So, as you know, Dear Reader, I am with child. Among the many responsibilities that come with bringing a child into this world is the task of choosing for her a moniker. I thought this job would be easier and much more fun than it is proving to be. I also thought that the world had now gotten the memo that it is inappropriate, if not downright gauche, to comment negatively on potential selections parents-to-be are sharing with you for their little sweet potato. Or, at least, to do so to their face. I suppose, though, that if people feel free to voice their opinions on how much weight a pregnant woman should gain, how much effort she should put into breastfeeding, how much caffeine she should (or should not) consume, how that glass of champagne at New Year’s is going to scar the child for life, I should have known that people would feel free to voice their thoughts on names. I mean, I thought that choosing a name is a pretty personal choice. At the same time, I thought, you know, it’s just a name, and a name is a name is a name and whatnot. Once again, I was oh-so-wrong. People have opinions. And they have opinions they like to share with you.
The inquisition into a name started early and occurs often. In fact, I would say it is one of the first questions people ask me upon learning there is a bun in the oven. It doesn’t bother me, of course, because it’s a natural question to ask and feels, I’m sure, far less intrusive and fun than asking about uncomfortable bodily functions or disfunctions. I’ve asked the question of other gestating women a million times and I have no plans to delete the query from my arsenal. Beyond the initial and universal inquiry, though, there appear to be many different approaches to the follow-up. Let me back up here for a minute.
I have had several friends and friends of friends who have cut the name conversation off at the knee. They will say, politely of course, something like, “We aren’t comfortable discussing names with you.” Usually it’s even more tactful than that, but that’s the gist of it. Well, actually, the gist of it is, “We don’t care to hear your thoughts so we will not be engaging in this conversation.” Rationally, I completely understand this approach. What’s the point of hearing other folks’ opinions on your choices when, inevitably, someone will say something negative — usually in an intentionally benign manner — and it’ll cause you to fret and worry and question those choices all over again? In practice, though, I cannot get myself to say anything that may even resemble a sentiment like, “I’m not telling you!”
So instead of the mum’s-the-word approach, I have experimented with a different variety of response. It’s something I like to call Midwestern Nonchalance. The response varies, depending on to whom I’m speaking, but the response is all a variation on the theme of Midwestern Nonchalance. The key components of this theme are simple: (1) feigning a laid-back approach while simultaneously furrowing one’s brow and saying something like, “Picking a name is hard!;” (2) turning the question back on the inquirer with questions like, “What did you name your kids?” and “Oh! That’s so cute; how did you decide on that?;” and (3) throwing a bone out there by tossing a few potential names into the conversation and letting the reactions fall where they may. This last component is, admittedly, the most dangerous. In my opinion, it is to be reserved only for the very pushy, slightly inappropriate (usually) coworker. For example, just this morning, AO and I encountered an ordinarily very polite, kind and funny coworker in the office kitchen who congratulated us on our baby-to-be. She quickly moved to the topic of names, glossing over the news baby is a girl sweet potato. After I pulled out all the stops on components one and two, she hit me with, “Well, just tell me some of the names on your list.” Oh boy. She was good. So, I tossed out three. The first two were met, seemingly, with approval while the third was met with silence. Penelope seems to do that to some people. Even when we tell them we’d call her ‘Penny.’ Actually, now that I think about it, the ‘Penny’ part doesn’t seem to change any of the facial expressions I’ve seen after I dared to utter the name ‘Penelope.’ Anyway, I thought, “That’ll teach her to ask us for our list!.” Though I quickly realized it probably wouldn’t. As I then hurried back to my desk, I pictured the office gossip engine circulating with the news that we were going to name our child — God forbid! — Penelope. Oy.
I try a more robust version of Midwestern Nonchalance with my family and close friends, as well. I’ve had varying degrees of success. When I told my dad we liked the name Mabel, which happens to be his mother’s name, he told me he thought it was a “truly ugly name.” No sugarcoating that one, I guess. We have told several family members that we like the name — and I hope, Dear Reader, that you’re sitting down for this one — Gertrude. We like Gertie & Trudy as nicknames and think Gertrude is retro-cute. Like, really cute. Our affection for Gertrude, though, apparently does not rub off on others as we have heard varied, but consistent responses all ending with a resounding, “You cannot name her Gertrude.”* Well, actually, as it turns out, we can.
I tell myself (and AO) that maybe it’s good to know these reactions in advance. I know people argue that not revealing your choices will mean that your friends and family *have* to like the name you have chosen once the sweet potato has arrived and her name is in ink on the birth certificate but, of course, that’s not true. People will continue to have their opinions, whether they voice them to you or not. And I’m not really convinced that people who think it’s ok to tell you a name is forbidden and ugly before you have officially opted for it will be people that are tactful enough to keep their opinions to themselves when the little tyke is on the other side of the womb. In any event, while family and friends’ dislike of names I like is not dispositive for me when it comes to our choice, it’s a factor that I (pretend) I appreciate knowing.
It’s interesting to me that people have such negative reactions, but seem to have so few positive ones. I know, I know – you’re thinking, “Well, you’ve given them Penelope and Gertrude. What’s to be positive about?” I feel, though, that I’ve thrown out quite a few names and that among them, someone would have been bound to really like something — Emma, Molly, Hannah, Annie, Sadie, Charlotte, Abigail, Beatrice, Adelaide, Matilda. What I have learned, albeit very slowly, is that while there have been several names that have made people visibly shudder, there has not been one name that I have uttered that has made anyone squeal with glee. Well, that’s not entirely true. My bestie, the GAOOG, has repeatedly cooed at any of the names I have thrown her way. Yes, even Penelope & Gertrude. And my other bestie, the doctor, has been the epitome of laissez-faire awesomeness. While she hasn’t cooed, she has remained her usual, even-keeled, it’s-all-good, whatever-you-like self. Thank goodness for besties.
All of that said, though, I should say that I’m really not overly worried about it. I think the name is an awfully big deal, but I have confidence that we will pick something that is just right for us and, more importantly, just right for Lady Sweet Potato. I hope that she likes the name we pick for her and, if she doesn’t, I hope she forgives us for our choice and knows we picked it after much thought, with oodles of love and with tons of advice from the peanut gallery. In the end, though, it’s really just a name. Right?
*One coworker was asking me about our name ideas and, when I turned the conversation back to the names of his four kids (see component number two in Midwestern Nonchalance), he told me that he and his wife usually agree on things, but when it came time to name their kids, they did not see eye-to-eye. He said, “She liked late 19th century names like Agnes. Agnes! Can you believe it? I said, ‘Honey, Agnes? We might as well name her Gertrude!'” And, scene.