Family Names: Why They’re Most Important for Parentless Parents

Family names are important to nearly three-quarters of expectant parents, according to a nameberry poll , but for parents whose own mother and father have passed away, choosing a name that honors them and keeps their memory alive may take on a special significance.

That’s one important message of Allison Gilbert‘s new book Parentless Parents.

When Gilbert‘s second child and only daughter was born after she’d lost both her parents, choosing a name that echoed theirs helped soothe her loneliness.

“I remember musing over her name and gazing at her tiny hand wrapped gently around my index finger. Lexi, with an “L,” because my mom’s name was Lynn. Lexi, with the middle name Syd, because my dad’s name was Sidney,” Gilbert writes. “And then, just like that, my cheery thoughts evaporated. Yes, I had a daughter. But I didn’t have a mother. Or for that matter, a father. I let the nurse take Lexi back to the nursery until she needed to be fed again. I turned on my side, pulled the hospital sheet up to my neck, and closed my eyes.”

For one of the parentless parents Gilbert profiles in her book, her strong feelings about choosing a name that honored her mother and father caused enormous problems in her marriage.

“Naming our daughter was a horrible process,” Amy, a former journalist, told Gilbert in an email. “I wanted her middle name be my maiden name. My husband was furious, saying that I was ‘stealing’ his chance to name his child. He demanded that we have two middle names so that he could choose a name too. Never mind that she already had his last name, and genes, and that his parents would play a huge role in her life. I felt two middle names detracted from the honor to my parents.”

For Amy, as for many parentless parents, her husband could not relate to the depth of her feelings about the issue – and she could not relate to the fact that he could not relate. “How could he not get that giving her this middle name was an important way to honor my family?! Eventually, I guilted him into legally dropping the middle name he wanted. The name is still a sore spot in our marriage. I am STILL stunned a year and a half later by his lack of understanding.”

My third child was born after both my parents had died. I’d already used my dad’s name, Joseph, as my older son’s first name, and had to cede total control of Joe‘s middle name to my husband in exchange (he picked, gulp, Leopold). And I’d used my mother’s first name, Margaret, as one of my daughter’s middle names, though I wish I’d fought harder with my husband to put it in second rather than third place

So even though I wish my parents had been alive to meet their third grandchild, I didn’t feel a need to remember them with his first name. But I did insist that his middle name be my maiden name Redmond, which I also use in the middle.

And Owen, who’s now 17, says having that name makes him feel more like a member of the Redmond family – a family that no longer exists, except for me and the marker of the name.

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27 Responses to “Family Names: Why They’re Most Important for Parentless Parents”

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Nyx Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 2:01 am

I was named after my father’s mother, a woman who was already passed well before I was ever around. I’ve always treasured the connection to her, my dad, and the rest of my paternal family through my name. It’s always been a source of great pride and I’ve felt honored to have this name given to me. I am very glad that my dad was able to pass along his mother’s name and that my mother didn’t argue the fact. The connection the name helped create to the grandmother I never knew is one that I still treasure to this day.

If there are any parents out there who are debating on using a family name, let me just say from the standpoint of an individual who was blessed with one, please don’t hesitate to do so. It is truly a wonderful connection and has given my name so much more meaning to me.

Other Carolyn Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 2:40 am

Although family names are occasionally used in my family there has never really been a strong tradition of it, and consequently I’ve always been a little put off by people who are so exuberant about it (by which I mean people who insist that it is a wonderful thing everyone absolutely must do, bothersome because the only names I like at all off my family tree are Charlotte and Isobel…). This post is officially an exception to that sentiment. Though I don’t think I would use my parents names for children (it would seem too strange to me), I can certainly understand how it would bring comfort and meaning to some.

Lola Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 8:17 am

As someone who’s lost both parents more than a decade ago, this post rings so true!
Now, my Mother told me NOT to use her name for a kid as she was dying, so with this last one I might use Frances in the middle. My Pop was Wayne and he hated his name with the passion of a thousand burning suns. I have it on the list for my boys to use when they have kids. I can’t bring myself to use Wayne OR Leslie (His middle, Grandpop’s first, also my Great Aunt, sister to Grandma and that sister’s husband!)
Also on the “Use for Grandkids” list!
But yeah, Family names mean more to me now that they’re gone.

