My son was born without a name.
Admittedly, on the tragically long list of things a child can be born without, this probably ranks pretty low. It certainly didn’t seem to bother him. It was, however, somewhat troubling for his parents.
You see, until the moment he entered the world, my son was a girl. The doctor had told us so on numerous occasions. There is a character in Catch 22 who has such faith in his doctor that when the doctor tells him he’s going to die, he does. I’m not nearly so slavishly devoted to a doctor’s opinion, but when you’re looking at the smeary, bleary pulsating blob on the ultrasound machine and your OBGYN tells you there’s no penis, well, you take his or her word for it.
And so, we had sifted through possible girls’ names for months and decided on one. Then: “Congratulations, it’s a boy!” Looking between my new son’s legs, I wondered how the doctor had missed that. Anyway, here was a kid listed only as ‘Baby Treadwell,’ and we were back in search of the perfect name – this time for a boy.
We did what any responsible, conscientious parents would do. We trolled the Internet. There are innumerable baby name sites out there – there is an entire industry dedicated to naming your child; you can even hire a consultant – and although it felt somehow ‘wrong’ to name your child from a URL, we were running out of ideas. Of course we’d considered his grandfathers’ names, but in our case ‘Sherwood’ and ‘Tai Gil’ weren’t particularly enticing options. So we searched.
Casey? Cody? Cayden? Too trendy. Jonah? Isaac? Gabriel? Too Biblical. What most parents want is something that is unique but not weird, distinctive but not overtly different. You want to come up with the perfect name, but don’t want to appear overly concerned about it. Intelligent, not eggheaded, distinguished not pretentious.
We’ve all encountered seemingly unfortunate name choices, for instance the New Hampshire Congressman and later Ambassador to Denmark surnamed Swett, whose parents decided to call him Richard – Dick for short. (Placards asking you to cast a vote for Dick Swett may have produced some sniggers, but it hasn’t seemed to hinder his political career. Although who knows – if he were called James he might have had more than one term or be president by now.) But what, indeed, is in a name?
In many ways, not much. In his essay “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” economist Steven Levitt explores the effects a child’s name has on its future. He examines the case of two boys, one named ‘Winner,’ the other ‘Loser.’ Winner and Loser Lane. It turned out that Loser Lane, despite serious economic and social handicaps –including a father who would call his sons Winner and Loser – went to prep school on scholarship, graduated from university, and went on to have a distinguished career with the New York Police Department. Winner, on the other hand, became an unsuccessful criminal. Levitt’s research indicates that a person’s name is relatively unimportant compared to the host of other factors that influence his or her life.
Of course, a child’s name invariably says a great deal about its parents’ expectations and desires. Parents, consciously or unconsciously, try to choose a moniker that makes some sort of statement about their child. What Levitt’s work has shown is that affluent parents choose what are perceived to be ‘high end’ names, and that these choices work their way down the socio-economic ladder until they are no longer considered to be ‘high end.’ Amber and Heather are just such examples.
There are a multitude of other motivations at play here – family considerations, friends who already ‘stole’ that great name, even alliteration – but what it seems to come down to is this: Despite your agonizing , the first official act you make as a parent – bestowing a name – is probably not nearly as important as you think. So when you’re struggling in torment between Jason and Justin, Emily and Emma, know that ultimately it matters far more to you than to your child.
So in the end what did we go with? I’ll just say keep an eye out for Harvard Excelsior Fayemus Treadwell in the coming years.