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Baby Name Turf Wars: When the “Wrong” Family Member Has the “Right” Family Name

Dec13

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Hi, I am having a baby name dilemma and came across your site so I thought I’d try to see your and your readers’ thoughts. We are keeping names secret until the birth and looking for neutral opinion. Here goes: I am currently due to have a baby girl in 8 weeks. It is our second baby girl and I am seriously considering naming her a particularly family name for her first name. Primarily it is my fraternal grandmother’s first name and is absolutely perfect on a lot of fronts.

But here’s the kicker: it’s also a major part of my sister’s name. It is her middle name and all growing up didn’t think much of it as we and everyone called her by her first name. Then at some point in her mid 20s she decided to start using her middle name (my grandmother’s name and name we are considering naming our 2nd born) as her first name when meeting new people. She went back to using her regular first name for awhile when she moved away and changed jobs but then she moved back and resumed use of her middle name as her primary name. This whole time I’ve maintained referring to her as her first name, the one we used all growing up and inside of the family but all her adult friends or new boyfriends when we occasionally see them call her by the middle name. Somehow it works and we all know who we are referring to and she responds to both. Same goes with my old friends from growing up. They probably know she goes by the second but refer to her as ” your sister” or first name but all my newer friends, like mom friends who might meet her at the baby’s birthday party she would introduce herself with the middle name that I’m considering.

We didn’t really consider it for my first child because we weren’t so interested in honoring a particular side of the family at that time, and wanted to go completely unique. Now it seems to keep coming back to me as the right fit for many reasons. Even though we live in the same city we don’t see my sister that much and we do our own thing. She doesn’t have kids and I do, etc…my daughter has yet another nickname for her which is an easy nickname way she refers to her which is easier for a toddler to say rather than “aunt so and so.” So there is no confusion there.

It’s really only awkward for the people around who didn’t know us as kids and will think I named my daughter my sister’s name. And that does bother me. I would have to explain the story somewhat each time. We are grown adults and I don’t ever think I’d ever actually refer to her as her middle name. We don’t see her that much and the thing is I wouldn’t be doing it to honor my sister and actually would just be slightly annoying to think I was trying to honor her because I don’t necessarily want my child to follow in her footsteps. It’s just a name I really like and bonus for the fact it was my grandmother’s name. Is it ok to seriously consider naming my child this? Am I being short sided since in about 20 years she’ll have a whole new set of social connections that don’t even involve family? Or will I regret it every time someone says “isn’t that your sister’s name?” And feel compelled to explain that it really isn’t …?

What do I think? I think you are way, way overthinking this. Give your daughter the name you like. When (if) people ask “Isn’t that your sister’s name?” stick with the simple (and true answer): Yes, and it is also my grandmother’s name. 

Don’t delve into the whole “well, it really ISN’T my sister’s name” because 1) that smacks of doth protesting too much and drags in the excess baggage you’ve got going on with your sister, and believe me, people making casual small-talk over your baby’s name will NOT want to hear all that, and 2) it’s not really true; it IS your sister’s name.

Yes, it’s her middle name, but it’s still her name. For some people, middle names are just extraneous things we rarely think about — some filler name that our parents thought sounded nice, or maybe a family name honoring someone we might not even have ever met. (Hell, I dropped my middle name altogether when I got married, so I understand this thinking completely!) But for your sister, her middle name CLEARLY means something to her and is the name she prefers to identify herself as. Which is completely and totally her right to do, and honestly not that unusual — I know people who strongly disliked their first names for a variety of reasons (hard to spell/pronounce, too common, too “unique,” etc.) and opted as adults to switch to their middle name, or a new, self-directed nickname.

I get the sense that you maybe view the name change as something kind of silly or flaky and have chosen not to indulge her in it. It sounds like she’s cool with that and understands that to old friends and family she’ll always be “ChildhoodName.” But to everybody who knows her now, she’s “GrownupName.” So some of that small intersection of folks might think you named your baby after her and not your grandmother. Meh. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t REALLY a big deal, even if it’s bothering you now. Even if your sister IS a silly, flaky mess of an adult human being, she’s your sister. I promise that no one will immediately assume that by giving your daughter the same name, you’re hoping your daughter will grow up be just like her aunt. You chose a family name (that’s already pulling double-duty) and that’s nice.

