Did You Choose Traditional Names For Your Children?

Did You Choose Traditional Names For Your Children?

Baby Names


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 Ántonia, “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.

The Real Mother

The Real Mother

Author and daughter

I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not.

By Teri Carter

Motherhood begins, like it does for most mothers, with me sitting in the bright-lighted waiting room of the gynecologist’s office. I am thirty-one. I have not been married six months.

It is late February in the Minneapolis suburbs, just after three, and I’ve anchored my body into a pink (they’re all pink) corner chair next to a square oak table piled with the worn-out pages of Parenting Today, Fit Pregnancy and Pregnancy and Newborns, holdovers from last summer, their crinkled covers advertising so much pretty promise with skinny smiling moms in tank tops and swooshy skirts, chasing toddlers, and moms-to-be with taught bellies bulging behind spandex leggings, painted toes in strappy sandals, and cute swimsuits. I zero in on the swimsuits. Not a dimpled thigh nor overflowing breast among them. I imagine my own body cut and carved and photo-shopped into tapered, motherly perfection. I feel relief in the imagining.

In the chair next to me, my stepdaughter fills out an intimidating stack of New Patient forms clipped to a board. Chloe is sweet sixteen. This is Chloe’s appointment. I try to give her some privacy by pretending more interest than I have in the pages of Fit Pregnancy, and page after page she leans forward, hiding behind her long blonde hair, reading or pretending to read every word, until finally tapping me hard on the arm with the clipboard. “But I don’t know any of this stuff,” she says, pointing to a series of boxes and questions on family medical history. I gently shove the board back onto her lap and whisper instructions to put question marks where she doesn’t know the answers so the doctor or, rather, Katie, the nurse practitioner she’s seeing, will know she’s read the questions and just doesn’t know. I also tell her to try and remember some of the questions so she can ask her mom next time they talk. Chloe rolls her eyes and leans back. I ignore it and say, “You need to know this stuff, or at least you’ll need to know it eventually, so you should ask your mom. Really. It’s important. Or might be important, someday.”

I go back to Fit Pregnancy. Chloe keeps at the forms.

When you’re over thirty and you tell people you’re marrying a man with children, they nod and smile and voice obligatory congratulations. Good for you! they cheer. With your mother and stepmother and Aunt Mary, you also hear their intense relief because, no matter the modern world, they know and you know that the likelihood of your meeting a man without an ex-wife and children at this stage is akin to discovering a real live unicorn. Hence the nod, the smile, the deafening relief. The assumptions.

Everyone assumes if you’ve married a man with kids, these kids will hate your very existence on their earth and barely tolerate the sight of you because they live with their mother; they assume you’ll be a part-timer, barely tolerating them as well, because you’ll have to house and feed them every other weekend and for some weeks, maybe, in Summer; they can see you standing silently aside while your husband and their mother duke it out about who gets Christmas Eve (the loser) and Christmas Day (the winner); they will ask the polite questions: how did you meet, what do the kids think, when are you going to have a baby? They perk up at the baby part. You can’t blame them. Who doesn’t perk up at the possibility of a baby? There’s no way to let them down gently, so you come right out with it and say, with well-rehearsed cheer, that you’ve married a man thirteen years your senior who has for years had sole custody of his children—a girl about to get her driver’s license and a boy starting fifth grade—and you’ll have these kids 365 days a year because their mother lives in a southern state far, far away. They are rightly confused. Wait. Wait! This is the wrong script. And they are noticeably worried; worried you don’t have the first clue as to what you’ve gotten yourself into, especially this whole teenage girl situation and their mother whom you haven’t even met, and yet it all passes in a whir because you can’t possibly string together enough assurances to make them feel better. To make yourself feel better.

This, this is your beginning.

