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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: If You Promised Not to Use an Honor Name, Do You Have to Keep That Promise?

Melanie writes:
I have a name question, which, while having no urgency at all, has been driving me crazy for years. I am only trying to get pregnant (unsuccessfully), and therefore have no impending infant to name. However, if I am lucky enough to have a child, I am very set on family names or variations thereof. My grandmother was very important to me and she died when I was young. She always made me promise to never ever name a child after her, as she hated her name - Constance L@vonia. Now L@vonia is truly awful but Constance is something I would consider, at least as a middle name. I just can't though - I promised. Can you think of an alternative? Some way to honor my grandmother AND her wishes? Thanks!

PS - Id consider HER mother's name except its a) not really my style and b) has already been used in my generation as an honor name. Other names on that side of the family were names my great great grandmother found in books and then altered to make then unique...and therefore are atrocious. (M3rle, P@lma, Aud@...)

This is a very, very interesting question to me, and it's going to be an all-over-the-spectrum comments section, I can tell!

Here are the questions/issues, as I see them:

1. Who owns a name?

2. Who is allowed to name a child?

3. Do people really mean it when they say not to use their names?

4. Once the person has died, should their wishes on "not wanting to hear their own name on a baby" still matter? If so: why? (And at which point do their wishes trump your wishes?---see #s 1 and 2.)

5. Should anyone force a child to promise something like that?

6. If a child promises something like that, are they bound to it as an adult?

Let's start with numbers 5 and 6. I'm reminded of my high school boyfriend, whose deathbed-residing grandfather made him promise to name a son after him. My boyfriend promised, and felt bound by that promise. My feeling on the subject: "YOU WERE SEVEN YEARS OLD AT THE TIME. That was incredibly emotionally manipulative, and totally out of bounds, and completely arrogant and inappropriate of him to demand a namesake, and also it seems pretty chauvinistic because WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE MOTHER OF YOUR CHILD?? Doesn't HER opinion count for anything?? 'THE MAN' gets to promise for both of them?? I THINK NOT!!"

Ahem. I might still be a bit steamed about it.

I think also of my mom's grandmother, who, enthusiastically involved with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and who made all her young grandchildren promise never to touch alcohol---and in fact made them SIGN A CONTRACT to that effect. Is my mother bound by that promise? Certainly not. She was not able to make a promise like that at her age (or to say no to making a promise like that), and my great-grandmother should not have asked her to.

Next I would like to turn attention to numbers 1 and 2, about who owns a name and about who is authorized to make the decision about what to name a baby. We've discussed name ownership before, mostly in the context of "Can you re-use a name a friend already used for her baby?," and in general the idea is that names are many-time-use items (the friend wasn't the first person to use it EITHER) (unless they actually WERE, but let's keep this simple), but that we still might want to choose to go with other people's preferences in the matter because the relationships (and the other people's feelings) are important to us. But it's also important to remember that this is because we are being LOVING AND CONSIDERATE PEOPLE (or because we fear conflict), not because we're "not allowed" to "steal" a name. And what it boils down to is that there is no one who is designated caretaker of a particular name (not the parent of a child with that name, not someone who is named that name) who is allowed to decide who may and who may not use it. The name is available to any parent who wants to use it.

And I think we agree that the people who get to name the baby are that baby's parents. Other people might give input or ideas, or might hope their family traditions are followed, or might even make the mistake of volunteering names they dislike---but the parents can completely ignore all of these suggestions. So although your grandmother could certainly have mentioned her preferences, she's not actually allowed to name your future babies---or to tell you what NOT to name them, either.

To review where we are so far:
  • adults should not extract these sorts of promises from children
  • any such extracted promises are not binding
  • your grandmother is not in charge of how her name is used
  • your grandmother may not choose or forbid names for your baby

This all sounds rather harsh and anti-grandmother, doesn't it? I don't mean it to sound that way, or as if I think she was trying to do any of these things on purpose; however, I do think it's important to separate things out so that we can move on to what your actual choices are.

This brings us to #3: Do people really mean it when they say not to use their names?

The thing is, people say stuff they don't mean ALL THE TIME. We did a post recently that shows what I'm talking about: a woman wrote to us very distressed because she'd planned to name her baby after her dad---and then her dad (not knowing her plan) mentioned that he would "never forgive her" if she named a son after him. NEVER FORGIVE HER! That's strong language! If her dad had then died before she named the baby, many many people would have said they felt very very strongly that his wishes should be respected. And yet: she talked to him about it and he was embarrassed about what he'd said, and he was surprised and flattered and very pleased when she said they wanted to name the baby after him. And so they did, and everyone was happy.


