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Before My Name Was Gabrielle, It Was Shoshanna
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Gabrielle Wasn’t Always My Name
When I was born, my parents named me Shoshanna. And then later they switched my name to Gabrielle. I had known about the name switch since I was very young — I remember seeing the name Shoshanna on some sort of form (maybe from the hospital?) in our family files. But a couple of weeks ago, when my mom was here visiting, she told me another part of my naming story.
After they decided Shoshanna was not the right name, they narrowed it down to either Annie or Gabrielle. They went back and forth for awhile and finally settled on Gabrielle and made it official on my birth certificate. About two weeks later, my mom heard a song on the radio and was sure they had made the wrong choice. Annie’s Song by John Denver was released in June 1974, the same month I was born. It’s such a great song! She thought it was a clear sign they should have named me Annie.
Personally, I think they got it right with Gabrielle. I have always appreciated my name (and my nickname Gabby) and understood at a relatively young age that my name really worked for me. It wasn’t just that my name seemed to fit me well, it was also a useful tool in my life. I could use Gabby when I was trying to be friendly or approachable, and it always made sense because I was very talkative my whole life (Gabby means talkative). I could use Gabrielle when I wanted to put out a more artistic/design-y persona, which is something I cared about. And I noticed the name Gabrielle was also a little bit intimidating to people in my community — they had seen or heard the name before so it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it seemed unusual and they felt like they needed to pronounce it with an accent or something.
I have a vivid memory of the first day of 7th grade, and meeting 7 teachers for my 7 different classes, and having a version of this conversation 7 times:
Teacher taking the role (my last name was Stanley, so I was near the end of the list):
Stanley, Gab… how do I say this? Gaawbrielle? Gabe-rielle? Gabrrrrielle?
It’s Gabrielle, but you can call me Gabby.
Gabby? Why? Do you talk too much?
Actually… well… yes.
The other thing I noticed pretty early on, is that my name was unusual enough to be memorable. This came in especially handy whenever I was running for class president or Girls State Governor, or anything like that. It was easy to remember my name and recognize it on a ballot. I’ve been told Gabrielle (and it’s variations) have become more popular since I was a kid, but growing up, I never knew another Gabrielle in my whole childhood, or in college.
It was a recognizable name, but felt out of the ordinary. I was always grateful for my name; I recognized the benefits I received from my name, and tried to make the most of those benefits.
When Ben Blair and I became parents and started our naming adventures, we didn’t know how many kids we’d end up with, but we were picturing a big family. We focused on names from our grandparent’s generation. We wanted them to be simple — easy to pronounce, and to spell. Old names that weren’t in use much anymore. We ended up using: Ralph, Maude, Olive, Oscar, Betty and Flora June as our children’s first names. I love the names individually and as a group (I love the human people with those names even more).
Looking back, we feel like confident namers, but at the beginning of our parenthood, it felt somewhat nerve-wracking. Naming a human being is a serious task. Names are powerful, and no one wants to get it “wrong”.
When naming Maude, our second child, we loved the name and settled on it mid-way through the pregnancy. The baby would be Maude, with the nickname Mimi. But right before she was born we got nervous about the name. I guess it was my Shoshanna-Gabrielle-Annie moment. Would the name Maude be too unusual for her generation? Our second choice was Mabel, and days before the birth we started leaning that direction. We figured we could still use the nickname Mimi with Mabel too. And then, at the hospital, as Maude was born, we had an amazing nurse named Miriam. And for about 24 hours, we thought the name should be Miriam — again, with the nickname Mimi. Ultimately, after all that worry, we came back to the name Maude. And we still love it.
Trying to give the “right” name feels tricky. So much is unpredictable with names. What if we like a certain name, but our child grows up and doesn’t like it? A name that seems just right today, may end up being the name of next year’s top pop-star (or criminal!) and develop a totally different feel. Which reminds me, a year or so after our fifth child, Betty, was born, the TV show Ugly Betty came out and the title totally worried me for my daughter’s sake. It was a cute show, but I was relieved when it ended after a few seasons.
When the naming process would stress me out, I tried to remind myself: Names aren’t as permanent as we like to pretend. Any adult can go fill out a form, and pay a fee, and officially change their name. It’s a pain to make it all official, but it can be done, and people do it every day. Or, you can make a name change without making it official — you can move somewhere (a new neighborhood, or new job), and introduce yourself with a totally different name and no one will question it or know otherwise. Or, you can ask the people you know right this minute to call you a different name, and most of the time, they will be totally willing to do so.
Speaking of which, Flora June goes by June when speaking English, and Flora when speaking French. Her French friends only call her Flora, her English friends only call her June. (And I refer to her as Flora June if I mention her on Instagram, because I know both her French and English friends might be seeing the posts.)
How about you? Did you like your name as a child? Do you feel like your name fits?And if you’ve ever had to name another human being, did you enjoy the process? Or worry about getting it right? Do your kids like their names? How about pets? Did you enjoy naming your pets? And have you ever named a home, or a car? Any name switching stories like mine? Any names that got away? Favorite names that you never got the chance to use? I’d love to hear.
A Few Things I’ve Wanted To Share With You
-I appreciate this opinion piece in the Washington Post about getting menopause research back on track. So important. The more we talk about menopause and perimenopause the better. Share what we’re going through, ask questions openly — every time we do we help the people around us.
-According to data, people are drinking less alcohol these days. Fascinating. Virginia Heffernan’s article in Wired is about new trendy ways of getting sober that are replacing AA. She’s not convinced they work.
-An interview in the Atlantic with Arlie Hochschild, who coined the term “emotional labor” — a term which is currently used very differently than originally intended.
-Good advice about using the delete/mute/block tools available. Not everyone agrees with how I choose to moderate my newsletters, blog posts, Instagram posts, etc.. But I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and trust my practice and experience.
-From Mother Jones: “I Have Studied Child Protective Services for Decades. It Needs to Be Abolished. It’s shockingly easy for CPS to destroy poor, Black families.” This is a stressful and important read.
-I like to buy a pair of Vans at the beginning of the summer and just wear them out till they are faded and ripped. This summer I want the yellow ones. (Last summer I wore blue vans, the summer before that, red vans, so I guess I’m sticking with a primary color theme.)
-U.S. citizens applying for a passport can now select the gender "X" on their applications in addition to the previously available "F" and "M" options. This seems like a very good thing to me. (Want more discussion on gender? Try my recent newsletters.)
That’s all for now. I hope you’re having a lovely weekend, and I hope you’ll share all your favorite name stories.