By Lisa Regula Meyer
Names have never been easy for me, as is the case for many people, in part because names mean so much to us. Names identify us, names denote categories, names mark from where we come and to whom we belong. They show both our individual and familial identifications.
As kids, names can be a source of torment. Whether it’s peers teasing one another over unique names, or having to correct teachers over mispronunciations, having a name outside of the norm isn’t easy for kids. Adults don’t mean to call out differences with their blunders, and people have become far more sensitive over the years on this topic, but if you’re the kid with the mispronounced name, it’s little consolation. Children’s peers, on the other hand, seem to revel in being mean and picking out differences. Again, we’re getting better at teaching kids to not be such jerks, but there’s still that Lord of the Flies, uncontrollable Id that too often takes over in children. Growing up with the name “Regula,” I very quickly got used to correcting mispronunciations, as most kids who face that problem do, and luckily, my first name didn’t seem to lend itself very much to taunting on the playground. In that respect, I was very fortunate to have been born a girl- my parents always held that had I been a boy, I would have been Oofa, Omar, or Guido, and I was never sure how serious they were about that possibility.
As adults, names can be tricky also, especially as we navigate the waters into adulthood and defining ourselves. More than a few of us struggle with how to self-identify, whether to keep a more child-like version of our name that we’ve always gone by, such as “Billy” or “Susie,” or move on to more mature sounding variants. Parents, family members, and long time friends may not be comfortable with our choice of a grown-up name, or may simply struggle with remembering to make the switch to the new-favored choice. Larger identification issues, like those faced by transgender individuals, can cause even more strife for the individual and relationships. Last names also pose problems as we grow, as we decide how to identify ourselves within the larger framework of our family, both blood relations and the families we create with our partners. Poor relationships with our parents may push us away from our family name, and make taking the name of a spouse- or simply changing our names- easier, while a strong sense of heritage may make changing names not an option. The latter usually necessitates discussion about how then to show our union with another individual and the formation of our own family unit. Do you hyphenate? Combine names into something new? Both take an entirely different name? Or just each keep your respective name? And the addition of children can replay the whole discussion over again.
My family had always pounded the drum of “heritage” pretty loudly, and grew up proud of my German roots and my strong family name as symbols of who I was. My name was me, a symbol to the world of who I belonged to and how I fit in, even if it did cause me to stand out every time a teacher struggled with it (really, it’s not that difficult to pronounce, so I never understood why it caused such problems). After my father’s death, my name came to mean even more to me, and one of the few benefits that I saw to children was the chance to honor my father by naming a human after him. I was as strong as my name implied, I told myself, and vowed never to subsume my surname under the surname of a spouse. One of my major prerequisites for potential partners was their being OK with me not taking their name, as to me, this dual name symbolized the partnership that I wanted to have with a spouse, and the partnership that I had seen in my parents’ relationship.
For my husband and me, we were both tied to our family names when we got married, and the original decision was for both of us to take both last names, showing our commitment to each other and our families. I was thrilled to have found someone who shared my feminist ideas of equality in marriage. Eleven years later, he’s never found the time to legally change his name, while I struggle consistently to have my full name recognized (you really don’t want to be the one that mistakenly refers to me as Dr. Meyer, or worse, Mrs. Meyer). With the addition of our son, for some reason I thought naming him to match what Dwight and I had originally decided on- Regula Meyer- would somehow make things easier, and lessen the mistakes that left my name out of the equation. You can imagine how well that plan worked.
So now in 2012, our household finds itself once again deliberating over names and identification. The latest bump in the road came up as Kenny has decided to sign his name as “Kenny Meyer.” Part of me can understand his decision to do so; for a first grader, writing his full name would be a daunting task. But part of me is sad over this, because it feels like a rejection of my contribution to his life. And so as a family we talk. About what names mean, about who we are, about who we want to be, about how we fit together, about how we value each other. As I struggle to define myself and my life, he’s defining himself as well. All I can do for either of us is work toward both of us doing what feels right for ourselves, and trust that the work we’ve put into this life that we have together has created strong enough bonds to hold through any storm, even the Frankenstorm that is growing up.