Mama Madison: What is in a baby name?

Popular, unpopular -- it's a double-edged sword

Last week my social media feeds were abuzz over a pair of delightful infographics that use Social Security Administration data to chart the most popular names for both girls and boys, by state, for babies born in the last 53 years. The Jezebel posts seemed to confirm what we all, deep down, knew from experience. If a woman is now anywhere between 29 and 43 years old, there is a pretty decent chance her name is Jennifer (I am sure one "n" Jenifers count for this, too). And her male counterpart is likely to answer to Mike.

All this attention on name popularity reminded me of an age-old parenting dilemma. We all want our kids to be thought of as original and creative. But must parents choose a one-in-a-million name like Blue Ivy, Jermajesty or Zoltan to reflect their kid's uniqueness? Or, do all the little Sophias, Emmas and Jacobs (the #1 names in 2012) stand just as good a chance of being standouts even if their middle school locker mate is likely to be a namesake?

To be honest, I'm not sure my parents did me any favors by giving a name that very few people I ever met, either growing up, or even now, could pronounce right off the bat. Everyone, quite understandably given the spelling, wants to pronounce it like the South Asian garment--"Sah-ree." But do you really think my native English-speaking parents would choose to name their child "Sorry," even if the labor and delivery was truly miserable? And unless you are Michael Jackson and call your kid Blanket, it's not many folks who can get away with naming their kids after a swath of fabric.

And no, never being able to find my name on a fake license plate or keychain at cheap gift stores when on vacation didn't make me feel special. It made me feel left out.

My husband, on the other hand, is a Michael. Yes, the dreaded Michael of "most popular boys name of the last 50 years" as confirmed by the SSA. This means, he claims, he was never called by his first name by any of his guy friends in middle and high school, but instead always by his last. He felt he was always one adrift in a sea of Mikes in every class or meeting he's ever been in. I think he wished his parents had picked something that didn't feel so generic.

So when it came time to pick names for our own kids, we clearly came with our fair share baggage. I advocated for names that were familiar, easy to spell, and couldn't be mistaken for a dress from another culture. My husband wanted names that wouldn't have six kids turning their heads when shouted from the sidelines during youth soccer games. Neither of us wanted anything that would potentially embarrass our children by rhyming with a bodily function.

We spent hours poring over name books and checking for inappropriate initial combinations. We looked at meanings, variant spellings and popularity charts. And, as I am sure every parent does, we thought we'd hit the name jackpot with each of our kids. But there are always surprises.

Like when we brought our oldest to the pediatrician for the first time after we moved to Madison and the nurse looked as the chart, and then back at our nine month old. "Hmm, you don't look that old." she said with a smile. As it turns out she had the wrong chart. The chart of another Madison kid with the same name -- Eli -- thirteen years his senior. What were the chances?

And people actually ask my daughter, named Hope, how she spells her name.

Yes, I now understand why Michael Jackson, who probably knew at least 15 kids with the same first and last name combination growing up, ended up calling his son Blanket. And Blanket, I'm pretty sure, will one day father a set of twins named Mary and David, two classic names totally due for a comeback.

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