Sometimes I daydream about having triplets. Well, without the sleepless nights or the multiple stomach bugs or the tuition bills. Actually, to be honest, I only daydream about naming them: three first names at once, what luxury! If I were still 12 years old, I’d write them in my NoteTote—but as an adult, I’ve transferred my “name nerd” tendencies from a school notebook to an advice column where parents ask my opinion on what to name their children. Yet my fantasy triplets, currently Ezekiel, Thalia and Octavius, still call to me.
Of course, part of the appeal of these hypothetical triplets (maybe Persephone, Bruno and Harriet?) is that naming a kid in real life is incredibly stressful. The process is fraught with expectations and pressure to choose a name with “meaning.” And then there’s the ever-lurking possibility you’ll make the wrong choice, which could have lifelong ramifications. We can read our children hundreds of books, feed them heaps of nutrient-rich foods and enrol them in dozens of activities, but we can only choose one name. The stakes are high: The selected name announces our style, attitude and parenting philosophy—and it’s communicated via a person who cannot yet burp independently. A child’s name is an indelible part of his or her identity, which means the difference between Byron and Tyrone is way bigger than just a couple of letters.
It’s kind of a Catch-22, right? We’re a generation of parents super-focused on letting our children be individuals, but choosing your kid’s name is one of the first parenting decisions you make simply because-you-said-so. It’s the earliest gift you give them (other than, you know, life). And it’s the only thing they have that will be with them for their whole lives—long after those baby curls and dimpled knees are history. A name is definitely one of the first decisions your kid is aware you made—that you chose one name and left others behind. What if a different name could have given them something else, however improbable? If she were Augusta instead of Emma, who might she be?
Even if you swear up and down that all you want your kid to be is him- or herself, that name is a shorthand for the kind of person you want your kid to be. Names project an image, and we choose them because we want to influence our child’s image, of themselves and the one they will show to the world. Nobody wants a neutral name—we choose Wyatt for its cowboy-cool swagger or Celeste to imply a touch of European sophistication—and it’s understood that names carry associations, which is why we make snap judgments about people who share names with our most horrible exes. (Don’t lie. I know you’ve done it.)
See? Naming is stressful. But don’t panic: Done right, names remind us that we’re layered, complex people. Think I’m overreaching? All the roles we take on and later shed—kindergartner or class president or intern or director of global expansion—are placed under the umbrellas of our names, which means the definition of an Evelyn or a Duncan changes as we grow up, incorporating all our different sides. Your name allows you to be anyone you want to be, your catch-all personal Cloud.
I tend to favour names on the rare side. I love the idea that my fictional Farley, Millicent and Geneva would be able to create the impressions that go along with their names. But any name you give your kid, as long as it’s chosen because you really love it and not because you just need to put something on the birth registration form, fills the bill.
The ideal name is versatile enough to suit your kid in every situation you can imagine them in, and plenty you can’t yet—kind of like an outfit they’ll wear for the rest of their life.
If you’re satisfied the name you chose can do that, it’ll ultimately be the gift your kid appreciates most, even more than that thing you rush-shipped from Amazon for his or her birthday. Eventually. Maybe.
Duana Taha writes an advice column about names on laineygossip.com. Her book, The Name Therapist, was published this spring. A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue, titled “The pressure of a name”, pg. 69.