That is, of course, not always going to be the situation. But my GUESS, my GUT FEELING, is that MOST of the time when people say they don't want children named after them, they don't actually mean that. Maybe they've just enjoyed many years of complaining about their name and this is another way to complain about it enjoyably, or maybe what they're saying is "I hope you won't feel like you have to use my name for a child"---but they're thinking of their name in a different way than we would be. Someone named Henry in the last generation or two might have grown up thinking they had such a dorky, ugly, old-man name---please don't name any babies after me! But now look: the name Henry is back in style and considered adorable and classic! The descendent doesn't feel OBLIGATED to use it: they genuinely love the name and WANT to use it! They're DISAPPOINTED that they have to "respect someone's wishes"!

Meanwhile, if they went ahead and used it, the always-hated-the-name ancestor would likely suddenly discover they didn't hate the name at all, and that they were intensely pleased and flattered to have it used. It might turn out that all those mentions of how much they hated their name were like when someone says "Excuse my house" or "I know I should dress more fashionably": they don't ACTUALLY feel bad about their house or their clothes, but they fear OTHERS are critical of them. Or they might be fishing for you to say you don't think their name is so bad, or they might mean "Go ahead, twist my arm!"

So usually my suggestion would be to TALK to the person saying things about their name: be earnest, and say you'd actually really LIKE to use their name---would they truly hate that? Would it OFFEND them somehow, or is it just that they can't believe anyone would want to use it?

But in your case, and in many similar cases, it isn't possible to ask. Which brings us to our last point, point #4: Once a person has died, should their wishes on "not wanting to hear their own name on a baby" still matter? If so: why? Either those wishes are now as gone as the person who had them, or else it seems highly unlikely that such things are important in the person's new eternal point of view.

Even if we imagine a person's living earthly wishes persisting into eternity, at which point do another person's wishes trump yours? I think the wish-trumping point comes down to this: Who was in charge of the decision/possession? My mother is in charge of her private journals; if she asks me to make sure they're burned after she dies, I will do that: her wishes continue to matter after she dies. My grandmother is in charge of her earrings; I wouldn't have fussed if she'd chosen to leave them to my cousin: her wishes continue to matter after she dies. I respect their wishes to do what they want with their own things, even after their lives are over.

But you are in charge of choosing your babies' names, and so your love and respect for your grandmother aren't affected by you going with your own wishes rather than following her wishes---any more than your love and respect for her would be changed by you choosing a different spouse, career, hobby, house, or piercing than she wished you to have. In this case, she would need to respect your wishes to do what you want with your own things.

To review where we are so far:
  • adults should not extract these sorts of promises from children
  • any such extracted promises are not binding
  • your grandmother is not in charge of how her name is used
  • your grandmother may not choose or forbid names for your baby
  • people don't always mean what they say about not using their names
  • people's wishes should be respected for their own decisions/possessions

So to me, what we have so far is pretty clear: you can name your baby whatever you want, including the name that your grandmother was named. And since she has died, this makes things both more difficult (because you can't ask her if she really meant it, and likely find out to your happiness that she didn't) and simpler (because she is not going to be angry and upset that you went against what she wanted).

It is, however, true that you can't honor both your grandmother AND the wishes she said she had. It would honor her if you used her name (even if she truly didn't want you to use it), but it would not honor her stated wishes. You will need to decide which is more important to you: honoring her through your child's name as you'd like to do, according to your own wishes; or doing what your grandmother used to say she wanted you to do, when she was alive and had wishes.

For me, it would not be difficult: I would be using the name for my own sake, because I wanted to think fondly of my grandmother every time I thought of my daughter's name, and because I wanted to say "You were named for my grandmother; I was very close to her." And because in our culture, using someone's name for a child is a way to show honor and love for someone, and I would want to do that. And because I would think it was unlikely that my grandmother would truly have been upset if I'd used her name for her dear great-granddaughter. I might feel glad that I wouldn't have to be stressed about whether or not I was right about that---but I think I would also feel confident that if my grandmother could know what I had done, that she would at this stage of her existence be pleased by it.


Anonymous said...

I would use the name Constance if it is that dear to you. I mean really everything Swistle said is excellent. I have always loved the combo Ivy Constance.:)

gail said...

