When I was naming each of my three children, I was overwhelmed (my family would say obsessed) with the near impossible task of encoding more of life into one word than seemed possible. My third child, a girl, proved an unprecedented challenge. My husband, mystified, would tell me to choose a name I just liked.
But my process was different, I insisted. There had to be an origami of symbolism! “You’re like Borges,” one friend told me, confronted with an ornate justification for the name May. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment. Assorted friends and family looked questioningly at similar extrapolations on favorites like Roxana, Inka, Frieda, Silvia, Maren, Louisa, and Judith (nickname Jude, what’s not to like?). Just keep thinking, my mother advised. And think I did, though with increasing guilty anxiety. Why was it so hard?
My first baby’s name, Beatrice, had struck me as divine inspiration, well before I’d analyzed trends and become conscious of ‘vintage names’ as a category. Beatrice came to me purely, all Dante’s muse and with the heartwarming bonus of the sweet nickname Bee, which to my delight, was the Hebrew meaning of my own name, Debra. My second child, a boy, was also easily named: Edward, this time, after my great uncle Eddie, a pilot who had worked with Amelia Earhart. I’d always been most comfortable with my feet planted firmly on the ground, so the association in my mind with flight seemed aspirational and perfect.
Naming is a creative process, and you’re creative, I told myself, with less and less certainty, as my third pregnancy wore on. I’d had my first daughter when I was rather young, moving out of our studio apartment just weeks before her arrival. Those had been more instinctual times. Though not a child myself, I was still tapped into something mystical from childhood, and I’d ambled through the local cemetery in a maternity sundress, perusing names on the headstones, dreaming.
Four years later, I was in a different place. I felt disconnected from my own childhood, and my younger self’s notion of creative authority. I was juggling work and diapers, fretting about school systems and college funds. My friends had started to have kids themselves, and many names were spoken for, had been discussed, categorized. Nameberry was wonderful in helping to draw up a list of names in a similar vein as those of my first two kids’, but the results felt contrived. How could I simply select her name from a list of names similar in style and popularity? The whole thing had become a panicky exercise in statistics.
It’s funny though, how the sudden and improbable appearance of new life can stop such agonizing in its tracks. When I held my yet unnamed daughter, she didn’t lie still and let me examine her tiny perfection as my other two had. I’d imagined trying different names on her like hats, but all life and possibility, she wiggled furiously, her expression changing every second. Catherine made its way to my addled brain because I thought of purity, and pure, after all, is the Greek meaning! And there it stayed, though less for me to try on than for her to inhabit. I had the impression it had always been there, like music, like the color of my childhood bedroom. And soon, the associations were everywhere: the gutsy character in my favorite book from childhood, the name I used to love to write on notebooks in script without knowing why—a word with as much grace and as impossible to pin down as she is.
Catherine is now two, and recently someone remarked, “good name, mama!” after she introduced herself. Before I could take credit for my feat of good taste, Catherine replied, confused, “But Catherine is MY name!” Nothing, of course, could be more true. Naming might bring out the creative control freak in some of us, but our control over what we love the most has always been superficial at best, and we only create to let go.
Did you find it easier to name your first or later child/ren?
Note: Catherine is the darling little girl pictured.