Brooke Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Do you think it is okay to use a family name of someone you have never met but feel a strong admiration and connection with?
Wynters is the fn of a great great aunt who reminds me of myself. She has her name on an organ at our church and every Sunday I look at her name and think about how she use to be. I love that. But I have never actually met her. The stories I’ve heard about her are awesome. She had no husband or children but devoted her life to the music and to the church so I feel strongly about using Wynters’ name some how if I ever have another daughter.

Abby Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 9:59 am

Brooke, I love that idea! I know a couple who decided to use family names, but only those that were a few generations removed. They had a pretty detailed family tree, thanks to the diligent efforts of another family member. It worked for them – they were maintaining a connection to their roots, but not clearly favoring one grandparent over another.

If we ever had a second son, choosing his name would be impossible. I’d love to honor my dear dad, who died when I was 14. But my brother is a junior, and intends to pass on their shared name … so, I feel like I don’t have the option of using it.

I don’t have a family name – my mother does, and hated it. Naturally, I have spent my entire life WISHING I had a family name. My children have family names … we’ll have to see if the cycle repeats.

KAshley Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 10:04 am

My husband and I are blessed to still have all of our parents around. Though, still I think that one day it won’t be that way and I want so badly to honor my parents through names. Although, I may use my grandparents as a way to do that I have such a hard time getting my husband to understand the desire to use my fathers name as a middle name. He thinks it is completely ridiculous that we should ever use my fathers name (as a middle name), before we use his fathers for a boy. I was just curious if anyone else had that issue. (Does it not count for the husband that ALL kids and wife will have his last name?) I feel like the women should be granted a little more leeway based on that fact…

lanada Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 11:03 am

What a timely post! My mom just texted me the other day to suggest we name our daughter (due soon!) Grace. When I asked why, she reminded me that it’s my dad’s mother’s middle name and her mother’s first name. She then told me that I should have been named Grace instead of Jennifer. Name regret nearly 28 years later!

My mom is very close to her mother-in-law, and I think Grandma’s recent open heart surgery is making her worry about the day when she will eventually pass. I think it would help her come to terms with that future inevitability if Grandma had a namesake. And since Grandma is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known, it would be an honor to remember her–even before she’s gone–in that way. Grace wasn’t on our list before, but it sure is now.

Johanna Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 11:34 am

This is exactly spot on. My parents both died when my brother and I were six.(we also almost died) so it has been really important for me and my brother to incorporate their names or traditions into our children’s names.
Max was named after my fathers mn Maxwell.
Annabeth has the Anna first name like all females on my mothers side and an ‘m’ middle name as well.
They also have two mns to honory fathers side.
My brother has used Henry and Arthur for his two sons for my fathers names and Jane for his daughter after my mom.
It just gives my children a lasting bond to my patents whom they will never meet.

purpleprose78 Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 11:41 am

My brother is named after both of my grandfathers. My mom lost her dad when she was 19 and she wanted to name my brother Robert Daniel. Robert for my dad and Daniel for hers. My dad who lost his dad at the age of 12 didn’t like the idea of having a child named after himself told her that if she was going to name my brother after her father, he should have his father’s name as a middle name. Thus my brother is Daniel Hinson. My grandfather went by his middle name Hinson thankfully or my brother would have been named Daniel Norman which I don’t think sounds as nice as Daniel Hinson.

