The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: They’re about to give their baby the same name as his grandma’s ex

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: We are planning to name our first child, due in a couple of months, Samuel. It’s a timeless name and most people probably have multiple associations with it (i.e. it’s not Madonna or Rihanna). It is also a family name on both sides, belonging to my father-in-law, with whom we have a close relationship, and my late grandfather and several other relatives we love. We like the name, too. We aren’t announcing it until he is born.

The issue is that my in-laws divorced nearly a decade ago, and my mother-in-law has never gotten over it. She is still sad and confused about the divorce, which he initiated. She has built a very nice life for herself but struggles to move on emotionally; she has refused requests from her children that she seek counseling.

In the context of another new baby in the family recently, she said she hoped they wouldn’t use Samuel. (They didn’t.)

We love my mother-in-law and still do not want to change the name. My husband and I are both prepared to listen to her feelings if/when she needs to express them.

Are we total [jerks] for choosing this name?

— Am I the [Jerk], Baby-Name Edition

Am I the [Jerk], Baby-Name Edition: Total [jerks], no. But kind of. You plan to do this knowing it will cause pain to someone in your inner circle for reasons that aren’t capricious. So you have to own that.

Have a look at your own question, and all the pre-justifying you do for choosing the name. That tells me you know exactly what you're doing and you're looking to be absolved. “See? We have all these other great reasons to choose this name, so we're not bad people!”

I'm not exactly thrilled with the way your mother-in-law is dealing with this, holding on to the pain and refusing counseling, and attempting to hold the next generation's naming autonomy hostage.

But there are thousands of names out there, and you've decided to choose one that's loaded and symbolic. Okay. Like I said, that doesn't mean you have to change it, just that you have to own it and any foreseeable consequences it brings.

I suggest you do so by talking to the mother-in-law directly, now. Better your husband does so one-on-one.

Re: Baby name: I would strongly urge you to reconsider. Our story in a nutshell: Seconds after our child’s birth, a nurse asked us for the name. We were torn between two and the crew in the OR voted. “Izzy” (for Isabella) was christened. Izzy has an older cousin, “Bella” (also for Isabella). Well, Bella’s parents did not think it was cute, and in fact they were quite offended. They had their reasons, which we disagreed with but tried to respect. We have finally come through this, but it took a toll for a while. If you announce the name at birth, it will throw a major wrench into what’s supposed to be a miraculous time.

— Izzy’s Parent

Re: Baby name: Curious why they should tell the mother-in-law before baby arrives, not after. What is the advantage?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Because the baby deserves as close as possible to 100 percent of the family’s uncomplicated attention, a goal undermined by forcing the mother-in-law to process complicated feelings just as the baby arrives.