I read a question posted on social media this morning that requested its audience to share how attached they are to their names. The author’s scale of attached-ness ranged from “my name is perfect, I like it lots” to “if you called me by a completely different name, I’d go by it”. I laughed out loud. I can’t be sure if it’s intentional, but the non-affirmative end of the scale is not precisely negative.
Naming a child has never been a straightforward task. What should be a joy for parents can easily morph into negotiations that would rival those of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are those who feel a baby should be named after them. Namesakes are lovely tributes, but only if they’re voluntary. Then there are the unique names and the alternative spellings of common names; both of which are often met with blank stares in person and eye rolls in private.
Parents should name their kids whatever that little wrinkled face in the hospital blanket evokes. I mean, someone had to use Susan and Robert first. And nobody blinks when they talk about Prince, except during the time he changed his name to that symbol. Admittedly, that was awkward.
A name is a starting point. It’s literally one’s introduction to the world. Some would use that as an argument for giving an expected name: the child will have a hard time in school; no one can pronounce it; no one can spell it; yadda, yadda, yadda. While it comes from a place of love, this approach to naming is limiting. A name is also an invitation. It can spark conversation, build confidence, and grow an identity. At least that’s what I think of when I look at my signature.
From that last line, you may think that I bear a unique moniker. Alas, no. I have a very common first and middle name. My mother loves them and me, so I would not want to be called anything else. However, when I was born, the nurse who attended my birth wanted my mother to call me Nancy. Barely out from under the effects of the happy gas, and the name negotiations had begun.
According to the nurse, I had all the hallmarks of a Nancy. My mother resisted her arguments because she had a niece who was already Nancy and wanted us each to have our own identity. Considering what I am called, the irony of her decision is not lost on either of us today.
The greater irony is that, when I meet people for the first time, they think my name is Nancy. In grad school, I had a friend in my apartment building, Tom, who always called me Nancy. I corrected him the first few times. By the fourth time, I let it slide. Why fight the natural order of things? I let it slide for 5 years.
When someone else who knew my given name was with me when I’d meet him, they’d look at me funny when I’d reply to “Hey, Nancy!” or “Sup, Nance?”. But I didn’t mind. My friends thought I was nuts and doing Tom a disservice, making him look foolish. I explained to them his painful embarrassment when I would correct him and his profuse apologies, only to call me Nancy the next time I saw him. The way I interpreted it was that I was saved in his mind as his friend Nancy. Frankly, I saw nothing wrong with that.
I’ve taken a lot of math classes and dabbled in physics, so it got me thinking that there might be an alternate universe in which my mother heeded her nurse’s advice. In that universe, I also know Tom. This minor blip in which Tom sees me as Nancy is where the two collide.
I wonder what our pollster was really thinking about when they asked how attached we are to our name. Is the name truly that important, or is it the being who bears it? I attest to the latter. I’d rather have a world full of people whose names are tricky to spell or pronounce and whose hearts are full of adventure and kindness to a conveyor belt of recognizable syllables attached to human beings like labels on soup cans.
The one thing I am certain of, should I bump into Tom all these years later, is that he’d recognize me. He was that kind of guy, good with faces. He’d take one look at me and ask, “Nancy, is that you?” And I’d smile, happy to see him, and reply, “Who else would it be, Tom?”