Our family legend goes as such: the very day I was born, my parents almost split up because they argued about my name. You see, it was back in the times when parents found out a child’s sex at birth, and my mum had been convinced I was a boy all along. When she saw me, she was overcome by a thought: maybe she should name me Clara after her mother, who had died when she was only four years old. But my dad was adamant: no naming a newborn after a “dead person”. Now: I can imagine my dad’s lack of tact (he’s often proud of it), and my mum’s mix of postpartum exhaustion and hormones as she told him to leave the hospital and not come back. Families got involved, with my dad’s side advocating for Linda as a name – after my paternal grandmother, who was alive at the time.

As in all family’s legends, the core of the drama is clear, and also easy to imagine. My parents’ arguments and fierce fights have punctuated most of my life. What is usually less clear, and maybe even less relevant, is how the resolution comes about. The legend goes as follows: my dad stayed in the hospital and eventually my parents settled for calling me Irene, after the Greek goddess of peace, wishing I could bring some balance and conflict resolution into the family. (I also got Clara and Linda as middle names, but not on my document, only at baptism, I think, or so I’m told, since I haven’t seen them officially written anywhere.)

Now: what kind of a pressure is that to put on a newborn? Come, o peaceful one, bestow some order upon our inner circle, make us more understanding and less explosive! Pfew… Sometimes, when I think of it, I realise that this role of a mediator, of being a nice thoughtful person, has been a sentence in my life. I find it hard to take a stance sometimes, and to stand up for myself, putting mediation and understanding before my own needs. Also, my brother can confirm this, I’ve always been quite a bellicose person and so must have often found myself at odds with the weight of my name.

I got to thinking about the wishes we have for our children when I read the moving piece that Tanmoy Goswami wrote on his platform Sanity by Tanmoy. “You will save me. You will save me.” This is what Tanmoy, a father with a chronic mental illness and a generous writer, caught himself saying to his son before realising he couldn’t exercise that kind of a pressure on a baby. (Do read the full piece, and support Tanmoy’s work, if you don’t do it already.)

Picking my own child’s name when the mantle fell to me felt like a big responsibility. While I was pregnant I was constantly asked what the baby was to be called (it was 2019, and modern technology allowed us to see his penis well in advance). I didn’t have an answer. We ended up deciding on Lorenzo while I was in labour, minutes before he was born. Yes, truly. I kept referring to him as “bebito”, or little baby in Spanish, and the Italian-speaking midwives thought we had picked Benito. Can you imagine picking Benito in Italy, the same first name as Mussolini?! I must have felt an inner pressure to decide on Lorenzo just to avoid any further misunderstandings.

I have to admit that we didn’t think too much about the name’s Latin origins (someone from Laurentum, a place near Rome), and I’m glad I didn’t check out sites like this one that says: “There’s just something about those Italian/Spanish names that give off such a macho vibe, but are also so poetically romantic.” We also didn’t realise that Lorenzo is the saint patron of Perugia, the central Italian city where our baby was born, making his name extremely common there. We picked it from a shortlist we had created of names that worked in Italian (my native language) and Spanish (my husband’s). While Lorenzo is not as common in Argentina as it is in Italy, it can be easily pronounced in both languages, so it was a winner. At least we had a name to put on the documents to take Lorenzo home with us. Our Greek-French neighbours had a baby two months ago and they haven’t picked his name yet. In Italy that wouldn’t be allowed, but it seems that in Greece you can wait several months until the baby is baptised to finally notify the authorities.

So, what have I projected onto my own son, in naming him Lorenzo, I ask myself? Do I expect him to help us decide where to live, or to bring more stability into my life? Do I expect him to be wise and accomplished, as the origin of the name, connected to the city of laurels, Laurentum, suggests?! I don’t think I do, but I often question myself about the subconscious burden I may be putting on him, even if I picked a name without attributing too much value to it. What I know is that I want to make sure not to box him in, just as much as I hope I can get myself outside of the “peace box”. Be Irene, but at my own will. Be more like the Greek gods and let my anger reign and change the weather, if so I will it.

One of the few images that circulates of the Greek goddess is one of her holding baby Plutus, the god of abundance, on her left arm. The metaphor is that prosperity arrives with peace, but I wonder whether there was more to my name that I couldn’t see growing up. Was it all about peace, or was there maybe a natural interest in babies and their world that came with my name?! Also, just to get the record straight: I really enjoy my name, I liked being the only girl in school called like that. I only dislike it when people pronounce it in the Anglo manner: I-reen. I pronounce it Ee-ray-nay, but I’ll tell you more about that another time!

Now over to you: do you know the origin of your name and why it was picked? Did you have something specific in mind when you named your child? I would love to hear from you! You can leave a comment below this story, just remember to log in first and then scroll to the bottom.

With this newsletter, I want to introduce a new section, partly inspired by something that Nabeelah Shabbir, my former colleague, said a few weeks ago about wanting to hear more about my process of learning a new language. So here it comes: My Greek word of the week. Since lockdown started and nurseries shut down again, I haven’t found time to continue with my Greek classes, but there are so many words we use everyday that come from Greek, and I thought this section could be a different way to reflect on our origins, from a linguistic perspective. (Plus it gives me an excuse to add some Greek lessons to my daily schedule!)

