What's in a Name?

It isn't paranoia that drives my decision. It's respect.
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Adorable little boy with finger to his lips signaling for quiet
Adorable little boy with finger to his lips signaling for quiet

I started naming my future children in elementary school. Well into my twenties, I would find old scraps of paper crumpled in my desk drawers with lists of names for sons and daughters that I was in no way prepared to have. I'm pretty sure this is a girl thing. As my handwriting evolved, so did the lists. My '70s affection for Jennifer, Kimberly and Michael gave way to the cooler Madison, Brooke and Sebastian in the '80s, which took a backseat to androgynous '90s favorites like Quinn and Alex. When I found out I was pregnant, the first thing I did was pull out a sheet of paper and catalog my latest favorites.

Imagine my surprise when my husband wanted a say in the process. Did he not understand that I was fully prepared to handle the name thing alone?

Naming a child can be an intimate experience -- full of promise and hope and meaning. It is also a public act -- a choice to mark your child with a moniker he or she will carry throughout their life. Sometimes it can be surprisingly polarizing. I recently met someone who gave his child the middle name "Danger." I spent most of our conversation wondering if I should have given Little Dude a better middle name, like "Ninja" or "Beware!" (With the exclamation point, of course.) Then there's the girl in Iceland who had to sue to have her name recognized because it wasn't on the official government registry of approved baby names. I won't be moving to Iceland any time soon -- I prefer a country where people can name their kid Moon Unit.

I love my son's name. His dad and I spent a considerable amount of time picking it out, and oddly enough, his name wasn't on any of my hundreds of prior lists. With all that effort, you'd think I'd be shouting it from the rooftops. You'd be wrong.

When I write about my son, I call him Little Dude. His name is not, of course, Little Dude, but I won't tell you what it is. I can tell you that it is not Gavin, which would have been my stepson's choice. I'm not sure he's forgiven us yet.

I use a nickname to give Little Dude some semblance of privacy as I tell stories about his childhood. Some readers find the alias endearing; others loathe it. One person called me paranoid for refusing to use his real name. But it isn't paranoia that drives my decision, it's respect. I write about being a parent because I value the connections I make with other people when I share stories. I find solace, validation, comfort, advice, and humor in other people's journeys and hope they find the same in mine. Parenting can be isolating and confidence shaking, and I like knowing I'm not in it alone. Yet in sharing my experiences, I draw the line at using my son's name or picture. I feel obligated to protect his identity until he's old enough to understand what I do and to decide if he wants his life shared with strangers. He's going to have to learn to accept, however, that between the ages of 0 and 6 his stories belong to me. The horse is already out of the barn on that one.

The question of how much privacy our kids are entitled to and exactly how much parents should share comes up frequently among parents who write about their children. Lisa Belkin has written about it here. Glennon Melton at Momastery is reconsidering how much she shares about her children now that they are older. People starting out as new bloggers ask themselves how far they are willing to go.

I don't know that there's a perfect answer. We all know that the very act of storytelling exposes our families to public examination, but we chronicle our lives publicly anyway. How we tell those stories is as personal choice as our decisions about what to share. Some writers reveal their children's names and publish family snapshots. I get that. I'm not even convinced that there's any real harm when the stories are cute or touching or sentimental or even embarrassing, although I wonder if my son will agree with me on that last one.

When the stories are darker, however, I think the lines have to be more conservatively drawn. I could not stop reading Liza Long's brave and tragic piece about her struggle with her son's mental health issues, but I still shudder when I think that she posted a picture of her 13-year-old son and called him a violent potential killer on the national stage. I don't doubt the truth of what she wrote, and I don't question her motives in sharing her story. I also think she exposed her son to the world in a way that can never be undone.

And that's the heart of my decision to hide my son behind a nickname and stock photos. The web has a finality and permanency that is easy to ignore. Stories and pictures can't be erased -- isn't that what we're trying to teach our kids about Facebook? So, even though my (and his) stories have so far been light and happy fare, no one gets to know my kid's name or see his picture until he's old enough to understand what I do and agrees that I can share that information. And maybe not even then. Because along with getting to name him, I also get to veto choices he might want to make. For now, I'll err on the side of anonymity in the hopes that some enterprising HR person Googling his name for a background check won't discover that his history of projectile vomiting and poor church attendance. And I'll cross my fingers that those are the darkest stories I'll ever have to tell.