By Antonia Malchik
I was sitting at the lunch table in fifth grade when I decided that if I ever had a daughter I’d name her something normal.
I grew up mainly in two different towns in Montana. In the first, all my friends had names I coveted: Katie, Stacy, Tiffany, Angie. Their names were pretty, and, importantly for an early 1980s childhood, normal. My name was not. I was named “Antonia” for Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, “Louise” after my maternal grandmother, and “Evgenia” after my father’s cousin who still lived in the Soviet Union where my father had grown up. All of which got shortened to the decidedly unmusical and definitely not normal “Nia.”
By the time I finally had kids of my own I’d mellowed on the “normal” bit but realized instead what I wanted was for them to have names that connected to their heritage, names that had meaning for our family beyond my own personal preferences.
As I became an adult I learned to appreciate what I couldn’t as a child, that names can be like ancestral histories we carry with us. Now, I’ve learned to value my connection to my grandmother and my father’s family and one of my mother’s favorite books, even if I was stuck with “Nia-peeah-diarrhea” for many of my formative years. These names give me a place in far-flung communities I’m always longing to know better.
When I was in high school we moved to a very different town full of ex-hippies, where I don’t think I met a single Tiffany or Stacy. Most of my friends had names I’d never heard before and likely never will again—Zabyn, one of my favorite people, or Koan, my then-boyfriend. It later seemed to me that to give a child a name intentionally stripped of ancestry was to weigh them down with a different class of expectations. We expect you to buck the system, these names said, to be more individual, more thoughtful, more counter-culture even than you might wish.
By the time I had my first child eight years ago this trend had become convention and then passé. How many children do I know now who are named after spices or yoga positions? Most of my friends these days name their children after plants or food or Eastern philosophical concepts, thinking that doing so will give their children a blank slate of personality to fill instead of burdening them with the past.
I understand the temptation.
But the thought of giving my children names without history felt empty. What was the point of naming my daughter, say, “Alice,” simply because my husband liked it? “Alice” is lovely but had no meaning for us. Why not connect her to our family histories, with all their pride and struggle and stories of people gone before? Humans are so often rootless these days, following jobs and loves and desires without always becoming grounded in a culture or community. Why not carry at least one thing from our pasts, the stories that created us?
My daughter is named for my father, Aleksandra for Aleksandr, spelled to reflect the Russian pronunciation that is intrinsic to who he is. Like my own name, it pops up throughout history and literature, connected to characters good and bad, and with a rich enough history that she can create her own meaning out of it more easily than if I’d named her after my favorite tree. My son, John, carries the English version of my husband’s Scottish name, reflecting in a single note his English heritage and my English in-laws’ love of Scotland.
Sometimes it seems like children with non-traditional names are burdened more heavily with their parents’ personalities and hopes than third-generation Harvard-bound Exeter alumni. Our kids will always feel the breath of our expectation, no matter how hard we try not to burden them. I don’t want mine to feel a demand at the outset that they push against societal norms, that they be as completely individual and unique as possible. They already are unique. Giving them a name that has history and roots and meaning connects them to a community that they may never need or be aware of, but that will always be there to brace them when they feel weak and to hold them up when they feel downtrodden.
And they can own and come into their names more easily with traditional rather than newly minted monikers. Instead of their parents creating their names—and therefore meanings—for them, they can take these centuries-old names and turn them into anything they like. There is almost no identity my son can’t form within the name John. If I’d named him Acer, to choose a name at random, he’d be trapped within its uniqueness. It’s hard to be conventional with an untraditional name, assuming one wished to, but with a traditional one you can do almost anything you want.
The truth is, I’m privileged to have names like John and Aleksandra, and middle names like Elizabeth and Henry, behind my children, privileged to have ancestry that gives them a level of freedom from birth, one many don’t enjoy, to decide who they want to be as they grow up and unlink themselves from their parents. And perhaps my expectation that they take that privilege and use it to make the world a better place is enough pressure, without an expectation that they be decisively counter-culture from the get-go.
I don’t believe in throwing off the past. Transmuting it, deepening it, shifting our understanding of it, yes. Walking away from it completely, no. We can no more shuck our ancestry than we can the DNA we were born with, and that includes the names that have come before ours.
This compelling essay was originally published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, which we very much appreciate.