By Melissa Scholes Young
Web Exclusive - September 8, 2008
"Oh! When are you due?" The stranger reaches over and grips my belly between both hands. There is rubbing. There is patting. A stranger's finger is caressing my belly button.
"Any day now..." I muster a smile and jiggle my five-year-old's hand. I'm sending her a message that now would be the perfect time for an inappropriately loud question or a temper tantrum—anything to get me away from this inevitable conversation.
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
I want to tell the stranger it's an alien or better yet, a cheetah just to see the look on her face. I realize she is well-intentioned, though, and I am simply hormonal and sleep-deprived. It's just that I've had this conversation with little variety every time I've stepped in public since my belly began growing. Today has been a record of sort; this is my third conversation with a stranger since breakfast. Why do pregnant women immediately become communal property once our bellies begin protruding?
"It's a little girl," My fake smile is cracking.
"Oh... too bad. You guys probably wanted a little boy, didn't you?"
I look at my daughter and wonder for the thousandenth time how this reply must make her feel. I know it's not meant to be insensitive, but it certainly implies that a matched set of sexes is the only way to go. I resist the urge to launch into a lecture on how I am more interested in who my children are and not just how our society narrowly defines their gender.
"We are all very excited," I answer. The truth is we were hoping for another girl, but I don't feel like explaining all this to the stranger gripping my abdomen. I'm wondering if my blossoming bosom is next in line.
"And what are you going to name her? I just love little girl names!"
"We haven't really decided," I sigh. I immediately know I should have just answered "Sara" and ended the conversation. Sara it is. Yep, we are naming our baby Sara.
"Well, why not? You know she'll be here any minute. Honey, you've got to get down to business. Naming a baby is not something to be taken lightly!"
Awkward silence. I think the stranger is waiting for a litany of explanations or perhaps hoping I'll whip out the list of possible baby names from my purse. In my experience, people really only ask your baby name for two reasons. Number one is that they want to give their esteemed opinion of your chosen name. Number two is that they want to tell you what they named their own babies and why these names are superior to anything you were considering. It's wise to stop them there before the competitive birth stories of 30 hours of labor and 20-inch heads begin. Pretty soon you'll know the size of this stranger's episiotomy or how long her nipples cracked and bled before she switched to formula. Even if the stranger's cumulative naming experience is limited to a parakeet she had for two days in the first grade, she has an opinion on your unborn child's name. And she feels entitled to impose said opinion on your abdomen, which, thankfully, she's finally relinquished. That is, of course, after successfully jiggling the unborn child awake so that the kicking of ribs and bladder might commence. We wouldn't want momma to breathe or even make it through one day without wetting her pants.
"You are absolutely right! Will you please excuse us? We have to rush to the bookstore to get one of those baby name books! Thanks for the reminder."
My daughter and I make our way out of the store. She pauses just before the electric doors swing open. "Mom, what are we going to name the baby?" Ugh. I just don't know.
Naming a baby is much more complicated than it sounds. It's not at all like naming your first puppy or simply remembering what you called your favorite Barbie. Naming a baby is an enormous commitment. What if you get it wrong? A name speaks volumes regarding your identity, your personality, and perhaps even your future career. Have you ever met a Kate that wasn't fun? Isn't Elizabeth always classy? And would you really allow Trenton to operate on you? Your baby-naming mistake can't be easily undone. There is also the danger in assigning your unborn child a name to which she couldn't possibly live up. You might ruin a perfectly bookish, well-mannered Rebecca by saddling her with a sassy name like Vanessa or Lacey. Parenting these days is challenging enough without the added stress of succeeding or failing at the game of naming in utero.
The process of baby naming can also cause World War III in even the most well-adjusted families. I have a father named Eugene who thinks Eugenia is the perfect middle name for our little girl. My grandmother, Frances, recently passed away, and my mother would love a nod in her direction. Then there is Grandpa Young, otherwise known as Elza, on my husband's side whose name no one yet has been brave enough to go near. Isn't life tough enough without giving a child a name that will—without a doubt in the world—elicit teasing on the playground? I wish the world were a better place, but I fear that labeling my child Elza Eugenia Frances is just setting her up for pain.
Of course, you can always go the creative spelling route and really ruin her life. After eight years of public school teaching I've stood in front of many a classroom on the first day of school slaughtering the pronunciation of my students' names. Just picture for a moment poor, little, pony-tailed Brittannei sitting in a tiny red chair the first day of kindergarten as her entire identity comes into question each time the teacher stumbles over the pronunciation of her name. And now the child has to learn to spell her own creatively misspelled name. It's just too much pressure.
The one thing my husband and I have agreed on in the baby naming process is that this child comes from both of us and deserves both of our names. But that opens the door to hyphenation, which may just be defined as an anxiety disorder in future generations. And where does the hyphenation end? Are we to have future generations of children with an obscene amount of crossbred, triple-hyphenated last names? I suppose it would make family trees easier to trace, but forget about monogramming your towels.
My daughter even wants in on the baby-naming process. Her first choice was Rainbow, which as beautiful as it sounds is just not going to cut it in the real world. No one is going to pick Rainbow's resume off the stack for potential interviews. After compromising on Iris, which means "goddess of the rainbow", we floated the name past a few relatives. "They'll call her Iris the Virus for sure," my sister-in-law said. She's an elementary school librarian, so I actually consider her opinion of how other students will destroy my child's name to be valid. Iris simply opened the door to a botanical tour. Soon we were into Daffodil, Lily, Laurel, and Ivy. My daughter suggested we just keep having babies and open our own little nursery. Mommy is not a big fan of the outdoors, though.
My husband fell in love with the name Maya, but when you add it to the last name of Young it sounds like you have a wad of bubble gum in your mouth. His sister's name is Angela, so the inevitable Maya Angela (get it, Maya Angelou?) jokes ensued. I didn't find the naming of our child to be so humorous; the siblings, though, were on a baby-naming roll. The three of us—me, my husband, and his sister—actually spent an evening scientifically sorting our baby name lists. We each held veto power until we whittled the list. Each name received pros and cons, potential personality traits, and problems the names invite. "I don't even know this child, though," I whined. "How can I possibly be expected to know what choices she'll make on prom night?"
So for now, I'm taking the sly route. The next time some stranger attacks my womb I am just going to put on my most elusive smile.
"Oh! You are keeping it a secret, aren't you? I just love surprises."
That's right. Our new baby's name is a secret. Even to us.
Melissa Scholes Young is a freelance writer and mother of two. She taught English in public schools for ten years and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University. Melissa's website is http://www.melissasyoung.com and she can be reached at email@example.com.