Jenny Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

We lost my father a few years ago and I would love to use his name somehow for a son, but I can’t figure out a form of ‘Jeffrey’ that I like. And just using ‘Jeffrey’ would be weird. It would almost hurt.

namelover12 Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 4:33 pm

All of my sblings and I are named after relatives. I am Emily Mae, Emily for my dads grand mother Amalia (the german form of emily) and MAe for my moms grandmother Bessie Mae. My brother is Tucker Walter, Tucker being my moms maiden name and Walter being a tradition on my dads side. next was Sutton Michael, Michael is My dad. then Avery Elizabeth , Elizabeth is my grandmother. lastly is Nathaniel Elo, Elo being my great grandfather. I plan on using family names form my children.

babynamesrule Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Great post and very interesting stories and perspectives in reply. I wasn’t named after anyone, nor was my sister, but Rose is a family middle name and, although it’s overused as a middle name, I intend to use it one day. Maybe for the child I like the best 😛

Regi Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 9:10 pm

My middle name – Regina – was my grandmothers name, my mother’s mother. I’ve always LOVED that even though she died 2 years before I was born I had a special connection with her. Sounds silly as it’s just a name but it’s meant a lot to both my mom and I that I was named after her. She has even confided that she wished that’s what she named me instead of a name that she “just heard on a TV game show and like” – Cheyenne. I’ve thought about changing my name to Regina and going by Regi or Gina (as a way to honor my deceased aunt, another woman I never got to meet), but as my friends and family have told me (and I can 100% agree with this) I am a Cheyenne, through and through.

koryn78 Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Am I the only one shocked by the story of Amy’s naming difficulty with her husband? I know that naming can become a tense and stressful experience as you struggle to agree on names, but the idea that her husband was “furious, saying that [she] was ‘stealing’ his chance to name his child” seems completely insensitive, and truthfully, unimaginable to me.

andrea Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 10:47 pm

We named our daughter Adaira (a name we both liked) and her middle name is my husbands last name and her last name is my last name. When we got married I didn’t change my name, and my husband didn’t want a hyphenated or double last name. My family name has a long history in the region in which we live and my husbands family name is very common. It flows so nicely (3-1-2 syllables) and connects her to both our families in such a nice way. I love that he was so willing to explore names outside of the boundaries of “normal” and we both love her first name…she is part of both of us and unique on her own.

Leslie Owen Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

In keeping with Jewish tradition, my children were named after recently-passed relatives. My daughter (the elder) was named after both my great-grandmothers, whom I knew. Instead of Katarine Luise she became Caitlin Louisa. The baby I lost was Rachel Helen after double cousin Rachels who were family favourites and my father’s mother Helen. My son is Thomas, a family name and named after my mother’s father. My sisters used family surnames — Brewster and Hammett — as well as family names — George, Elaine, Kathleen, and Susannah. Both my younger sister and I have honored our father by keeping our family name Owen in our children’s surnames. My children are Owen-Shore and hers are Owen-Smith. I doubt however that there will be a Wadsworth in the family again, which was my father’s and his father’s name all the way back to Longfellow.

Laura Says:

March 24th, 2011 at 11:56 pm

My mother passed away when I was eight, and I definitely want to use her name somehow. Her name was Eileen Therese. Ever since I got into names I’ve been thinking I’d use Therese as my first daughter’s middle name, as it was my late little sister’s middle name as well and so honors both of them, but I might explore other options.

My dad is still around but I’d still like to honor him in a child’s name as he became very important and very close to me after my mom passed. I’ll probably end up using his middle name, Francis.

Nyx Says:

March 25th, 2011 at 1:38 am

I would also like to add that my oldest son’s first name is after his “Uncle Matt” (really my hubby’s best friend since childhood) and that his middle name is the same as his father’s first name. He’s only 6, but he’s already expressed a like at having that connection in his name. He’s very very fond of his name and fiercely proud of it. He refuses to answer to anything but Matthew and he’s told me that he can’t think of a better name. As a mom – I love knowing that we got it right 🙂

Phia Says:

March 25th, 2011 at 11:36 pm

@Koryn… no, that part grated with me too. If my husband performed like that, I would probably leave him. Not just for throwing a tantrum, but for showing such a lack of empathy and understanding. It would be a deal-breaker, for sure. Compassion and kindness shouldn’t be things you have to compromise on, especially when it comes to something as painful as losing parents.

Fia Says:

March 27th, 2011 at 4:04 pm

My husband’s family has the opposite problem. Every single person in his family is named after someone else in his same immediate family.

He and his brother both have their dad’s name. His other brother has the same name of his maternal uncle AND grandfather (and two cousins). His sister and mother both share a name, with his sister’s middle name being the feminine version of his own, which was the same as an uncle.

