Duana Names: Bye Bye Birdie?*
I am a longtime fan of your name column. I actually have a naming question about my two year old daughter's name, or, rather, her nickname. Should we at some point transition her to her real name? If so, when?
As background: we have three wonderful daughters, Charlotte, Elizabeth and Eleanor. Yes, we are traditionalists who are (unintentionally) on-trend with "classic" names, and perhaps a bit boring. But all three names together are beautiful and fit. My husband and I also are not really nickname people- Charlotte is not Charlie or Lottie. I have been asked if Eleanor can be called Ellie or Elle, and my response is, "sure, but I am going to call her Eleanor." We chose Elizabeth because it is beautiful in its long form, but we never took to any of its many diminutives. But here is the big exception to all of this- and it is a BIG exception- No one calls Elizabeth by her given name. She is known by all as Birdie.
My oldest chose the nickname. She wanted to name her sister "little bird" when she was born. We thought it was cute and sweet and perfect for a new baby. It was also a way to be fun with her name, but have Elizabeth on paper. Elizabeth feels like such a big name for a little baby.
I think we envisioned dual names - Elizabeth who is fondly called Birdie by close friends and family. What we didn't anticipate is that "Elizabeth" is never used, except at the doctor's office- she doesn't even really know it is her "real" name. Because of this, we asked her preschool to call her Birdie so she wouldn't be confused. And so on- it is self-perpetuating. Let's be clear: even if Birdie is a little twee (and we would never have put it on her birth certificate), we love it and it suits our daughter as she is today. Our dilemma (and disagreement) is what we do going forward.
My husband thinks we should transition her to Elizabeth before Kindergarten. His primary concern seems to be that she might be teased at having a "weird" name and possibly called "Dirty Birdie," because it rhymes. I think he also, deep down, feels like "Birdie" is a name for a baby, not a big kid or adult.
I argue that in this day and age, Birdie is not a weird name, and certainly not a weird nickname. That if Lady Bird was a First Lady, certainly an elementary student can be Birdie. (We are in Texas and Lady Bird's name and legacy are everywhere). I also believe that Birdie is how she knows herself, that that cat is out of the bag and we shouldn't mess with her identity. She will naturally become aware of Elizabeth as her name as she grows older, and if she wants she is free to be called Elizabeth instead. We could even ask her before she starts kinder- my oldest was well aware of her full name by that age, and I know many parents who let their kids decide how they will be called when school starts. For that matter, she may always want to be Birdie. Who knows! Now that she has this name, I don't want to make that decision for her. I also note as an aside that any name can be used to tease. Kids who want to do that will always find a way. But really, deep down, I argue with him because I really love the name Birdie for our little girl.
So we have this conversation every so often, and disagree. Meanwhile we maintain the status quo. What I want is your opinion- when should we let go of a nickname? I love my little Bird, but should I start to transition her to Elizabeth, at least publicly? Is it possible to have it both ways?
I love this note so much, and I love that in your nickname-free family, ‘Birdie’ has become something else: the name that really suits your little girl. I also wonder if there’s something kind of charming to be gleaned from the fact that you thought it was meant to be for close friends and family, but it wound up being for everyone—maybe this is the kind of kid your little girl is, the kind whom everyone feels close to and loves. It’s clear that it’s an affection-based nickname, as I think it does even when it’s used as a real name, a la Busy Phillips’ daughter (and Busy Phillips herself, I guess, whose real name is Elizabeth).
Obviously, just because you call someone something affectionate-sounding doesn’t mean you feel that way about them, as in, I’m sure Jennifer Love Hewitt has been referred to as ‘JLH’ primarily because nobody can actually deal with addressing her as ‘Love’ to her face, but I think you could see this as a nice thing that your daughter seems to inspire in everyone who meets her (and knows her real name).
Beyond that, well—while I am a proud eyeroller at anything too ethereal or feelings-based, and do not have time for the people who tell me, "You know, we took three options to the hospital, and he wanted to be called Judson! We didn’t name him at all!”, I suspect this is a scenario where your daughter is going to choose her own name.
That is, she’s a toddler now, and while she may change a lot between now and kindergarten, God knows toddlers have a lot of opinions, and some of them stick. In fact, my own kid demanded to be called Elizabeth at this age, no joke, because he was so in love with The Paper Bag Princess. So if she loves it, and if, as you say, this is how she sees herself, she’s not going to be bothered by anyone who doesn’t get just how majestic a name it is to her. (Also, is your older daughter getting enough credit for having coined it?)
Furthermore, even though you don’t love nicknames, it doesn’t mean she, or any of your daughters, won’t someday. You knew when you chose Elizabeth that you might someday wind up with a teenage girl who called herself Beth—just as Charlotte may choose Lottchen and Eleanor may become, I don’t know, LeNoire. Birdie is just getting a jump on things, and though you could say it’s different because she hasn’t yet had the choice, you’re clearly about to give her one.
My personal suggestion is twofold. First, I think you should explain more to her about the concept of nicknames as she gets older, and, as you tell all three of your girls about their names, and how much you love them and why you chose them, point out that you loved ‘Elizabeth’. You can even give her examples of cool ones she may or may not want to identify with—see my Munsch-submission above.
Then, as she gets the idea that she has a choice—that she is both Birdie and Elizabeth—you can ask her, before low-stakes, impermanent interactions like swimming lessons or giving a name at the coffee shop, which one she’d like to be introduced as. A variation on this is to refer to her as “Birdie Elizabeth” or etc, making them both her name, and then gradually transitioning to Elizabeth alone – but that’s if you want to make the command decision to drop Birdie altogether, and I don’t think you do.
In fact, I think what you’re really asking is whether I think it’s okay for a kid to be called this ‘not-serious’ name, and my answer is, of course I do. My objections to less-serious names are always about the impact on the kid, who doesn’t have any control over the fact that their name might lead them to be perceived in a given way. Your daughter, though, has options—a full name that she can use if she wants to and that she understands ‘belongs’ to her, two sisters who wear names with ‘gravitas’, and frankly, awesome parents who chose a nickname she loved and identifies with in the first place.
However, I have a couple of caveats. One is that I think you should keep talking to her about it, and always checking in about whether she wants to change her mind (while not leading the witness, for a reason I’ll get to in a second.) I’ve known a number of kids who wanted to change a youthful nickname once they got to a certain age (or even adulthood) and it can be tricky, so make sure that if she decides to go back to Elizabeth that she has your support.
The other caveat is about leading the witness…I am actually surprised to say I don’t get any sort of poutiness from your letter at all, so kudos on that—because if it was me, I might feel a little pouty about the inadvertent backseating of a name I loved. I wonder if this may be a part of your husband’s reaction, and if so, I think that’s fair enough; ‘we’re happy with whatever you choose’ is a hard enough balance for parents to strike to begin with, let alone when they actually made a choice themselves that’s being disregarded. But I wouldn’t worry too much about teasing—as you say, kids get teased about everything: names, nicknames, things they do in gym class inadvertently—and there’s no worry about that here.
In fact, we may be having a different conversation in a decade’s time when she insists you drop her ‘babyish’ nickname and call her only Elspeth, spelled like that, and you’re like ‘remember when we worried about Birdie?’
Let me know!!
*Sorry about the predictability of that title, but what else was I going to do? It commands that title. It begs for it!
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