Dear Duana,

It's taken me a long time to write this letter because every time I read the column about names it brings back very painful memories. At the time of her birth, her biological father and I were on the fritz but just trying to make it over the finish line of her arrival. I didn't realize how done he was until the baby came out. We were expecting a boy and had the name ready-to-go (Silas). Lo and behold - a baby girl. In retrospect I can see this was a big factor in his decision to check out. (Yes, gross and lame).

You probably know this but it bears repeating; the moments after a woman has a baby are some of the most vulnerable of her entire life. I was astonished to find that not only was I totally unprepared mentally for a little girl (and also DELIGHTED) but had no name prepared. Nothing. What I did have was an angry and resentful "partner" who compensated what he lacked in good taste with bright colors and confidence. Fun when we are jamming to Prince - not so fun when picking out baby names. For some reason he became adamant that the only name he liked was "Isis". My rejection of this (hello future stripper) was made out to be an anti-Egyptian bias. He later pulled the classy move of removing his name from the birth certificate when I didn't choose what he wanted. Nice.
Duana, I didn't have time to make a list. I am a list maker. I had the hospital pressuring me with a clipboard and a very overbearing mother wanting to make sure it was a "family name" whatever that means. I was somewhat pressured into choosing a name that I deeply regret. It's beautiful sure but I didn't know it was extremely popular - in fact it was the number one most popular name THAT YEAR. This from a counter-culture contrarian (me!) And although the nicknames (Ella, Bella) for Isabella both suit my adorable feisty gorgeous girl, every time I think on this moment I just feel pain. I also grieve for the names I would have chosen had I not been in a haze of postpartum depression.

Long story I know but my questions: How do I stop grieving for the Secret Names (which I can't actually use for any other kids but will save as suggestions for her someday) and do you have any unusual nickname suggestions for what has become the new Elizabeth name-wise? Plus what's to stop today's unusual name from becoming tomorrow's Jennifer?

Thanks in advance. Love your writing.


I’ve had this letter a few weeks, and obviously it doesn’t have the same pressing time constraints as some of the other letter writers who are crossing their legs waiting for a name suggestion…may I recommend ‘Duana’?

But I kept thinking about it. Especially after that Guardian article this week, which a few of you saw I was annoyed with:

Why is it mothers who carry guilt about this? Why is it always pinned on mothers to make such a huge decision, as though names are only a woman’s concern, and then in the next breath we talk about how wrong those same women get it?

I’m so sorry you have regrets about the name you chose, and that it sounds like you were surrounded by a massive amount of pressure and expectation at what I agree can be a really vulnerable time. I’m particularly sorry that the biological father turned out to be disappointing in such an incredibly boring way. Like, not even in a creative way, though points for anti-Egyptian as a criticism you don’t hear that much.

So now you have, in your words, an ‘adorable, feisty gorgeous girl’, and even if your mother is overbearing (welcome to my WORLD), it sounds like she’s in your life and cares about you and her grandchild, which is a plus.

So there are sort of two parts to this conversation. There’s you, and then there’s your daughter. Let’s deal with your daughter first. She has a name that, as you say, is very popular, and has lots of charming nicknames, like Ella and Bella. Upon a second reading of your letter, I assume she’s between 1 and 5, age-wise. So I want to point out, without any sugar-coating, what she has.

She has a name that, despite being long or ‘complicated’, will be easily understood by everyone she meets. A name she can announce proudly, without fear of ridicule or confusion from anyone in her life. She has a name that has been given to strong women throughout history and that she can admire on older kids who have the same name. In fact, she may feel an inherent sense of belonging, of being a part of a culture and a group, that someone named something more rare would not have.

She also has a name that, depending on her age, lends itself to many more nicknames than the ones you listed – not that there’s anything wrong with those.  You can call her Isa, which I really love. You can call her Bee. You can call her Bell, or Bess, or Zella or Z or anything else that suits you. You don’t have to introduce her as Isabella and then shrug apologetically as you meet her classmates, Eponine and Oleander and Leviticus. You can call her whatever you want…including Isabella, with no shame.

Remember that a popular name becomes popular because it’s a great name, objectively. Because it suits what lots of different people are looking for—those who want something classic, or timeless, or literary, or traditional. It doesn’t make you boring and it doesn’t make your daughter not special. Some of the people we admire have unusual names, yes, but just as many of them don’t, and are no less amazing as a result, as I’m sure Joanne K Rowling or Michelle Obama or Samantha Bee prove. In case you forgot, your daughter’s name still poises her to be an incredible, unique, powerful and original child and human, and all the permutations of her name that you’ll help her to see will speak to that.

It will never be Jennifer, because the popularity of the most popular names today are a fraction of what they were then. Here’s what I mean: In 1975, there were almost 59,000 Jennifers born in the United States, 32,000 Amys, and 24,000 Heathers. That is, 120,000 babies shared only three names. By contrast, in 2015, the most popular name, Emma, was given to only 20,350 babies, and Olivia, Sophia, and Ava, the next three in line, are at 19,553, 17,327, and 16,286, respectively. In general, people are making more diverse choices for the names of their children so even the popular ones are diluted.

Then we come to you, and the fact that you didn’t get to make the choice you wanted to. I’m not going to lie, it’s a great thing to get to do, and I’m sorry the opportunity wasn’t there. But you can do a few things about it. You can talk about it, explain the names you considered to your daughter (and watch her wrinkle her nose as she pictures being called Noelle, or any other name you had in mind). You can decide to add one of the names to her birth certificate, or even ‘give’ one to her on an upcoming birthday. Hell, for that matter, you can choose to add a name to your own name legally, as a nod to an idea you never got to use.

You can feel free to mourn, and you can feel rightly pissed off that the people who felt they had a say in the matter aren’t having a say in dealing with the day to day of your daughter’s life. You can happily and with my blessing give long, ridiculous names to a school of goldfish or an impressionable kitten or a series of succulents.

What you can’t do anymore, though, is imply that you’ve done anything bad to your daughter, because it’s simply not true. Having an unusual name is great in some instances—but having a well-known and beloved one can do just as more for her, and sometimes more. Let yourself feel like the great parent you so obviously are.