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What's in a Name?

Me, at Safari Park
Me, at Safari Park

Every family has its issues, and mine is no exception. I could tell I’d reached a new phase in my life when, at a recent family gathering (the clan collided at Heather’s place to celebrate my birthday), I suddenly saw my family, and family in general, in a new light. What I hadn’t realized before that moment was that I’d been controlling the lights the whole time.

I’ve heard the term, “drawn back into the fold,” used for sheep who have found their way home after wandering away from the flock. But my experience is better than that. I went away feeling like a black sheep (which in many ways I was) and returned to my flock not white like the others, but not black either – I was a color of my own creation, one that suited me better than black or white.

My parents named me Barbara. Barbara Anne. But it never felt like me. As a child, I yearned for something more elaborate, something frilly. I would daydream about being called Alexandra – it was exotic, polysyllabic; I loved the way the L sound brought my tongue to the roof of my mouth. In high school, friends shortened my name to Barb. But that was abrupt for some, too harsh. I earned nicknames such as Party Barb, which I did my best to live up to.

In an article she wrote for Psychology Today, Dr. Elisabeth Waugaman references the Native American attitude toward names and identity, which is that names should change as a person changes. “Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are.” I like this concept.

Not long after high school, my friends in the party scene (read: rave) nicknamed me Barbarella. Now I had two identities -- Barbara by day, Barbarella by night. And still, the former felt awkward somehow, like a dress that was tailored for someone else, and in a smaller size.

When I met David, I introduced myself as Barbarella, despite what my driver’s license said. That’s how he introduced me to his parents as well. At first I felt like I’d committed some crime -- not an identity theft, but definitely something fraudulent. It wasn’t until David and I eloped, when I changed my name for real, that this feeling of deception faded away.

Now when family members call me “Barbara” I get that familiar twinge of awkwardness. It’s just not me. Waugaman described a woman who felt she was “all grown-up” when she “grew into” her given name. “The challenge with this circular evolution,” she writes, "is to remember that once we have grown into our given names, we have not attained the goal but only started the journey. The Native American naming tradition inspires the individual to continue to change throughout life.”

While sitting with my family, I looked at my sisters, at their children, and understood that I wasn’t the only one who had changed, the only one who had broken free of my childhood identity, from the white of the flock, to paint my own color on the world. Gone were all of the feuds of young sisters – sitting before me were women, mothers, each as changed by life as I was. I was reminded of my favorite Broadway shows – my sisters and I had split from the family to go off and sing our own songs, each tune specific to our individualities, but at the end of the show, there we were, grown-ups all together on the stage, our separate songs somehow joining together, overlapping, breaking off and overlapping again, to create one powerful harmony.

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Me, at Safari Park
Me, at Safari Park

Every family has its issues, and mine is no exception. I could tell I’d reached a new phase in my life when, at a recent family gathering (the clan collided at Heather’s place to celebrate my birthday), I suddenly saw my family, and family in general, in a new light. What I hadn’t realized before that moment was that I’d been controlling the lights the whole time.

I’ve heard the term, “drawn back into the fold,” used for sheep who have found their way home after wandering away from the flock. But my experience is better than that. I went away feeling like a black sheep (which in many ways I was) and returned to my flock not white like the others, but not black either – I was a color of my own creation, one that suited me better than black or white.

My parents named me Barbara. Barbara Anne. But it never felt like me. As a child, I yearned for something more elaborate, something frilly. I would daydream about being called Alexandra – it was exotic, polysyllabic; I loved the way the L sound brought my tongue to the roof of my mouth. In high school, friends shortened my name to Barb. But that was abrupt for some, too harsh. I earned nicknames such as Party Barb, which I did my best to live up to.

In an article she wrote for Psychology Today, Dr. Elisabeth Waugaman references the Native American attitude toward names and identity, which is that names should change as a person changes. “Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are.” I like this concept.

Not long after high school, my friends in the party scene (read: rave) nicknamed me Barbarella. Now I had two identities -- Barbara by day, Barbarella by night. And still, the former felt awkward somehow, like a dress that was tailored for someone else, and in a smaller size.

When I met David, I introduced myself as Barbarella, despite what my driver’s license said. That’s how he introduced me to his parents as well. At first I felt like I’d committed some crime -- not an identity theft, but definitely something fraudulent. It wasn’t until David and I eloped, when I changed my name for real, that this feeling of deception faded away.

Now when family members call me “Barbara” I get that familiar twinge of awkwardness. It’s just not me. Waugaman described a woman who felt she was “all grown-up” when she “grew into” her given name. “The challenge with this circular evolution,” she writes, "is to remember that once we have grown into our given names, we have not attained the goal but only started the journey. The Native American naming tradition inspires the individual to continue to change throughout life.”

While sitting with my family, I looked at my sisters, at their children, and understood that I wasn’t the only one who had changed, the only one who had broken free of my childhood identity, from the white of the flock, to paint my own color on the world. Gone were all of the feuds of young sisters – sitting before me were women, mothers, each as changed by life as I was. I was reminded of my favorite Broadway shows – my sisters and I had split from the family to go off and sing our own songs, each tune specific to our individualities, but at the end of the show, there we were, grown-ups all together on the stage, our separate songs somehow joining together, overlapping, breaking off and overlapping again, to create one powerful harmony.

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Comments
5

Great piece.

Aunt Diane

Sept. 28, 2011

Ted D.: Wow, a bit to think about in that one. I like the Native American naming concept, it really is more appropriate. Thanks!

Sept. 28, 2011

I really enjoyed reading this.

I named my son Beniamino (partly because of my admiration for San Francisco's favorite artist, Beniamino Bufano; and partly to give him the Italian version of my husband's name, Benjamin).

Then, he picked up the nickname of "Monk" in middle school and it stuck. Once, he asked me if my feelings would be hurt if he legally changed his name. He wanted to keep his first name, but change his middle name to Monk. Since his middle name is my last name; I suppose I was a tad disappointed and didn't give a clear answer.

He never did go through with the change.

Maybe I should contact him and let him know that changing his name would be a good thing, if he feels his birth name does not fit.

PS: I've ALWAYS hated my name.

Sept. 28, 2011

Whenever I see or hear the question of your title I cannot help but remember a Popeye the Sailor cartoon where he answers it: "a rose by any other name would still smell as much." My given name is Frederick, and I embrace the entirety of it now, even though my family still calls me Fred. I vividly recall the beginning of 3rd grade when my teacher asked me what I wanted to be called. This actually stunned me as I thought, "You mean I get to choose? Do you need an answer RIGHT NOW???" I needed time to think about this monumental proposal. But the teacher was waiting, and there were others in class waiting too. "They all call me 'Fred'" and my fate was sealed. I was 8 years old and aghast at flubbing my one and only chance to create myself... or so I thought. It was an internet community that required 'real' names as a condition of membership that inadvertently re-christened me, banishing mental images of "Fred Flintstone" and "Freddy-the-Freeloader" to my anxiety closet.

Thank you so much for sharing yourself. Frederick, the Scaleman.

Sept. 28, 2011

Always hated my name as well, and I think it's the same (first) as bohemianopus, if I'm not mistaken.

I mean, a kid's born 8 pounds 6 ounces, round as a bowling ball, and you name her something that's going to rhyme perfectly with "fatty?" (Thanks a lot, mums and popsy. Made for an especially delightful childhood.)

As for Barbarella, what 'I' always think of is this of course: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Xo6FaypcpY&feature=related

:)

Oct. 4, 2011

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