…I guess it only gets worse when two separate cousins decide to have 5+ children each and name each and every one with names starting with J.

JLyn Says:

March 27th, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Thanks for the blog. This is so true for my family. My husband insisted that we name our two children after his mother and sisters who were no longer living. It meant so much to him that I couldn’t say no.

Emmeline Says:

April 21st, 2011 at 8:00 am

I just have to post because I confess that if anything, I find myself slightly appalled at Amy for the way she handled things, and apparently no one else is…
Now, I plan to name my future daughter after my grandmother who died shortly after I was born. (First or middle.) So I do understand how precious and important bestowing family a name can be. But yet, Amy honored her mother and father through a middle name, and her husband asked if their child could have a *second middle name* for something he wanted. I’m sorry but I just don’t understand her rage against that request and her need shut him down on that. As if this second middle name would honor her parents less. And then to think that they legally went with two middle names until she guilted him into dropping it? OUCH

Emmeline Says:

April 21st, 2011 at 8:20 am

I guess I’d just like to think that at least in a marriage, when two people make a child, the two people get to have a say in who the child is. Starting with it’s name. Even if one partner brings a name to the table that they do not want to compromise on because they want to honor someone, don’t forget that the other party deserves to have their input taken seriously too. If that ends up equaling two middle names… then if it’s important, so be it.
Just my two cents.

NotNic Says:

April 27th, 2011 at 12:08 pm

My husband claims that it is family tradition for the first son’s middle name to be that of the father. On closer inspection this is something my FIL actually made up! We might use husband’s middle name instead if he wants to continue this though.(Husband is third son)

My Dad’s family, name all the first sons the same thing. It’s a name my Dad hates (and has never gone by) and I’ve been encouraged NOT to do the same if we have boys.

My middle name is that of a Great Aunt’s, and I would quite like to pick another Great Aunt’s name if I have a girl.

Angela Says:

May 4th, 2011 at 4:32 am

In my family the middle name of Margaret is past down to the first girl born of the daughter and this was not because of a dead parent or grandparent. Named after Margaret McDougall. I am not the first daughter.

My brother has the same middle name as my dad and both are still alive. The name was Ross and likewise my dad was named after his father’s brother who was alive, name was Leslie and another one my aunty was named after her grandmother who was still alive. Grandmother Helene, granddaughter Helen.

ginafer Says:

June 8th, 2011 at 6:10 pm

My husband has been blessed! We have 5 boys all bearing his name. His father was an only child and my husbands sister died young leaving my husband as the only heir to his family name. Early on we decided that middle names would be used to honor someone important to us. Our first son has my FILs first name as his middle. Our second has my father’s first name as his middle. My father had passed away 6 months before my wedding. Our third son has the middle name of a dear friend as does our fourth son. Our fifth son has the middle name of a favorite uncle on my husbands side. But they all have their own unique first name which was something we agreed on. We had thought of using my maiden name as a first name but then I decided against it. My older brother has a son and so the name will carry on, at least for one more generation. But we are expecting again. And this baby should it be a boy already has a middle name, no first name yet! But it share the same middle name as my husband. I think my hubby doesn’t necessarily want to use it but he is very important to me and I’d love to name my son after his father. Oddly though, should this baby be a girl my hubby really wants to name her Noraa, which is his name in reverse. He loves the idea of that as do I. She may then get my middle name, which I share with my MIL. Or I may combine my MIL middle name and my mother’s middle name and give her that middle name.

ScarlettRobin Says:

November 27th, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Yeap, this blog post rings so true. I named my daughter Ruth, after my mom who had passed away; I was her only child so there was no one left to pass on the name. I never planned on having children, mostly because the idea brought up so many emotions of missing my mother even after a decade since her passing. Naming my daughter after my mother gave me a great sense of comfort and closure. For me it’s a way to help keep the memory and name alive, to impart a sense of continuity down threw the generations and honor my heritage. One day when my daughter is old enough, I’ll be able to tell her just how much love and thought went into giving her her name and that she was named after the greatest woman I ever knew, my mom.

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