For personal insight into how little it matters what other people think of your “intent” behind a name: My nephew’s middle name is the same as my firstborn’s first name: Noah. I asked my brother if it was okay if we used the name, but we certainly didn’t choose it to “honor” my nephew. We just liked it. My second son’s name is a book of the Old Testament and one of my favorite childhood authors/illustrators: Ezra. Yet everybody asks if we were thinking of the 90s band Better Than Ezra. Uh…nope?

(As for my third, when people ask if we chose “Ike” because of Eisenhower, Ike Turner or Hurricane Ike, I answer none of the above: it was Ike Broflovski from South Park.)

So I guess my only caution AGAINST you using the name is if you can’t promise yourself to drop all the technicalities and background tangents and be okay with the fact that the name is also your sister’s name. Middle name, first name, whatever. If you can’t promise to be tactful and graceful when/if people — maybe even your sister! maybe she’ll be touched and this will be a step to repairing the relationship! – think you chose the name because of her, maybe…don’t use the name. (Is there a close variation on it, or a different version from another language?)

But really, I bet you’ll be just fine with the name, once you get out of the late-pregnancy nesting/OCD/OVERTHINK ALL THE THINGS! spot you’re in right now. (Which is so, so normal.) Let people think what they think, and be okay with them thinking whatever they think. It’s not much different from having to be okay with people not liking your name choice in general, or hating the way you spelled it or whatever.

(And remember that with “older generation” names all coming back in vogue HARD right now, I’m gonna guess that your daughter won’t be the only “GrownupName” she encounters, at which point you’ll probably get annoyed that people will think you chose it just to be trendy, rather than having a legitimate family claim to it.)

Practice your response: Yes, it is my sister’s name. She and my daughter are both named after my grandmother. Can you do that? Good. Go with the name. I’m sure it’s lovely and you’ll be happy that you honored your family with it.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “Baby Name Turf Wars: When the “Wrong” Family Member Has the “Right” Family Name”

  1. Microbial Tea Dec 13 at 2:13 pm Reply Reply

    A is right, let it go. Who cares? In my husband’s paternal side there are no less than 15 living men with the same name. No one cares, and someone how they all know which one they are talking about. In MY paternal family, there are so few reasonable female names, that anyone who chooses a family name is sure to be echoed in several generations. There are reasonable things to fret about with a new baby- this isn’t one of them.

  2. C Dec 13 at 2:29 pm Reply Reply

    Amy was very diplomatic.  To me, the LW sounds like she has a chip on her shoulder re sister. If sister wants to be referred to by middle name, why not refer to her by that? because she can’t ever outgrow the person she was when the two of you were 12? 

  3. Sabrina Dec 13 at 2:30 pm Reply Reply

    We had a similar situation. My sister in laws name is Marsha after my mother in laws grandfather whose last name was Marsh. If she had been a boy she would have been Marshall a name my husband has always loved.  When I got pregnant with our second son my husband was very insistant we use Marshall. I did not want it to seem like we were naming our kid after his sister. He won, and so far no one has brought it up. Just do whatever seems good to you and don’t worry about it.

    • Laura Dec 18 at 1:28 am Reply Reply

      Sabrina, I *LOVE* the name Marshall. Our youngest would have been Marshall if she had been born a boy, named for my late grandfather. Sadly, my husband was not on board with the feminine Marsha, so we chose a different name altogether (which I love, of course, but Marshall would have been nice). I am tickled pink there is a little boy out there somewhere with that name!

  4. Katherine Dec 13 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    I’m named after my grandmother who passed when my mom was little, my aunt has the same first name as well but always went by her middle name to avoid her confusion between her and her mom. My aunt is quite a bit older and was in her 20s when her mother died. It was never even a question to me where my name came from. Always my grandmother. It’s cool that my name comes from “my aunt and my grandmother” but I know I was always named to honor my grandmother. 

