Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Call Me Ishmael

When I was pregnant with each of our children, my husband and I spent countless hours deliberating about what we would name him or her (we opted not to find out their genders before they were born). We read books and articles on names and their meanings. We debated whether we would continue the family tradition of naming the first male child after his father (my husband is the fourth in a line of men named Herbert). We discussed whether to consider family names like John, which is popular on both sides of the family. We considered passing down the names of family members who had recently passed away, like my brother-in-law Glen or my mother Martha. We thought about whether an ethnic name like Siobhan or Padma would work with our last name. We weighed the relative merits of old-fashioned names like Charity and Prudence with contemporary names like Madison and Mackenzie. We considered what nicknames might be used for every name we considered, and debated whether to use a name like “Graham” or “Ethan” that was relatively nickname-proof. We chose my daughter’s name, Kathryn, specifically because there are many different nickname options that she can choose to go by when she gets older – Katie, Kate, Kathy, Kitten, Kat, Kit…the options are endless. Having been one of three girls named “Sandy” in many of my elementary school classes, I was rather adamant that we not choose an overly popular and overused name. (Ha! Both of my kids’ names were in the top 5 for popularity the year they were born.) We chose my son’s name, Ryan, simply because we liked its meaning (“little king”) and its sound.

Much like being at a restaurant with an overly-comprehensive menu, the final decision was probably determined by the exact moment when we had to make it, and it would have been different had the moment of truth come a bit earlier or a bit later. The proof of this is the fact that we didn’t name our daughter the girl names we had picked out for our son had he been a girl (Meredith or Brooke, in case you’re wondering), nor did we name our son the boy name we would have used for our daughter if she’d been a boy (Jack).

In short, we wanted to be absolutely certain that the name we were saddling our child with for life was one that that child – and we – would not regret. A name that gave her an identity. A name he would be proud to bear and to share. A name with meaning. A name that just felt and sounded right.

So a few days ago, I felt a bit of a pang when I called my son by his name and he told me, “Don’t call me Ryan.” But I gamely asked him what I should call him instead, and he replied, “Call me Muttonhead.” Now, I haven’t the faintest idea where he came up with that one. Possibly Oscar the Grouch used the term in passing; possibly an episode of Arthur or Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood was addressing the issue of name-calling. But wherever he heard it, apparently that word tickled his fancy and he decided he liked it better than his given name.

Let’s be honest, there are times when “Muttonhead” would actually be a very appropriate name for this child.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Nearly every child goes through a stage at some point where they want to choose a different name. At various points in my young life, I considered going by my middle name, Joyce, or choosing a different, prettier, more distinctive name like April or Cordelia (why yes, the latter thought did occur to me shortly after reading the Anne of Green Gables books). But as an adult, I finally decided that my name suits me and I don’t want to change it. (I did have one brief moment of considering a name change when I realized I shared a name with both my now-husband’s mother AND his ex-wife, but that’s another blog entry altogether.)

So at the various inevitable times in the future when my children come to me and complain about their names, I’ll try not to take it as a personal offense. And I’ll also remind them that they could have ended up named Norbert and Bertha. (No offense to anyone named Norbert or Bertha who may be reading this.) In fact, I’ll probably ask them if they prefer to be called Muttonhead. Suddenly Mom & Dad’s choice might not sound so bad, after all.

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