Before our wedding, my husband and I had already decided on a name for a baby girl. But years later, when I was two months pregnant, suddenly that name didn’t feel right anymore. We were temporarily calling the baby “Padawan,” but the child’s eventual legal name quickly became a source of consternation for me, which heightened further when we found out that The Child was indeed female. I started brainstorming and researching. A lot. After all, a name is a big deal. How are you supposed to pick one?!
(i.e., what names have to be off the table?)
The name we chose had to meet some parameters. We both needed to like it (or at least part of it). Its nickname possibilities had to be clarified. It needed to be pronounceable in both of our first languages. And it had to have some personal connection for us – a beautiful definition, a nod to someone we admired, or a deeper meaning.
You might also consider excluding names that already belong to someone in your family, only including names with a certain level of popularity or unpopularity, choosing a name that reflects your cultural background, or limiting spelling options to the conventional or the unconventional.
We searched for names in various places. Baby name books provided a wealth of options, but as I read page after page, I realized that this strategy did not account for our “personal connection” requirement. Baby name webpages helped more. We were able to limit what we looked at to search parameters that reflected our parameters (“Danish baby names” gave us more targeted results for names that were pronounceable in both languages; “old fashioned baby names” gave us more targeted results for deeper meanings as we defined that term; etc.).
Thinking about friends and family members gave us more options as well. Further, thinking about other role models, inspiring historical figures, and saints added even more to our list.
As a Catholic, I turned to the Catechism for help in narrowing down my name options. It gave suggestions I had already thought of, such as turning to saints, mysteries, and virtues. And Canon Law 855 said very strictly that names “foreign to Christian sentiment” are not allowed to be given (this did actually knock off one option on my list, which I hadn’t realized until doing some pretty intense googling, but that’s a story for another time). And in the most millennial of my attempts, I downloaded an app a friend told me about called Kinder – essentially, Tinder for baby names. That was fun but didn’t give us any new ideas (it may have been more helpful if we were earlier in the process).
Armed with our parameters, we went to work. We had a spreadsheet with columns for names we liked, names one of us liked, and names neither of us liked. We had separate columns for first-name-only options, middle-name-only options, and names that fit in either category. We had a running ranking in the spreadsheet of my top five combinations and his. And there were separate documents for boy names vs girl names.
Tracking options especially helped when we changed our minds. When my husband first suggested the name we eventually chose, I didn’t like it. It grew on me steadily over the remaining six months of pregnancy, and by the time our baby was born, it was my favorite. Checking in on our spreadsheet every so often helped me realize that I needed to recategorize the name as it bothered me less and appealed to me more.
There is more to choosing a name than the mechanics, though. For me, there were a lot of emotions – particularly fear – surrounding the decision. Choosing a name feels like a major way to possibly screw up a child’s life because 1) it’s often your first public parenting decision, and 2) it feels permanent.
That second piece really bothered me. In fact, as a Catholic, Pope Francis’s reminder (in Amoris Laetitia no. 166, pgs 126-7) that “God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity” worried more than impressed me. I didn’t feel like I had the right to determine something so integral to the identity of this whole other person. Of all people, I knew her most intimately, and I still didn’t know her very well. She preferred to kick on the left side, she would turn somersaults when I ate chocolate, and judging by her kicks she either really enjoyed or really hated the song “GIRL” by Maren Morris. How do you give someone a name that reflects and becomes their identity when you are going off that type of information?
Add to these factors that my husband consistently brought up “Danger” as a middle name, and the stories toward the end of my pregnancy about how Amy Schumer renamed her baby after realizing that she and her husband had accidentally named him “genital,” and the result was that I cringed whenever thinking about names. I was so concerned about finding the right name that I went so far as to research the process for changing a baby’s name in our home state, just so I knew what my options were if I did indeed pick the “wrong” name. Turns out, many states in the U.S. have easier processes for this in the first several weeks or months of birth than during the rest of life – possibly because a substantial number of parents realize they picked the “wrong” name, or possibly because a substantial number, like me, worry they will.
Taking the plunge
I went into labor with us as a couple having two favorite name options and no decision. We told each other, “Maybe we will look at her after she is born, and we will just know.” Well, we didn’t. We didn’t know when she was born. We didn’t know when the nurse stamped her footprint or filled out the birth certificate information. We didn’t know when the hospital transferred us to the Mother-Baby Unit and every person who came in our room asked us what her name was. We didn’t know when we fell asleep. Or when we woke up throughout the night, trying to comfort her. Or when we really woke up the next morning. It wasn’t until we were ready to video chat with our families that we decided to just commit to a name.
The baby came home. She moved around, she imitated more and more facial expressions, she grew out of clothes, she moved up in diaper sizes, she learned to smile back at us, and she showed even more music preferences than she had during pregnancy. But I still felt alienated from her name. In a way reminiscent of The Mandalorian, I referred to her mainly as “The Baby” for months. It took deliberate effort to call her by her name, which I did so she would start to learn it, but also so I would. People asked how we came up with her name. I’d tell them, “Rasmus thought of it,” or, “It’s a nod to a lot of important people in our lives.” I didn’t always add on, “And I’m still not sure if it’s right.” After all, naming a child is your first public parenting decision. It seems weirdly vulnerable to admit, especially to the friendly stranger at the pediatrician’s office, that you think you might have gotten it wrong.
The practice may be paying off. It happened gradually, but as I forced myself to call The Baby by her name, it felt less and less awkward. Maybe I saw enough of her personality emerge that calling her by her name felt more natural. Or maybe the repetition just helped me familiarize myself with saying a name that months earlier had suddenly become associated with my child. Or maybe it started to feel more safe to believe that she was really here with us. Sometime during my daughter’s fifth month on the outside, I turned to my husband and said, “I think I finally feel comfortable with her name.”
She’s nearly seven months old as I write this. While I say her name without thinking now, and it feels natural and cozy to my ears and in my head, I’m still not sure if we picked the “right” name for her. I think this may be because even if we like it, in a great joke of parenthood, it remains to be seen whether she does.
This post is the first part of a six-part series on naming. Check out the other articles as they are published on the website every Sunday.