  5. Kerry Dec 13 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    Let it go, try not to obsess, but if you want a little extra distance you can also say,

    “Oh yeah, both ____ and my sister are named after my dad’s mom”

    or even more generally

    “Oh yeah, _____ is a family name for us from my dad’s side”

    And keep things positive while steering the conversation away from the relationship between you and your sister a little. The two whole times anyone will actually ask = ). 

  6. Kerry Dec 13 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    Let it go, try not to obsess, but if you want a little extra distance you can also say,

    “Oh yeah, both ____ and my sister are named after my dad’s mom”

    or even more generally

    “Oh yeah, _____ is a family name for us from my dad’s side”

    And keep things positive while steering the conversation away from the relationship between you and your sister a little. The two whole times anyone will actually ask = ). 

  7. liz Dec 13 at 2:43 pm Reply Reply

    This:
    “Practice your response: Yes, it is my sister’s name. She and my daughter are both named after my grandmother. Can you do that? Good. Go with the name. I’m sure it’s lovely and you’ll be happy that you honored your family with it.”

    TOTALLY. 

  8. Nancy Dec 13 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

    Last paragraph, all the way! “They share a name with my grandmother.” Full. Stop.  

    Also? It will matter SO much less when your baby is here. I *hated* the family middle name my husband desperately wanted for my son. HATED. (There were childhood associations with other people with this name.) Got into fights with husband about it. Son got the middle name anyhow. And you know what? 4 years later, who cares? It’s part of HIS name now and nothing at all like the person I associate it with. ::shrug::

    Also, re OP having a chip on her shoulder about calling her sister the new name? No, she doesn’t. If her old name has been ingrained since birth, all her memories are tied up with old name, all her thoughts and associations are with the old name, etc, etc, it is perfectly reasonable to still call her by old name, think of her by old name and want her to BE the old name. (Says the woman in her 40s who still gets called by a nickname she hates by all her relatives and her oldest childhood friends even though I’ve solidly gone by my real name since my 20s.)

  9. Rebecca Dec 13 at 3:07 pm Reply Reply

    I can offer a little insight into the name switching thing.

    I was named Rebecca and growing up EVERYONE called me Becky.  I never liked being called Becky once I was old enough to have an opinion. The day I left for college, I told my family “My name is Rebecca, and that’s the name I will be answering to from now on”  The only people who still call me Becky are a handful of high school friends and some elderly relatives, and I see them so infrequently it doesn’t bother me.  Switching to my preferred moniker helped me establish my own identity.  Especially when there were 7 other Becky’s on my dorm floor.

    And Amy’s last paragraph, Yeah.  

  10. Lydia Dec 13 at 4:23 pm Reply Reply

    I like Amy’s advice.  My middle name is also my paternal grandmother’s name.  My brother used this name as his daughter’s middle name also.  Do I think she’s named for me?  No.  In fact, if I am to ever have a daughter, I would still think about using it for her first or middle name.  Family names overlap sometimes and it’s okay.

    Also, I have Italian friends where just about every single male in the family is named Anthony or David.  Honestly, there are at least 10 of each.

  11. Feisty Harriet Dec 13 at 6:29 pm Reply Reply

    My brother and my uncle have the same name-Jared–and it honestly didn’t occur to me until I was in my late 20’s that my parents MIGHT have named my brother after me uncle (they didn’t, they just liked the name). We easily distinguished between the two by calling my uncle Big J and my brother Little J, nicknames that have stuck around among our family for a loooong time.

    xox

  12. Grammy Dec 13 at 6:44 pm Reply Reply

    Perfect advice. If you can’t follow it, you should really choose another name. It bears repeating:

    “Practice your response: Yes, it is my sister’s name. She and my daughter are both named after my grandmother. Can you do that? Good. Go with the name. I’m sure it’s lovely and you’ll be happy that you honored your family with it.”

