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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

Compromise Is Key

While putting up with Leopold seemed a fair price to pay for getting Joe, that naming experience wasn't a very happy one. It was too distant. In the end, I'd rather have spent nine months (and more) wrestling about our baby's name than going into separate corners and making individual decisions.

So when I was pregnant with our third, I was determined that my husband and I find a name we both loved, and that we do it together. We spent a lot of time talking about it, and when we discovered that the new baby would be another boy, we arrived at Edward.

We sat down the kids, then 9 and 3, and told them they were going to have a new brother. His name, we said, would be Edward, and we'd call him Ned.

They stared at us, openmouthed. Ned? How could we even think of naming a poor baby Ned? Ned was a complete nerd's name!

Okay, we told them, in an effort to give them a say in their brother's name. What about Harry?

Harry? As in "hairy"? That was worse than Ned!

Now, instead of two people trying to come up with the perfect name, there were four of us, all with highly divergent and equally strong opinions. Joe alternated between strong, masculine names -- Ron, Buck—and those that were somewhat more creative: He spent some time trying to talk us into "Rainbow Boy." Rory liked the kind of dashing, romantic names that might have suited Prince Charming: Stone, Lance, or—why not?—Prince itself.

Dick and I kept suggesting the slightly musty traditional names we'd developed a taste for—George and Tom, even dredging up Henry from the archives—only to be greeted by the children's incredulous laughter. The result: another Satran baby lying in the hospital without a name.

I'm not sure where Owen came from. It was my grandfather's middle name, but Dick had rejected it early on because he had known a feckless Owen he didn't like. We hadn't even run it by the kids. But it found its way onto a shortlist that was getting desperately shorter by the moment. Nobody loved it, but nobody hated it either. And so baby Owen was named, more by default than by unanimous enthusiasm.

After three kids and seven books on the subject, you'd think I'd have this whole baby-naming business down. I still love names, and I sometimes wonder, if I had to do it all over again, whether I'd give my children different ones.

Rory loves hers, though now I might choose something more frankly feminine for a daughter: Eliza Margaret, say, which would have pleased my mother, or even Flora, which seems more charming than offbeat these days. Joe would still be Joe, and incredibly enough, he likes his middle name, Leopold, which seems more distinctive than bizarre to me now too. And Owen? Oddly enough, the name picked more through compromise than thoughtful consideration may be the one that's turned out to be my favorite of all.

Click ahead for results on How Moms and Dads Decide

How Moms and Dads Decide

More than 17,000 parents responded to a survey by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz, coauthors of Baby Names Now: From Classic to CoolThe Very Last Word on First Names:

Where did you look for inspiration when choosing a name for your child?
22% My own imagination
22% Baby-naming books
14% Friends' and family's opinions
13% The family tree
10% Television, movies, books, music
8% The Internet
7% The Bible or another religious source
3% Celebrities' names or the names of their children
1% The dictionary or atlas

What's your feeling about the popularity of names?
37% I don't like popular names, so I chose a name that some people would consider old-fashioned or unusual
36% I like names that sound stylish but have a little twist to help them stand out
13% I like popular names and chose one that would help my child fit in with her peers
14% I wanted my child to have a name no one else would have, so I invented something unique

How important was your ethnic background in choosing a name?
77% Not important
17% Somewhat important: I tried to find a name I liked that reflected my ethnicity
6% Essential: My child had to have a name that reflected my ethnic background

How closely did you and your spouse agree on names?
41% We had some disagreements but could find a lot of names we both liked
36% We agreed completely
12% We had totally different tastes in names
11% We didn't even try to agree—one of us picked the name alone

How did you and your spouse resolve the name decision?
59% We found a name we both loved
19% We compromised on a name we both could live with
17% Wife persuaded husband to go with her choice
5% Husband persuaded wife to go with his choice

How much pressure did you feel from your family or your in-laws when choosing your child's name?
66% They really left the name decision up to my spouse and me
28% Some—they made lots of name suggestions and were outspoken when they didn't like one of our name ideas
6% A lot—they expected my spouse and me to use the name they suggested

Did you pick a name from the family tree?
65% No
16% Yes, the baby is named after another close family member
11% Yes, but I used a family name from the distant past or changed a family name to suit my taste
8% Yes, the baby is named after me or my spouse

How much time did you spend thinking and talking about names?
44% A bit, but it wasn't a preoccupation
30% It was a favorite topic of conversation
17% Not much—I always knew which name I wanted to use for my child
9% Every minute of the entire nine months—and beyond!

At what point did you make your final decision?
51% By the last few months of pregnancy I was sure of the name
29% I knew which name I was going to use from the very beginning
15% I decided on the name as soon as I saw the baby
5% I agonized until the hospital forced me to make a choice

How did you choose your child's middle name?
50% I chose a family name
35% I picked a name that sounded good with the first name
12% I chose a name I liked but not enough to use it first
3% I used my mom's surname as a middle name

What about nicknames?
39% I insist that my child be called by his full name and not a nickname
33% Everyone calls my child by a nickname whether I like it or not
28% I chose my child's name because I love the nickname