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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: When Do a Person's Flaws Rule Out Using an Honor Name?

Amanda writes:
Love your blog and read it nearly every day!  My husband and I have started having "when should we have children" talks and it looks like 2013 is the year! When I think of babies, I think of names, and thankfully we both love our family names and want to use honor names as often as possible.

But I have a question and would like your opinion because I am torn.  When it comes to an honor name, should the name be use based on your (the parent's) personal experience with the person being honored or based on the actual personality?  Let me be more specific - my grandfather's name was Everett and I have loved the name my whole life.   Hubby likes it too.  I have nothing but fond memories of my grandfather from when I was younger, though he was a bit more difficult in his old age the year before he died.  I was his only granddaughter and he was always so good to me.  However, I've since learned that he really wasn't that nice of a person - he drank a lot, went out "dancing till all hours," as my grandmother put it,  and my family thinks he was verbally abusive to my grandmother, who was beyond a saint.  She was the strongest woman I've ever known, and now I know why she had to be that strong.

I still love my grandfather and have amazing memories of fishing and playing baseball with him, but the more I learn about how he treated my grandmother and my father, I can't help but want to distance myself from him.  I'm not too worried about hurting people feelings with the name - my father could care less what we name our hypothetical children - but do I really want to name my son after a terrible husband and father but a wonderful grandfather?

Thank you so much for any insight!


Interesting topic. I think if I were you I might start by doing a little more gentle investigation (keeping in mind the reliability of each source you ask). "Family thinks he was verbally abusive" is hard to interpret, and could vary hugely from "He thought she needed him to be in charge of her, the way even good men thought two or three generations ago, even though it seems appalling now" to "He called her a stupid worthless bitch if she under-salted the soup" to "Well, no one ever heard or saw anything, but we feel like it's the kind of thing he would have been capable of and we're a generation that expects our parents to be perfect in every way or else get blamed in therapy." To me, it's a good sign that your dad wouldn't care if you used the name: if he felt his dad was a truly terrible husband and terrible father who abused him and his mom, it seems like he would mind the idea of his grandson having that name.

Every single human being is a mix of good parts and bad parts, no exceptions. Your grandmother may have seemed like a saint, but she too had a set of normal human flaws, just as we all do---things she managed to keep the family from knowing about, or things that don't make good stories, or things you'll find out later. It sounds like the things you're finding about your grandfather fall within normal range: maybe drinking too much, maybe going out dancing when your grandmother would have preferred him not to (there's nothing wrong with dancing late at night per se), maybe not being entirely nice to everyone. If it hadn't been those things, it would have been other things: maybe instead he would have smoked, forgotten birthdays, been relentlessly critical of his daughter-in-law, and spent all weekend watching sports when your grandmother would have preferred him not to.

Or perhaps more investigation will reveal that your grandfather's own set of flaws WERE beyond the usual realm: maybe he persistently called your grandmother names, and told her it was her own fault he slept with other women every night he went out dancing. Maybe the things you find out will change the way you think of him: you'll feel the good parts of his personality you experienced can't possibly make up for your new knowledge of the bad parts.

And that's where I think the line naturally falls: I think that if someone's personality/behaviors are bad enough that you shouldn't use that person's name, that's the point at which it will happen naturally that you'll no longer WANT to use the name. It feels icky to come up with an example, but I think it'll be a useful exercise if we do it quickly and don't think about it too much: imagine if you'd always wanted to use the name of an beloved uncle, and then found out he was a pedophile who'd put a secret camera in your childhood bathroom. I don't think you'd be writing to me wondering if you should let that bother you, considering what happy childhood memories you had of him; you wouldn't even WANT to use the name anymore, no matter how many years you'd loved it.

This is why when you ask me about your grandfather's name, I suspect it means his flaws fell within normal range. It can be startling and upsetting to learn such things about people we love, but so far you haven't told me anything that makes me think it would be inappropriate to use his name.

If you're shying away from the name because you think it's not appropriate to honor a person who had flaws, I'd urge you to reconsider: otherwise, you'll rule out every single honor name. But if as you learn more about your grandfather's particular flaws, you find you want to distance yourself from him, then it would not be a kindness or an honor to give your son his name. Emmett, Evan, or Elliot would also be nice choices.

