When I was lying on the operating table the day my son was born, getting my crotch shaved, the doctors tried to distract me by asking me what the baby’s name was.
“Um, we don’t know yet.”
“Waiting to see his face, huh?”
That seemed as good a line as any — one I’d used on friends and family members in the weeks leading up to that day. I’d even used it on myself, assuring my partner that as long as we had a short list, we’d see the baby’s face and then feel the conviction we’d been waiting for all along.
That conviction never came. I left Labor and Delivery the same indecisive person I was when I got wheeled in. I tried to free-associate a little, looking at the baby’s face. He looked kind of like a duck. He was too pretty to be anything in particular. He had little eyebrows and a cry that I felt like I’d heard my whole life. I pictured his name floating somewhere just beyond my consciousness, like when you forget a word and know that as soon as you stop trying to remember, it will come to you.
Except, in this case, it didn’t. Instead, I was left with the same old words I’d had before, the same short list of names worn thin by the lives of other men.
As soon as we found out we were having a boy I knew we were screwed. For every boy name there is a man in the world who has ruined it. I did not want my child to remind me of an ex-boyfriend or a weird uncle, or, for that matter, my old youth-group leader, a senator, a Biblical hero, or the Unabomber
My partner Dustin and I would sit in restaurants writing names on paper tablecloths. We’d take turns hating and then preferring names, reminding each other that, given our genes, this baby would inevitably grow up to be a chubby, bespectacled adolescent. We’d have to be careful. We’d settle on an idea and then see it everywhere. We’d overhear other women at Baby Gap shopping for their nephews with one of our names. It sounded so not special when they said it. We’d cross it off the list, not wanting to be — God forbid — cliché in this, our most significant display of personal taste.
“Welcome to the world, son. We’re going to give you the name they put on the example blankets in baby catalogues.”
I imagined friends and family members across the country, looking up from their laptops or their smartphones, announcing to loved ones across the living room that we had picked the dumbest name in the world.
“We’ll figure it out,” I’d tell Dustin, trying to put him off. “We work best under pressure.”
I’d heard about women who named their babies after nurses, or read the perfect name in the newspaper the morning they went into labor. Maybe a male relative would die in the weeks leading up to my due date.
And so we spent all of my pregnancy waiting for some sort of linguistic miracle.
Of course this drove everyone absolutely crazy. Every dinner I had with anyone during that time inevitably turned to baby names. It was always “How are you feeling?” and “So, are you thinking about names?” When you tell people you have no idea what to name your baby, they do not believe you. “Oh, so you’re keeping it a secret?” they say.
“Okay, so what are you deciding between?”
“We don’t know!”
“Oh, c’mon. You have to have some ideas. What are they?”
Everyone assumes you have a million ideas because they themselves have a short list, even if they are years away from having kids, even if they don’t want them. I had a list, too; that is, I had a list until I got pregnant and it was no longer fun.
“Well,” I ventured on a night out with friends, “we call him Gus, kind of as a joke, but it’s starting to feel like it’s actually his name.” Sharing this felt embarrassing and too vulnerable, like talking about a novel you were writing before you had really figured it out yet. When I looked up, one of my friends had visibly recoiled.
“You can’t name him that. Well, you can do whatever you want. I’m sure we’d come around to it. But I’ll be honest. I hate it.”
This is how most baby-name spitballing sessions go. We all have intense reactions to human names when they aren’t already assigned to a baby. After the initial judgmental comment when you get off the phone with someone or see their birth announcement on Facebook, the baby’s name becomes just their name, barely noticeable, always a part of them.
In the meantime, though, the name is whatever deeply personal and variable things it connotes for people. Tell me a boy name and I’ll tell you what terrible personal qualities come with it. He sounds weak, or like a bully. He sounds like he wears too much gel in his hair. He sounds like his collar is always wrinkled and folded over on itself.
How could I do this to my child? Unfortunately, there was no way out.
“But people will call him Jimmy.”
“Hmm. When I hear Clem all I think of is phlegm. People will call him Phlegm.”
I didn’t have it in me to debate the likelihood of 5-year-olds knowing the word phlegm, so I tried to change the subject. Unfortunately, this is a subject not easily changed.
“I dunno. Maybe William? That’s cute.”
“Bill, though?” I pictured a little baby in wire-framed glasses and a blue oxford shirt.
“Oh, actually, a friend of mine was going to name her baby that.”
“Yes. But she didn’t because her husband pointed out that everyone would call him Farty Artie.”
Giving your baby a name, it turns out, also includes anticipating how other children will cruelly twist it to hurt them. After a few rounds of brainstorming possible mean things, you begin to think you may have missed your calling.
“You know, if you guys could go back to kindergarten right now,” I told them, “with your creative grasp of the English language? You’d be amazing school-yard bullies.”
When I brought up a name I liked and a friend told me that, just so I knew, it was on her list of potential baby names, I decided that even if I did have the perfect name, I would never, ever share it with anyone.
You cannot win at naming your baby. Monogram “Fartie Artie” onto some towels and give up. The game is rigged.
We did not think of a name that no one else had thought of, a name that felt both inevitable and new. No, instead, our baby spent three days in the hospital without a name and in the end we gave him the one that the women at Baby Gap mentioned, too. It’s a name they use in a baby catalogues; it’s a classic, short, perfect Brooklyn cliché of a name, and on our very first outing as a family of three, we heard it screamed down the sidewalk at the back of a toddler.
And I cried. We thought maybe we’d call him by his middle name. I didn’t want to talk about it. He went by “the baby” for months.
Seven months later, though, when we call him his name, we don’t think of other babies. He is ours, finally, and his name is a round head in footie pajamas. I like the way his name sounds in my mouth. I like to drag it out, cut it short, make it new. He turns his head when we use his name now, coming into a language that will ultimately fail him, the way it fails all of us — though this will take many years.
But some days I look at him and think: He should have been a Ben. Just last week I met a baby named Sal and had a little pang of regret.