Novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose wonderful new book Bird in Hand comes out this week, writes about how even someone who names fictional people for a living can make mistakes when naming real live babies. Like when she named her three sons: Eli, his brother William, and his other brother William.
You’d think that someone who spends her days creating and naming characters might have gotten the hang of it by the time she had to name some actual humans. That’s what I thought, at least. In fact, I was rather smug about it. A novelist spends a lot of time, over the course of writing 300 pages, with the characters she names, so you learn to choose carefully.
Names can instantly reveal a person‘s class, age, social standing, and even race. They have positive and negative connotations. And the wrong name can be disastrous. For example, a friend of mine named Brandy is an award-winning journalist who has had to battle people’s preconceptions all her life about her name. I would never do that to a character!
So why did I do it to my kids?
(I‘m charitably saying “I,” but for the record my husband was an equal and willing partner in this.)
We named our firstborn William Hayden Baker Kline (yes, four names – bear with me), after my father, William Baker, and a whole lot of Hadens — we added the “y” — in my husband’s family tree. We signed the birth certificate, sent out printed announcements, and received everything from picture frames to baby rattles to blankets with “William Hayden” and his birthdate inscribed.
But over the next few weeks, we began to second-guess. This child was round and jolly, with curly red hair: a baby leprechaun. The princely name of William just didn’t fit. But Hayden – yes! He was definitely a Hayden, a hobbity child of the heather-grown hills. It was the perfect name for him, and, we thought, relatively undiscovered.
Wrong. At a playground in New York City, where we lived, a lovely woman invited me to join her baby group – and when I arrived, there were not one but two chubby baby Haydens, and one even had red hair.
When I got pregnant with our second child, and we learned we were having another son, the name “William“ came up again. After all, we clearly liked it, having chosen it once. Hayden wasn’t using it. Why not? We didn’t quite anticipate the stir this would cause among our friends and family, who thought the whole thing showed an appalling lack of imagination. Two Williams? Really?
Well, we certainly didn’t received anymore monogrammed rattles. And to this day, people tease us about it. Every now and then, an official form reminds us of our folly — their birth certificates, of course, and even passports both say William. We could jump through hoops to change it, and one day we probably will.
Which brings me to our third child. Another boy. Though my husband and I were raised 2,000 miles apart, in New England and the Midwest, it turned out that we both had ancestors from the 18th century who were farmers in the same Virginia county named Elias. When we stumbled on this (courtesy of avid geneology-buff cousins on both sides), we were thrilled. What a happy coincidence! Elias he would be.
We took baby Eli and our two Williams to our 15th Yale reunion, where we were startled to encounter dismay and scorn. What! Two Yalies name their son Eli — isn’t that cruel? Do you realize the kind of pressure you’re putting on your kid?
(This all reminds me of my English friend Henrietta Pate‘s saga. She’d been teased about her name as a child and was determined to give her child a “normal” name. She chose a popular English name, Oliver. When the nurse bustled in and read the chart, she exclaimed, “How funny! You’ve named your child O Liver Paté!”)
As it turns out, my sons all like their names just fine. Hayden is the only Hayden in his suburban high school, which he thinks is great. William — now a teenaged “Will“ — appreciates the strong simplicity of his name, and even the story of how he came to have it. And except for a brief moment in first grade when some girl tried to bully him with an “Eli - he lies” taunt, our third child has been content with his as well. (Like his brother Will, he dropped the second part of his name and became plain Eli – “because Elias sounds weird.“) At 9, he isn’t feeling any pressure about colleges, and frankly I don’t think it’ll ever be a factor. Anyway, he’s already announced he’s going to Princeton, a short distance from home.
Bird in Hand is Christina Baker Kline’s fourth novel. Her blog, which chronicles the process of writing her next book, is called A Writing Year. She is also the editor of two books about motherhood: Child of Mine: Original Essays on Becoming A Mother and Room to Grow.