8 comments:

call me nora said...

Both my children have honor names from my family as middle names. They are for my grandparents, I have very fond memories of them. For me, that was important. I'm sure other family members had their own personal issues with these specific people, but my memories trump that. I say go with what you feel -- does the name give YOU a good feeling and are you proud to be able to use the name for your child? If so, it would be a lovely honor name.

Kelley said...

I'm in a similar conundrum. I love my great-grandfather's name (Kieran) but he was by ALL accounts a horrible person. However, everyone who has any actual memories of him has already passed, all that is left are the stories passed down about him. So I guess for me the question is at what point can we move past it being an "honor" name, and into it just being an old "family" name found up in our family tree?

Lucky for me, I don't have plans to have kids for a few years yet, so I have some time to figure it out ;-)

Anonymous said...

Is your grandmother still alive? If so, I think getting her opinion would be helpful. If your dad has siblings, talking to them might help as well. Personally, I think if I had any doubts about a family name, I'd probably just take the name off the list. There are so many lovely names out there-I'm sure there is someone else in your family you'd like to honor. You could also consider moving it to the middle slot. You'd still get to use the name you love, but in the middle position it's less likely to cause offense to someone else in the family.

The Mrs. said...

GREAT question!

I truly think a lot of people have struggled with your very situation. I don't have a lot of wisdom to offer, but if it were me, I'd take a pass on the name for a few reasons:

a) All it would take is one absent-minded, sideways comment from your dad or grandmother about your grandfather to make your son say, "Which grandpa? The one I was named after? What was wrong with him?" Ouch!

b) If you and your husband are hoping for other children, would you use honor names for each of them? If so, do you have a nice list to pull from, or do you have a bunch of unusable names?

c) What face do you imagine your dad making in the hospital when you introduce him to his father's namesake? Bittersweet? Pained? Proud? From your letter, it sounds like that may be a toss up.

Whatever you decide, may your new year be blessed with the joy of a child! Best wishes to you both!

Anonymous said...

This one hits home for me. My great-grandfather (who I knew) was a philandering husband and absentee father. But he was a loving, caring, generous, wise, devoted grandfather. My uncle considered him to be a second father. For my great-grandfather, grandkids were a chance to try again. Maybe your grandfather saw his relationship with you similarly.

With honor names, you're honoring YOUR relationship with a person. If it's not hurtful to other family members, I see no reason not to honor a special relationship with a flawed but loving grandfather.

Anonymous said...

Any long-running name has been worn by someone flawed, guaranteed. The difference here is you knew the person. I have to second the opinion that your future son, should you choose Everett, will be named after your dear grandfather, not the earlier, less likable version of him. Unless you hear detailed accounts of truly terrible behavior, I would use the name and accept that he was a different man when you knew him.

Anonymous said...

I don't usually comment anonymously, but in this case I am- we found out after my grandfather's death that he had in fact done some very awful pedophile-y things to one of my uncles when he was a child. It falls SO far outside every experience I had with my grandfather and seems so unlike him that we were all in great shock. My sister had ALREADY used his name as her oldest son's middle name and now wishes she hadn't done so.
The most awkward thing about the situation for me is the fact that some of the remaining family doesn't believe the story and chose not to tell some of my cousins, so they comment on how wonderful it is that his name is honored, and what a great man he was.
I have great memories of my grandfather and never had any inappropriate dealings with him my whole life, but I do feel like the name and any memory I have are tainted in the light of this revelation, and honestly I'm glad the name was used before I had a son- I'd planned to use it too. And didn't.

Anonymous said...

i gave my first daughter my maternal grandmother's name because i loved her and she had recently passed. I knew that some people in the family had issues with her, but i had good memories, so who cares? Only recently did I find out how horrible and selfish her behavior was with my mother and her brother. So much so that I am changing my daughter's middle name as my grandmother no longer deserves to be honored. I really regret naming my daughter after her and I wish I had understood earlier how horrible she was.