  13. Mary Dec 13 at 10:28 pm Reply Reply

    I think we are being a bit harsh on OP. She’s very pregnant & the hormones are just raging. I remember stressing about my type A mother and MIL demanding to hold my baby too much. She was born and they were both very reasonable and in fact, I had a high needs baby that always wanted to be held & when they visited I was happy to share. BUT in my head, I had created this huge dramafest…I blame the hormones.

  14. LMo Dec 14 at 10:26 am Reply Reply

    This is not at all where I thought this would go when I read the title… But I have an interesting perspective as the child with a questionable family name! My paternal grandfather was abandoned by his mother. From everything I know, she was a horrible, self-centered woman. My mom met her once, liked her well enough, and I have her name as my middle name. My grandfather would have been well within reason (IMHO) to complain that my name honored a woman who did so much damage to him. But he was not that type of person, and my name was never an issue. I didn’t even know where my middle name came from until I was in my mid-20s. So, if you’re interested in how it might impact your child, I’d say it almost certainly won’t. She just won’t care…

  15. emah Dec 16 at 10:47 am Reply Reply

    My brother went the other way on this — he wanted to name his daughter after me (because I’m that awesome), but we have 7 other siblings, and his wife is one of 6, so there were a lot of other aunts and uncles to be taken into account.

    Luckily, I was named after my maternal grandmother, so he could name his daughter after his grandmother, that’s the story, and no one gets their feelings hurt.  People get that family names pop up a lot.  Unless it’s REALLY WEIRD I don’t think you’re going to get as much blowback as you think.  

    I like the practice sentence.  It’s pretty much exactly what my brother and his wife said, and feelings were all protected.  Or else it was the truth, and they were just trying to make me feel happy about myself.  Either way :)

  16. Julie Dec 16 at 6:29 pm Reply Reply

    LW, you mentioned that you’re keeping the names quiet for now, but I’d give your sister a call about your name choice before the baby is here. Just so she isn’t blindsided.

    FWIW, my step-kid’s name has an “unique” ethnic spelling. Almost zero people have cared enough to hear more, than “it’s a family name” so no need to worry about having to explain her name to everyone.

  17. Michelle Dec 18 at 3:15 pm Reply Reply

    Is this supposed to be tagged under Advice Smackdown?

  18. Julie Dec 20 at 11:41 am Reply Reply

    I think you’d need to choose your words wisely if you decide to let your sister know ahead of time about the name. “We are naming her so-and-so, but NOT after you” could cause some problems :-).
    We had a perfect girl’s name picked out for years before we got pregnant, so of course, we were having a boy. We wanted one name because we liked it, but it also happened to be my husband’s grandfather’s name (that he never knew), so we decided against it because we didn’t want to explain that it wasn’t after his grandfather. Then boy #2 came along, and it was the only name we liked, so we went with it. Since it’s an “old man’s” name, people assume it’s after a family member. We just say, No, we just liked the name.

  19. Leslie Delavan Dec 22 at 10:41 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot today like a weirdo. The suggested practice line is great, but I’m really wondering if you wouldn’t be better off exploring other names. I have two sisters, so I totally understand the wackiness, but I think that unless you are just absolutely positively in love with the name, you’ll just keep being bothered by the situation. Life is too short. Keep an open mind about the name, and I’ll bet on the day you go to the hospital you’ll know if that’s the best name for you or if you’ve found an even better one! I just know in my family, this would turn into a “thing” with obnoxious comments from all sorts of people. We gave our two girls names that we were in love with, but aren’t common or easily spelled, and we don’t mind at all the variety of comments we get (mostly compliments after the initial awkwardness, actually), but I think we would be a lot more bothered by it if the names hadn’t been the most absolute perfect fit for us. And we didn’t really decide on either of them until practically after their due dates…

  20. Delaney May 05 at 3:52 pm Reply Reply

    Is anyone else dying to know what the name is that she’s considering?

  21. Danielle Oct 17 at 1:28 pm Reply Reply

    I’m also named after my grandfather, and so is my mother’s brother, and my son. We all know we’re all named after Grampie.

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