Rejecting the Name My Parents Chose


My birth name provides a story, but it’s not the most important story. My original moniker embodied my parents’ dreams for me, but their unwavering acceptance of my name change manifested their love. Ironically, eschewing my name may be the most Jo March decision I’ve ever made. Instead of offending my parents, my act of defiance might have made them look at each other with a self-satisfied smirk.

“What they wanted for you was way ahead of its time, including or maybe especially the rejection of conventional gender roles,” Ms. Redmond assured me. “They could have given you another androgynous name like Jamie or a literary name like Scarlett, but they gave you a name with a clear role model whose name was in fact chosen by Louisa May Alcott to telegraph qualities like independence and rejection of gender roles and societal norms.” (And we’re not even getting into the messages in the name of the March family’s handsome neighbor, Laurie.)

She added, “You were definitely an outlier for making such an early switch — and your parents were for allowing you to do it.”

When it came to naming our daughter, Lexi, my husband and I chose her first and middle name to celebrate my parents’ memories. Taking the “L” from my mother’s name “Lynn” was a sentimental nod and didn’t feel too onerous. My father’s name was Sidney. For a while we were thinking of naming her Sydney or Syd — like Jo, a historical feminization of a male name. But I couldn’t face uttering my father’s name every time I cheered for her at a soccer game. We decided that Lexi’s middle name would be Syd, a name that carries her grandfather into the present by whispering his enduring presence.

I’d like to think Lexi will keep her first and middle names as-is. I might feel a tug of regret if she didn’t. Or maybe I’d be proud of her Jo-like confidence and moxie, as I like to imagine my parents were of me.

The author Anita Diamant has written about the task of naming babies. She says choosing a name for your child is a second act of conception — that names begin the job of shaping human beings. Names carry forward tradition, give children an identity, and frame the way they are seen in the world. Was my parents’ choice of my name prophetic or did it in some small way nudge me toward my future? Maybe the answer is both. And neither.

My parents nurtured the Jo-like character traits they most wanted me to embody. That was their greatest gift to me. My birth name carries enormous power, still, even though I decline to use it and have never shared it publicly until now. I can draw comfort in knowing that the name is there, like an heirloom tucked away in an attic. Jo is my inheritance. It reminds me I’m still my parents’ daughter.

Allison Gilbert is the author of “Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.”

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