We had our children back when expectant parents still chose two names, a boy’s and a girl’s. In those days, a baby kept you guessing, right up to the last minute.
Henry or Margaret? Charlotte or Benjamin? You didn’t know. The uncertainty was good preparation for parenthood, which is one surprise after another.
Now most parents pick only one name, but it’s still complicated. Names are powerful and carry an inordinate amount of baggage. Maybe Shakespeare was right that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, but a girl named Rose is a different story. To one person, the name is lovely and traditional, a reminder of summer gardens, sweetness and beauty. To another, it’s tainted by that mean girl who made seventh grade torture.
If you’re lucky, your name comes with a story. I loved listening to my mother tell how she and my father chose mine.
They were in a diner having coffee (pregnant women drank coffee, not to mention highballs, in those days). I imagine them young and heartbreakingly attractive, the way they are in old photos, her with a little scarf knotted around her throat, him with his pomaded curls.
The jukebox began to play Perry Como’s latest hit, a song about falling in love with a girl who’d make all his dreamin’ come true. My mother said they looked into each other’s eyes and knew: If it was a girl, her name would be Patricia.
Everyone called me Tricia, so when I began attending the big public high school, I was startled to have my classmates re-christen me Pat. I didn’t like it — boys could be named Pat!
Besides, it made me think of being patted on the head, which I hated. But it was a common nickname, and what I most wanted was to fit in. So I let myself be reduced to a single, bland syllable. (No offense to all the Pats who love their name.)
In college I reclaimed Tricia. It’s a name that marks me as a member of a certain generation. I grew up among Pauls, Lauras, Sharons and Toms. Our parents — that stalwart generation of Kenneths, Eunices and Wilberts — chose names more modern than their own, but still familiar, easy to pronounce and spell.
Things have changed. Nowadays, when I do signings for my children’s books, I always ask how to spell the child’s name.
Even if it’s Mary, I ask, and almost certainly it will be Maree, or Mai’ry, or some variation new to the world. I sign books for children named Hawk and Seneca and McCallister, nary a Pat or Tricia in the bunch.
Of course, names have always gone in and out of fashion.
Some — Hortense? Elmer? — may have gone so far as to never return. But have there ever been so many babies with head-scratching names?
Expectant parents, everywhere and forever, know that their child is unique and destined for great things. I think of my own mother and father, finding my name in a song about dreams coming true.
Yet it seems that more and more parents believe a common, everyday name can’t convey this shining specialness. Something unusual, even conspicuous, is required. Only the name will do.
Maybe this trend is new in the way so many things are — on the surface but not underneath. Surely my husband and I acted out a variation of it with our own babies. Our first two were girls. When I was pregnant the third time, we still had our unused boy’s name, but were stumped for a daughter’s.
There was the usual, “That’s my awful great-aunt’s name,” and “That reminds me of a skin disease,” and “Imagine the nicknames other kids would call her.”
If only we’d known that Shakespeare (as usual) was right.
Much as we fret over what to call our children, a name only means so much. We choose, freighting our choices with hopes and aspirations, but our children are the ones who decide who they’ll become. You’d think our first two daughters would have already taught us this, but no.
We kept hunting for the name, debating and discarding dozens. We were still at it when I went into labor.
“It’s a beautiful girl!” cried the doctor. “What’s her name?”
We had 24 hours. Before we left the hospital, a birth certificate had to be filed. Unless we wanted the poor thing to go through life called X, we needed to decide.
My husband went home and I lay in bed, baby at the breast, waiting for a shaft of light and a voice from above proclaiming, “And she shall be called … ”
When the discharge nurse asked if I’d filled out the birth certificate, I said yes. My husband’s eyes widened. “You did? What’s her name?”
The proclamation from above had failed to come. I might have given her any name, new or old, fashionable or weird, traditional or invented — but the one I finally felt was best means “heart.”
For sure she’d have turned out to be who she is, no matter what we chose. Lucky us: She and her name proved to be a match perfect in every way.