Wow, Swistle, this is just an awesome post. I really don't know many people who have the wherewithal and/or the desire to parse such a question so well and so thoroughly! It makes me wish I could email you when faced with various internal dithers......Also makes me think that your next career could involve some kind of counseling/consulting that rewards your gift.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is one of your best responses. I agree with everything you said.

Claire Wessel said...

While I agree with the Swistle analysis, I'm also a person who has hated my name since I was little, and now go by a different one! (What is the horrific moniker? Julie) So, I deeply hope that no one ever uses that name on anyone, especially in my honor! Since I'm sorta in granny's corner, I'll offer the suggestion that if by chance you can remember a name that perhaps she had once said was beautiful or one she wished she had had, perhaps that would be a better way to honor her. Or keep it in the middle! If you just LOVE the name Constance (like I do!), then send a thought out to granny with the message "old lady virtue names are hot now, and I love yours and I love you, so suck it up out there and know I'll be thinking about you every time I'm yelling the name"

Karen L said...

But Swistle - what do you REALLY think she should do?

Awesome analysis.

My only concern (for myself in Melanie's shoes) would be if there are other family members who would be unpleasant about breaking a promise and/or dishonouring Granny's wishes. In which case, I would not discuss the matter with family ahead of time and I might even lie if cornered. "Really? I had NO IDEA that she disliked her name. Funny how things come back in fashion, eh?" Or if lying were out of the question (because they'd know or I'd grown some kind of consciene) maybe I'd print out Swistle's response and hand it to any complainers.

Hey Swistle, is there any chance your next life chapter could include turning baby-naming issues into a BOOK? Or if the editting and promoting process makes you feel queasy, maybe you could sell the idea and archives to another writer.

Patti J said...

What about Constantina? ;) Or another similar but different name?

Patricia J.

vanessa said...

I want Swistle to be my therapist.Actually, my life coach, so she can just tell me what to do.

Bethany Haid said...

You would be a good therapist, swistle!

I think you should name a child Constance if you would like to. And when you tell your daughter about her name, omit the backstory you shared here.

Tommie said...

My mother's name is Dorothea Evelyn. She hates both names. Seriously. She really, truly dislikes her names. She goes by Evelyn because she feels it is slightly better than the heavy Dorothea, which was chosen by her mother, Dorothy. Before I ever even considered having kids, my mom begged me to never, ever name a child after her.

But then, years later, she suggested Evan for a son (I have daughters) and it made me realize that the hone or having a grandchild named after her was sweeter than the bitterness she feels over her names.

She's still shocked that there are so many little girls being named Evelyn out there, though. She can't understand it at all.

I do think, back to the original question, that Grandma would have come around had she met a beautiful tiny Constance.

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

Oh Swistle, I love everything about this post. Especially thinking about the grandmother in the Great Beyond and how she'd look upon this situation. You said it so perfectly (and with characteristic humor) here: "it seems highly unlikely that such things are important in the person's new eternal point of view."

Love love love.

Good luck to Melanie. I hope you have your sweet baby Constance soon.

Mia said...

I agree with the post, but there are other options if you feel a little uncomfortable going against granny's wishes, like using her initials.

I had a name that I hated enough to go to court to change (Sherry Ann, a WAY common name when I was born). I might not mind it being used to honor me if it were significantly altered. Luckily, none of my kids are likely to want to do that. So far, I have one grandchild, and she's named Aolani.

Ellie L said...

My daughter is named Constance as an honour name for my wonderful grandma to whom I was very close. She is always known as Connie and we introduce her as Connie. She gets a lot of compliments on her name and old women on the bus always comment how that was the name of their sister/best friend. I like that Constance is old fashioned and formal and Connie is pretty and suits a little girl.

Occasionally I call her Coco as a special name between me and her. I think Nancy also works as a nickname though we don't use it.

Patricia said...

I wonder if your grandmother disliked her entire name -- Const@nce L@avonia -- or specifically her first name by itself. Too, I'm wondering if she was called "Connie" or some other nn. Something I might look at on the SSA charts is how popular Constance was in the 5-10 years before and after your grandmother was born. Was Constance/Connie too popular then or maybe too far 'out'? Does your grandmother have living sisters or daughters whom you could ask about her dislike of her name. That could help you decide whether to use Constance as the first or middle name for a daughter. Because I'd definitely use the name. It's lovely. And I have a feeling she would have been pleased to be honored by you in this way.

My mother's name was Edn@ Mi!!ie. One of my daughters considered naming a daughter Emilie (French spelling) as a contraction of her name. Mom said that wasn't her name, and so the baby was named Emma. But later Mom mentioned, more than once, that she WOULD have liked to have had a great-granddaughter called Emilie [E(dna) Mil(l)ie]. Fortunately Emma is similar to Edna, and Emma was still very special to her.