My Greek word of the week

Irene comes from Eirene or Irini, the Greek goddess of peace. The word eirini (ειρήνη) is still used in Modern Greek to mean peace.
📣 I know there are at least three native speakers of Greek in this community, so if you feel like taking over this section in the coming weeks, just ping me! And now, back to our regular programming…

What I’ve been reading

Bored, a poem by Margaret Atwood, conquered me this week. It’s full of images that speak to me of childhood and adolescence, of not having the chance to choose what to do, and having to follow along what the adults say, being bored with the imposed activities, dulled with the lack of understanding of the minutiae of life.

What I’ve been listening to

This old episode of Reply All on breastmilk is an evergreen. Producer Phia Bennin starts off her exploration by looking at parents in the US who are desperate to find breastmilk to feed their children. They aren’t able to breastfeed themselves, and formula doesn’t sit well with their kids. The episode asks a very simple but fundamental question: how is it possible that some parents have excessive milk and others need to travel miles and spend lots of money to source some? The producer explores a commercial breastmilk venture in Cambodia, Brazil’s milk sharing facilities, and the dark history of breast milk in the US. Thanks to Lynn, a member of this community, for sharing!

What I’ve been watching

What would a city designed by women look like? This BBC report just reemerged in my Twitter feed and made me think again about the importance of who designs what in our lives. BBC journalist Stephanie Hegarty visits Barcelona and looks at how a female perspective would make the city better for women, children, and possibly everyone else – by adding more toilets, more spaces for play, and eliminating cars, among other things. I must admit I got a little anxious watching this report on Barcelona, with large crowds and people touching without wearing masks. So, a warning, before you delve in: it was filmed in 2019, in pre-corona times.

Who’s been inspiring me

When I lived in London and organised parties, there was a running joke: everyone in the room was a former or current flatmate. That was partly legend and partly true because I moved around a lot and shared a (huge) house in Stamford Hill, in the north, once with another 16 people. (We called it “the commune”, but that’s a story for another time!) I can now proudly say that Phoebe Swan was one of my flatmates before she became a talented author. Her book King Leonard’s Teddy, about Leonard’s transformation into someone who cares for his environment, has brought a lot of inspiration into my household this week. Phoebe’s beautiful utopia is about how to create a more sustainable world, with people reducing consumption, reusing and recycling more.

What’s making me hopeful

Brandon Boulware, a father in Missouri, had me in tears with his moving speech defending his transgender daughter before lawmakers considering a state-wide ban on trans high school athletes. Boulware explains how hard it was for him to come to accept his own daughter. One evening he got back home and found his daughter wearing her older sister’s clothes. When he told her it was time to eat and she couldn’t go outside and play, she asked her father whether he would allow her to play outside if she put on boys’ clothes. He realised that she “was equating being good with being someone else.” You can watch his speech here, and read more about his story here.

What members are saying

Jenni, a member, sent me this quote, and I thought it was appropriate to share it: “The great man is the one who does not lose his child’s heart”. (By Mencius, The Book of Mencius, Bk. 4, Pt. 2, V. 12, trans. James Legge) Dare I add: The great woman is the one who does not lose her child’s heart? Keep filling my inbox with your thoughts, I will – slowly but surely – answer you!

What I’m missing out on and would love your help with

I’m starting to research state-run programmes that assign money to children, including ideas such as a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for children. If you know of interesting schemes in your country or are an economist, please get in touch!

With love and care,

📣 Nabeelah Shabbir, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Amsterdam. Thanks, Nabeelah! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

2 thoughts on “The unconscious burden of our first names

  1. Thank you Irene for very timely newsletter! As it happens I was thinking about our children’s names today.

    Our daughter was named after her grandmother, my partner’s mother who passed away before I met him. I still got to know her, in a way, but only through stories and photographs. Our son was named after a nineteenth-century photographer who featured in the dissertation I wrote while I was pregnant with him.

    It occurred to me that in naming a child after someone who has passed away, we are paying tribute to the person no longer here, and we’re also trying to keep their memory alive – in the same way we often take photographs in an attempt to stave off forgetfulness. But of course in both cases it only works so-so: our children’s names become attached to them, the living take over from the dead – just as photographs can often, to paraphrase Maggie Nelson, replace the memories they were meant to preserve.

    1. Lynn, thank you so much for creating such a beautiful image of what children’s names can come to represent, with life taking over from memory.
      I found myself preferring names that didn’t remind me of anyone in particular when thinking about my son. I felt an urge to give him a name that could be a sort of an empty container that I could fill up with new associations.
      For example, I love the name Diego, but being a Neapolitan married to an Argentine, it was impossible not to associate Diego with Maradona, the football star, and I ended up letting go of that name because there were too many things associated to it already.
      But I also love the idea of names as a celebration of people we admire, respect, look up to and want to remember. That’s why I think there is so much that goes into picking names, and so much more to explore in future writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *