The Name Game

“Honestly, I’ve never really liked my name. I always thought I was more of a Claire.”

As the conversation snaked around the dozen or so people at the dinner table, nearly everyone admitted that they didn’t really care for their name. Like “Claire,” most even had a specific, more comfortable alternative that they had found after a lifetime of picking at that scab. No one seemed to object to the cultural context or the relative commonality of their name. No one even offered any tangible details to explain the dissonance, just a vague sense that what they were called by others didn’t match how they felt inside. Knowing smiles were exchanged as each person unpacked the disconnect between their identity, as they perceived it, and the ill-fitting label their parents had chosen to represent them.

I quietly nodded along until the conversation reached me and, somewhat embarrassingly admitted that I was odd man out. The idea of questioning or replacing my name had never really occurred to me. It’s not that I love it, I just never considered it. In the name department, my parents gave me an Anglo-Jewish cut-and-paste job, a pretty good fit for my cultural heritage (shout out to all my Welsh Jews). The origin story is that my mom and dad each made a list of their top three names and Ian happened to be on both. The other two names on my dad’s list were Diego and Ebenezer. If I’d ended up with either of those, this essay would likely have a very different introduction.

For the past few months, names took on a visceral importance as my wife and I prepared to welcome our second child. We didn’t settle on a name until two days after she’d been born. Even then, we both circled the decision for some time, using the name cautiously and sparingly in case we were making a huge mistake. We also have a three-year old son and had been together for nearly a decade before he was born. We talked about names plenty of times during that decade and those conversations about hypothetical future offspring seemed to work out a lot of the kinks. With that pregnancy we were really only toying with two possibilities. When he was born the decision was quick and definitive. There was no question then and hasn’t been since.

This time around things went differently. The leftover girl’s names from our decade of hypothetical conversations had lost all their oomph. Some had been used by friends. Some had their appeal stolen by celebrities or fictional characters. Some had just fizzled with the application of time. We set about creating a new list but the process was all addition and no winnowing. We had a name that came to my wife in a dream. Another that was pulled from a relative of hers from the early 1800s that we stumbled upon sifting through her family history. We spent hours on random name generators and running our ideas through the Baby Name Wizard and the Baby Name Voyager. Nothing took hold.

While we couldn’t settle on a specific name we developed plenty of contrived guidelines, ones I imagine that are fairly common among parents of my generation.

No one wants to give their child an incredibly popular name. Even before birth, we parents cling to the unique specialness of our offspring and want to mark that with a name. But the appeal of uniqueness is a bell curve — don’t let it drift to far in either direction. Find the middle ground, unique but not too unique. Layla, but not Lluzero. Our particular brand of the unique-but-not-too-unique revealed itself to be names that first peaked in popularity a few generations before — your Charlottes, Matildas, Helens.

Then there were restrictions of culture and implication. And visualizations, holy shit the visualizations. What do you you see when you think of Charlotte? Can you picture a baby Charlotte? A teenaged Charlotte? A successful and spunky adult Charlotte? Do they all look suitably adorable, resembling our features but with an airbrushed idealized beauty? And don’t forget about mouthfeel. Does the name roll off the tongue? Does it fit with our last name? Does it fit, stylistically, with the names of her older brother? Does it avoid alliteration? Do the initials spell a dirty word? Does it rhyme with any genital euphemisms?

Naming a child is one of the first official parenting decision, but it’s entirely a parental indulgence. It can be used to honor family and culture but, mostly, naming a child is a process by which parents attempt to label an imagined and idealized identity for their child. We have a, sometimes vague, picture in our minds of what we would like our children to become. If we can just find the name the best embodies that identity, it ensures that our children will be able to follow the healthy, productive and creative path we have imagined for them. At least that’s what our subconscious is telling us. The science connecting children’s names to the future is murky at best. Once parents have self-selected a pool of names for the criteria that appeal to them, the difference is negligible. In the case of my daughter, there is no reason to expect her life would be appreciably different as a Charlotte instead of a Helen. Even considering my own father’s lack of recognizable criterion in child-naming — my life may have been different as Diego or Ebenezer, but almost certainly not in the ways my father imagined when he picked those two names.

Barring some obvious catastrophes (there was a girl at my high school named Ariane Race), a name is just a name. It does not push a child onto a specific path. Naming a child is just one more in a million parenting decisions that creates the illusion of control. Each has an effect on our children, but they are effects we won’t be able to see for years to come, or disentangle from the thousands of other decisions we make every day. Our children will develop their own identities and someday, in a moment of introspection, they may give thought to a label for their identity and decide that the one we have chosen for them doesn’t really fit.

The name we chose for our daughter feels like a better fit every time we say it. The other options have fallen away as has the accumulated stress of making the decision. She has the right name because it’s the one we’ve chosen. We still have no idea what kind of person she will be but, for now, we can still pretend it will be the versions we see when we say her name. My wife and I will move on from this decision and do our best to help her become a good person in a thousand other ways besides what we and others call her.

And, I guess it wouldn’t be a disaster if, two decades from now, she is sitting around a dining room table telling people she always thought of herself as more of a Claire.