grandchild, the next step in your family, the discoverer of the cure to cancer, a child who will bring you no end of life and love, and…a boy!”
Each of my sons is many things. No one characteristic or trait defines any of them—not his name or sex, his love of math or his fierce fastball, or the tiny freckle just above his knee.
Now, as I agonize over what to name my fourth child, I wonder about how we imbue such significance into this one word—a single string of letters in what will become a larger story. As with so much of parenting, with the name we give a child, we aim to make our mark, from day one. But the trajectory that follows is not ours to control in the same way: it is inevitably a peculiar blend of a fixed past and an evolving personality. Where they go has yet to be seen, but the fact remains: a name is the first message we impart to our children, one they will carry with them for life.
With the names we chose, we hoped to say: Take nothing for granted. Make no assumptions. Treat everything as worth a double take, a second thought. You are unlike anyone who came before or anyone who will follow. Tread deliberately on this path that is yours alone.
Dina L. Relles is a writer with essays in The Atlantic, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is currently at work on her first book, a memoir. She can be found at www.dinarelles.com or @DinaLRelles.
I Gave My Children Traditional Names
By Antonia Malchik
I was sitting at the lunch table in fifth grade when I decided that if I ever had a daughter I’d name her something normal.
I grew up mainly in two different towns in Montana. In the first, all my friends had names I coveted: Katie, Stacy, Tiffany, Angie. Their names were pretty, and, importantly for an early 1980s childhood, normal. My name was not. I was named “Antonia” for Willa Cather’s novel My Ãntonia, “Louise” after my maternal grandmother, and “Evgenia” after my father’s cousin who still lived in the Soviet Union where my father had grown up. All of which got shortened to the decidedly unmusical and definitely not normal “Nia.”
By the time I finally had kids of my own I’d mellowed on the “normal” bit but realized instead what I wanted was for them to have names that connected to their heritage, names that had meaning for our family beyond my own personal preferences.
As I became an adult I learned to appreciate what I couldn’t as a child, that names can be like ancestral histories we carry with us. Now, I’ve learned to value my connection to my grandmother and my father’s family and one of my mother’s favorite books, even if I was stuck with “Nia-peeah-diarrhea” for many of my formative years. These names give me a place in far-flung communities I’m always longing to know better.
When I was in high school we moved to a very different town full of ex-hippies, where I don’t think I met a single Tiffany or Stacy. Most of my friends had names I’d never heard before and likely never will again—Zabyn, one of my favorite people, or Koan, my then-boyfriend. It later seemed to me that to give a child a name intentionally stripped of ancestry was to weigh them down with a different class of expectations. We expect you to buck the system, these names said, to be more individual, more thoughtful, more counter-culture even than you might wish.
By the time I had my first child eight years ago this trend had become convention and then passé. How many children do I know now who are named after spices or yoga positions? Most of my friends these days name their children after plants or food or Eastern philosophical concepts, thinking that doing so will give their children a blank slate of personality to fill instead of burdening them with the past.
I understand the temptation. But the thought of giving my children names without history felt empty. What was the point of naming my daughter, say, “Alice,” simply because my husband liked it? “Alice” is lovely but had no meaning for us. Why not connect her to our family histories, with all their pride and struggle and stories of people gone before? Humans are so often rootless these days, following jobs and loves and desires without always becoming grounded in a culture or community. Why not carry at least one thing from our pasts, the stories that created us?
My daughter is named for my father, Aleksandra for Aleksandr, spelled to reflect the Russian pronunciation that is intrinsic to who he is. Like my own name, it pops up throughout history and literature, connected to characters good and bad, and with a rich enough history that she can create her own meaning out of it more easily than if I’d named her after my favorite tree. My son, John, carries the English version of my husband’s Scottish name, reflecting in a single note his English heritage and my English in-laws’ love of Scotland.
Sometimes it seems like children with non-traditional names are burdened more heavily with their parents’ personalities and hopes than third-generation Harvard-bound Exeter alumni. Our kids will always feel the breath of our expectation, no matter how hard we try not to burden them. I don’t want mine to feel a demand at the outset that they push against societal norms, that they be as completely individual and unique as possible. They already are unique. Giving them a name that has history and roots and meaning connects them to a community that they may never need or be aware of, but that will always be there to brace them when they feel weak and to hold them up when they feel downtrodden.
And they can own and come into their names more easily with traditional rather than newly minted monikers. Instead of their parents creating their names—and therefore meanings—for them, they can take these centuries-old names and turn them into anything they like. There is almost no identity my son can’t form within the name John. If I’d named him Acer, to choose a name at random, he’d be trapped within its uniqueness. It’s hard to be conventional with an untraditional name, assuming one wished to, but with a traditional one you can do almost anything you want.
The truth is, I’m privileged to have names like John and Aleksandra, and middle names like Elizabeth and Henry, behind my children, privileged to have ancestry that gives them a level of freedom from birth, one many don’t enjoy, to decide who they want to be as they grow up and unlink themselves from their parents. And perhaps my expectation that they take that privilege and use it to make the world a better place is enough pressure, without an expectation that they be decisively counter-culture from the get-go.
I don’t believe in throwing off the past. Transmuting it, deepening it, shifting our understanding of it, yes. Walking away from it completely, no. We can no more shuck our ancestry than we can the DNA we were born with, and that includes the names that have come before ours.
Antonia Malchik writes about education, environment, parenting, and identity for a variety of publications. She can be reached through www.antoniamalchik.com.