One last thing about the name Constance: a French friend has a 5 year old daughter named Constance, and I've noticed that the name is fairly popular in France at this time.

Best wishes!

Patricia said...

Further thoughts: Cousin Evelyn always complained about her name -- until her granddaughter named her daughter Evelyn. How pleased she is about that! (Although still a bit incredulous that Evelyn is becoming so popular.)

Anonymous said...

Constance is a virtue name (like Patience, Chastity etc.) What about choosing a virtue name that plays on your naming dilemma? I think that would make for an even greater honor name...something that reminds you of your Grandma Constance while still honoring her request (not to ignore Swistle's in-depth analysis) Patience seems quite fitting to me, since you are patiently trying to conceive. I also think Verity would be fitting since it loosely means "truth" which makes me think of your promise. Other virtue names I can think of are Merit, Clemency, Grace and Prudence. Best of luck.

Jen said...

I love this post. And I would use Constance, if I were in the same situation.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I think would matter is if the reason she disliked her name wasn't aesthetic (styles change, Constance is a beautiful name in a modern context, and she'll just have to trust you on that one), but because of some other meaning she had...she was named after someone, or by someone, who was actually quite evil & cruel, having a virtue name reflected her parents efforts to force a belief system on her she didn't ultimately end up sharing, or something like that. But all that seems much less likely than that she was being self deprecating and believed it was important for a great-granddaughter to have a pretty, stylish name and never believed Constance could fit the bill.

Anonymous said...

I'm going against the grain but, if I were in your shoes, I wouldn't name my daughter this against my late grandmother's wishes. While I agree with everything Swistle posted, I would feel like if I, myself, were concerned enough to question whether I should do it (& concerned enough to ask Swistle & her followers' advice), a remnant of that concern might remain after I named my daughter. I wouldn't want to have even a tiny part of me wonder, 'If granny had been alive, would I be upsetting her?" because it would cancel out the "honour" part of the name, to me.

Constance is a great name, but I think you can think of other names that better honour your grandmother by honouring her explicit wish. I was also going to suggest using another virtue name, in keeping with the style. In particular, I like Prudence and Clemence because they have similar ending sounds, & I adore the name Prue (though both are less common than Constance, so...)

I'd try to find a name that you like just as much as Constance, that reminds you of your grandmother, & honours her in some other way than going against her wishes! (Or, put it in the middle name spot!)

Tara said...

If I were you I would probably choose names with the same initials. So something like Cora Louise, Camilla Lauren, Charlotte Lucy or Catherine Lily. Or I would use Constance as a middle name.

Anonymous said...

My mom was christened Ell3n Th3r3sa. She hates both of her names, and goes by Eil33n, which she hates only slightly less. She begged my sister and I to eschew honoring her in any way by using those names. She used very strong language akin to I will never forgive you.

My sister used Eil33n as a middle name on her first daughter and (after I honored my mother's mother with my first daughter), I used Th3r3sa as the middle name for my second.

She still acts like she's mad about it (especially my sister's choice), but in the end, I think she's ... well, honored.

M.Amanda said...

Excuse my 25-years-later rant, but a teacher once pushed an assignment on me. I was reluctant to take it as I really, really thought I would not be able to complete it. She would not let me leave for study time until I PROMISED to do it. As predicted, I was not able to complete it. That day, she lectured me until I was near tears about "keeping promises." At 8 years old, I felt like a horrible failure. As an adult, every time I see her now, I think, "WTF, lady? How about trying to pull that on me now?"


Use the name. Even if she really did hate her name and would not want you to use it, she isn't here to be offended. You, on the other hand, are here and using the name will be a special for you to remember times when she was here and to share that with your child. Break the promise with no guilt.

Liz said...

I struggled with this question, and I think it really comes down to how comfortable you feel about it personally. Circumstances may be different for everyone.

I always loved my grandmother's middle name, and it's a name that really came back into style for this time (Lily). However, I remember her telling me my whole life how much she hated her middle name.

She passed away when I was a teenager. When I got pregnant years later, I wanted to honor her, and really thought about using Lily. In the end, I personally couldn't do it. Although she never made me specifically promise not to use it, she wasn't alive to find out her reaction and I didn't feel like it was honoring her to use a name I knew she hated. I used her first name instead, and I ended up really happy with the outcome.