In the waiting room, Chloe’s name has been called and she’s disappeared. I’ve found the unisex bathroom with built-in plastic changing table, also pink. After I flush I lean in and stare at myself in the well-lit, gold-trimmed mirror, and then I turn in profile. I smooth my cotton shirt. I cup my size C+ breasts in my hands to lessen the relentless weight of them. My always-bra-ed breasts now that I’m married and living in the house of a boy aged nine who has sleepovers with other boys aged nine where I am in constant fear of seeming too free, inappropriate or, dear god, sexual.

Back in the waiting room I am only alone for minutes when two heavily pregnant women arrive for appointments. They check in with the nurse behind the glass and choose opposing corners, moms-to-be moored by their bellies. The ponytailed brunette drapes her hands heavy like an Achilles shield over her stomach, eyes closed, deep chest breathing, while the alert blonde who looks no older than Chloe frantically thumbs crinkled pages splayed under smallish breasts, and I, with no task at hand, clasp and unclasp my hands, fold my arms across my empty center and, in my head, name the baby I’m not having. Ann Marie, the expected family tribute using my grandmother’s first and my mother’s middle; Helene, the name of the cute girl who used to give me pedicures and yet would seem like a dedication to, and thus win me free points with, my new mother-in-law; Katherine with a K; Rachel; Georgia if not for the whole midnight train thing; Elizabeth, whom I would be a tenacious bitch about everyone calling Elizabeth.

I first sat in this chair a year ago when I was single and relocating to Minneapolis for work and needing to get through that checklist you have to get through when you arrive in a new city: set up a local bank account; get an insurance agent; find a veterinarian and a dog walker for Bailey, my three year old Cocker Spaniel, to cover my long working hours; a dentist and a general practitioner and an OB/GYN, preferably a woman. Check, check, and check. With one big glaring snag. If you’re my age and you’re not making a baby, and if you don’t have cancer or endometriosis or a fertility panic, it is outside impossible to become a New Patient of a well-respected OB. Which is how I ended up with Katie, the nurse practitioner. Which is the reason for Chloe seeing Katie today. Katie is all I have the power to get. Real doctors, it seems, are all booked up solid with real mothers.

OBGYN office

The week before Christmas I received a card from my first are-we-going-together?-boyfriend back home in Missouri, my first date to a high school dance. The card declared Peace and Joy in stock red print under a drawing of the Virgin Mary holding her baby Jesus, with my friend’s handwriting, the same as when we passed flirty notes, scrawled across the bottom: P.S. I can’t believe you’re somebody’s mom! I remember thinking, I can’t believe it either.

I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not. Sometimes it’s the mom across the street or at the bus stop; sometimes it’s my son’s teacher at back-to-school night; and sometimes it’s just me starting into a mirror. Today that someone appeared in the form of a nurse behind the receptionist’s window. It went something like this:

Hi, my daughter Chloe has an appointment with Katie.

Your daughter? Honey, you don’t look old enough to have a daughter this age!

Well, actually, she’s my stepdaughter.

Oh! Oh, I see.

Having already taken Chloe to the walk-in clinic for a sinus infection, two strep tests, and her first (non-injury) car crash, today’s exchange is already our norm, a calling-out just loud enough to tell the entire waiting room that we are not the mother and daughter we are pretending to be. Today, Chloe has had enough. We’ve barely sat down when she mocks, loud enough to pierce the glass, “‘Oh! Oh, I see’ like she knows us, like she knows anything about me.”

“Shhh, she didn’t mean anything.”

Chloe gets louder. “No, you know what I’m going to say next time? I’m going to say, I know, right? My mom looks good for 50, don’t you think?” And though I don’t do it I want to grab her up right in front of the glass and hug her like I do everyday after school and kiss her on the lips and say Love you, Love you too like we do every night at bedtime. I want the nurse to see us, to give us credit, for the family we are making up as we go along. For the family we are all trying so hard to be.

