You are here

The Perfect Name

The most exciting thing about discovering that I was going to have my first child was that, finally, I would get to name a real live baby. I'd always been fascinated with names; as a kid, I devised a game in which I'd invent huge families for the sole purpose of giving everyone exotic ones. By the time I was 11, I chose cool-yet-serviceable names for my future brood: Sandy, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, and Tina.

So why, after years of anticipation, after months of searching for the perfect name, did I bring my tiny daughter home nameless? Why, if the hospital hadn't finally called and forced my husband and me to make a choice, might we still be calling her—long out of diapers and beyond rice cereal—"the baby"?

Because no matter how hard you work at it or how much you know, choosing the perfect name can be one of the most difficult decisions parents have to make.

As soon as I left the obstetrician's office after my first prenatal appointment, I headed to the bookstore and bought every baby-naming book on the shelves. Throughout my pregnancy, I turned every conversation to the topic. Which names were too trendy, too plain? How unusual was too unusual?

By some miracle, my husband and I—who usually disagree about everything from housework to movies—managed early on to agree on what to call a boy. We both liked Henry, although for different reasons. My husband wanted to honor Henry Aaron, one of his all-time favorite baseball players. I thought it was a solid, traditional boy's name that hadn't been used to death in recent years.

But choosing one for a girl was a lot harder.

Sophie was a contender until my husband confessed that he'd once had a torrid relationship with a woman named Sophie. Next!

I loved Flora, but to him it sounded like a woman who sold violets in an alley in Victorian London. He campaigned for Molly, but that sounded too mild for the child who was turning cartwheels inside my body.

My mother liked any version of Margaret—which just happened to be her name. She seemed to call every day with a new, none-too-subtle suggestion: Margarita, Maggie, Margo.

Night after night, I'd plow through my stack of books in search of the kind of girl's names I'd decided I wanted: strong ones that weren't too feminine-sounding and that reflected my Irish background. But my search proved as arduous, and hit-or-miss, as going through the dictionary looking for two-syllable nouns with Latin roots.

The real problem, I discovered, was that selecting a name—settling on one final choice for an actual human being—involved all kinds of thorny issues of self-image, family loyalty, and ethnic identity. I'd never liked my feminine, frilly name, and I wanted to give my daughter a name that was more energetic and straightforward, even androgynous. But my husband, in love with the notion of being Big Daddy to a sweet little girl, liked more feminine names.

Because his name is Dick, he was only too aware of the perils of giving a child a name with high tease potential, and so he was attracted to plain, popular choices. But I preferred those that stood further apart from the crowd. Many discussions and middle-of-the-night deliberations ensued.

When the baby was finally born (three weeks late, though the longer deadline was no help) and the doctor announced, "It's a girl!" my first words were, "Are you sure?" Meaning, Are you sure I'm going to have to name this poor child?

We were still debating a week after we brought our baby home when the hospital called and insisted that we make a final decision: Rory Elizabeth Margaret. Rory was an Irish name I'd found in the boy's section of one of my name dictionaries, Elizabeth was my mother-in-law's name, and we satisfied my mother's wishes (though not completely) by using Margaret as a second middle name.

By the time we were expecting our second baby, I not only had real-life baby-naming experience, I'd also cowritten a book on the subject, inspired partly by my struggle to find the best name for Rory.

I knew early on that I was having a boy. I also knew what I wanted to name him. No, not Henry but Joseph, after my father—and my grandfather, my husband's grandfather, and his great-grandfather. I was so sure of Joseph that I didn't even open up the issue for discussion. I simply told Dick: "The baby's name is going to be Joseph, period." Dick sputtered (justifiably, I might add) about being left out of the decision, but I placated him by promising he could give little Joseph any middle name he wanted, no questions asked.

That turned out to be Leopold.

I had many questions, but a deal is a deal.

Click ahead for tips on compromising for a name