Three months ago, the editor of a “luxury magazine” emailed to ask if I could, very very quickly, write up an article on the challenges of naming your baby. Sure, I said, and I wrote it up that day. Today, however, I found out that, for mysterious reasons, it didn’t run. Oh well. This happens. But you know, I’ve got this blog here! So, uh, enjoy:
The second time around, pregnancy is easy. Morning sickness? That’ll be gone in a month or two. Strange cravings? A five-pound bag of Gummi Bears is $14.98 on Amazon.com. Big belly making it hard to sleep? Break out the body pillow and—why not?—a glass of wine.
But for my wife, Jean, and me, there’s one thing we simply can’t figure out: what to name our second child when she pops out in September.
This shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, it’s just a name—a few arbitrary words by which she’ll be known, presumably, for her entire life. The name may help determine her sense of self, or it may not. And we’ll probably come up with a host of nicknames that have no relation to her given name. My own mother called me Pumpkin for years. My brother was Peapod. My sister was Bean. I still don’t know why.
And yet we care—all parents care—because the name announces to the world not just who the kid is but who we, her family, are. If she’s a Rainbow, we’re hippies. If he’s a Michael or a John, you lack imagination. If she’s a Wah-Ming or an Aparna, you’re recent immigrants—or maybe third-generation arrivals looking to reconnect with your heritage. If there’s a Roman numeral at the end of the name, you’re tradition-minded. Or rich. Or pretentious. Or all of the above.
Celebrity parents have it easy. They’re not only allowed to give their kids wacky, outrageous names, they’re expected to. In my corner of Brooklyn, Gwyneth Paltrow last October showed up at the local park with her daughter, Apple, alongside Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who will probably return one day soon with their daughter, Blue Ivy. (My friend Tom, whose own daughter Ivy was born a month before Beyoncé’s, claims he inspired the pop stars.) Another neighborhood fixture, Michelle Williams, named her daughter Matilda, which by comparison sounds normal.
But could I name my daughter Matilda? To me, it sounds overwrought. The last thing I want is for anyone to consider Jean and me helicopter parents, so intent on choosing a perfect, standout, special name that we wind up with something—yeesh—precious.
“Precious?” says Jean. “That’s your word. I’m fine with that. How about Mercedes?”
She’s kidding—I hope.
Once upon a time, I imagine, the choice was easier. You picked a traditional name—something Waspy, or Biblical, or lucky. You picked a beloved relative’s name. You chose from a list of common, popular names because that’s what everyone did, and names really didn’t matter as much, since everyone lived in the same context.
Today, context is gone, obliterated. More than a third of Brooklyn is foreign-born (in Vancouver, it’s nearly 50 percent!), and everybody is having kids with everybody else. Traditions still hold some sway, but they, too, have multiplied and crossbred, and Jean and I are prime examples.
Jean was born Ching-wen Liu, in Taipei, Taiwan. Her brother was Li-wen. This was normal, to have the same syllable in siblings’ names—her cousins, for instance, were Ping-yi and Ping-jie (now known as Freesia and Jessie). The big challenge for Jean’s parents was to find characters to write the names—that is, they had to have the right number and kind of strokes to be considered lucky according to Chinese cosmology.
But that’s about it. As far as Jean’s family is concerned, it doesn’t matter what we name our kids. In fact, they’re pretty lackadaisical about the whole process. Li-wen—known to me as Louis—and his wife, Charmiko, didn’t even name their daughter or son at birth. For weeks after delivery, the babies were known simply as Mei-mei (little sister) and Di-di (little brother), until the parents came up with names they liked.
Jean and I do have one concern when it comes to her family. We want to choose names that her relatives, not all of whom speak English, can easily pronounce. Short and sweet is better, while consonant clusters are to be avoided. Lily is nice; Catherine is complicated.
I, meanwhile, am more formally known as Matthew Benjamin Gross, and was given the Hebrew name Moshe, a reference to my great-grandfather Morris Gross, born Moishe Grossmütz in late 19th-century Marijampolé, Lithuania. My Jewish family may be quite secular, but not so much that we’re willing to accept distinctly Christian names, and we still hew to certain Ashkenazi traditions, like not naming babies after living people. This has already caused us to nix Hannah and Leah, since they turned out to be the Hebrew names of my mother, Ann
e Leslie Gross. For a while, I liked the name Rose—my late grandmothers were Rosalie and Roslyn—but the rhythm wasn’t right, and although Rosalie Gross sounded sweet, the truth is I never really liked Grandma Rosalie. So no Rose.
For people trying not to care too much, we’ve given ourselves an awful lot of rules. But we’ve gotten this right once before. Our first daughter, born in December 2008, is Sasha Raven Gross. Sasha sounds vaguely Eastern European, Jew-ish but not Jewish, and can be rendered in Chinese as Sa-sa. And Raven: It’s artsy, and if she runs away when she’s 16, Jean and I can visit local strip clubs, ask, “Is Raven working today?,” and take our daughter back home.
Frankly, I wish there were someone wise we could consult. Baby-name books are too encyclopedic, and I’m not about to spend upwards of $400 to employ a consultant. The U.S. Social Security Administration’s annual list of top ten baby names is useful, of course, but only because it tells us which not to pick. (At one point, we remember well, Sasha’s preschool had at least two Aidens and a Hayden.) So, sorry, Sophia, Isabella, and… Abigail? Darn, I kind of liked that one.
My close friend Ted, whose wife, Tomoko, is due two weeks before Jean, came up with his new daughter’s name at a yoga retreat in Mexico. “Some hippie dropout said, ‘I’ve got the perfect name for you: Amina!’” he told me. “We went and looked it up, and it means something in Arabic and something else in Swahili, which was nice.” Even better, Tomoko’s Japanese relatives could pronounce it.
“But everybody kept making a face,” he said, “so we switched it to Mena.”
This is great news for Ted and Tomoko, but not for me and Jean. Until we heard their story, we’d been leaning toward Nina—cute, slightly but not overly unusual, and easy on Chinese ears. But Ted’s kid and mine are surely going to be friends, so they can’t have such similar names.
Or can they? Why not Mena and Nina? Maybe it really doesn’t matter to anyone but us parents what we name our children. We all came to terms with our own names—their strengths and weaknesses, their rarity or ordinariness—and few of us chose to change them, though we may at times have been tempted. (In junior high, Gross was not an asset.) And I know one person who for sure doesn’t care: Sasha. Every evening, she’ll wrap her little arms around Jean’s belly and say, “I love you, baby!”
At least that’s what I think she’s saying—she’s speaking Chinese.