And yet I’m no better. When I meet a stepfamily, I immediately look for the signs. The unpracticed or one-armed hug. The lean-away. The way a kid needing permission looks to one parent while making a show of dismissing the other, and the way the other chokes while laughing it off. The lack of lingering eye contact. A stepparent’s glaring avoidance of public discipline, verbal or physical. The careful choosing of chairs at a restaurant table. At home we have a rectangular, white kitchen table with two chairs on each side. My first week married coincided with the first week of school. I made dinner and called everyone in. I took a seat on the side next to my new husband. Nine year-old Austin walked in and stood his ground next to me. “That’s my chair.”

To which I said, “How about you sit by Chloe and I’ll sit here by Dad,” so proud I was of my quick-thinking, cheerful diplomacy.

“But … he’s not your dad,” Austin said.

I got up.

He sat down.

I took another chair, humiliated and defeated, heart anxiously pounding while I smiled my way through asking questions about each kid’s first days of school. My hands shook as I cleared the table, as I did the dishes. And when I thought enough survival time had passed, I took my dog for a walk so I could cry as hard as I needed to without anyone feeling sorry for me or, dear god forbid, offering me the chair.

Some nights later at the table, I did something my own mother would have done in jest. I made fun of Chloe for whining—for the dozenth time to get out of going to school—about having a headache. “Awwww,” I said. “Is it a brain tumor? Do you have cancer?” She went to her room and did not go to school the next day. Another night I filled a lull at the table with a joke about Texans until Austin’s lower lip quivered as he said, “I was born in Texas.” It was like being hit with curare dart.

I analyze where I fail. I make these mistakes when I let the curtain down, when I start shoving aside the fantasy and cautiously ease into feeling like I belong, like I’m the mom and Rex is the dad and these are our kids and there’s breakfast to fix and homework to get done and Chloe asks if I’ll do her nails while we watch The Simpsons and Austin warns me he’s going to freeze his plastic Batman so I won’t be alarmed when I reach in for ice.

And I realize I make most of my mistakes when I’m being myself. As well as things have gone these first six months, with our goodnight kisses and Love you, Love you too’s, I know in my hollow un-pregnant gut that the nurse behind the glass can see right through me to the fraud-mother I am so desperately trying, and failing, to shed.

I call my own mother almost daily. For comfort, for advice, for the minutes of the day when I can be a real daughter instead of the mother I haven’t the first clue how to be. Mom is a thousand miles away in Southeast Missouri and, now that she’s finally quit her decades-long factory job, she answers on the first ring. She listens. She asks without asking if I’m trying to get pregnant. Are you still on the pill? Because I’ve been reading it’s unhealthy to be on the pill this long. My youngest brother Chuck has a one and a half year-old baby girl but he’s not married to his child’s dark-skinned, Polynesian transplant from California, mother. I encourage my mother to vent about this so she forgets, at least temporarily, my own babylessness. She says, Why don’t they just get married. She says, Why won’t they just let me baptize her? If they don’t believe what difference does it make? She says, I’m so embarrassed when I take the baby to Walmart because everyone thinks she’s black, and I have to explain about the Polynesian mother so they won’t think she’s black and I don’t even know where Polynesia is! I take these opportunities to climb on my big liberal box with, well fuck that and who gives a shit what your racist neighbors at Walmart think. All of which keeps me shining the neon spotlight away from the secret I’m keeping. That no, I’m not on the pill. I’m not on the pill because I wasn’t even married a week when, without any forethought and with a manic urgency I can’t explain, I talked my new husband into getting a vasectomy.

What kind of mother, I think now, is that?

In the waiting room, the brunette and the blonde have both been called back. I am surrounded by empty, pink chairs. I can hear the rude nurse behind her glass wall shuffling and stapling paper, the trill of the phone ringing, the making and canceling of appointments, the whap whap of the copy machine, the busyness and naturalness of it all.

I stare at the closed door and wait for Chloe. I have nowhere lay my hands.

Teri Carter lives in Kentucky and California, where she is working on her first book.  Her essays can be found at http://www.tericarter.net/publications.html