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What’s in a Name?

what's in a name

Me, at Safari Park

Every family has its issues, and mine is no exception. I could tell I’d reached a new phase in my life when, at a recent family gathering (the clan collided at Heather’s place to celebrate my birthday), I suddenly saw my family, and family in general, in a new light. What I hadn’t realized before that moment was that I’d been controlling the lights the whole time.

I’ve heard the term, “drawn back into the fold,” used for sheep who have found their way home after wandering away from the flock. But my experience is better than that. I went away feeling like a black sheep (which in many ways I was) and returned to my flock not white like the others, but not black either – I was a color of my own creation, one that suited me better than black or white.

My parents named me Barbara. Barbara Anne. But it never felt like me. As a child, I yearned for something more elaborate, something frilly. I would daydream about being called Alexandra – it was exotic, polysyllabic; I loved the way the L sound brought my tongue to the roof of my mouth. In high school, friends shortened my name to Barb. But that was abrupt for some, too harsh. I earned nicknames such as Party Barb, which I did my best to live up to.

In an article she wrote for Psychology Today, Dr. Elisabeth Waugaman references the Native American attitude toward names and identity, which is that names should change as a person changes. “Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are.” I like this concept.

Not long after high school, my friends in the party scene (read: rave) nicknamed me Barbarella. Now I had two identities — Barbara by day, Barbarella by night. And still, the former felt awkward somehow, like a dress that was tailored for someone else, and in a smaller size.

When I met David, I introduced myself as Barbarella, despite what my driver’s license said. That’s how he introduced me to his parents as well. At first I felt like I’d committed some crime — not an identity theft, but definitely something fraudulent. It wasn’t until David and I eloped, when I changed my name for real, that this feeling of deception faded away.

Now when family members call me “Barbara” I get that familiar twinge of awkwardness. It’s just not me. Waugaman described a woman who felt she was “all grown-up” when she “grew into” her given name. “The challenge with this circular evolution,” she writes, “is to remember that once we have grown into our given names, we have not attained the goal but only started the journey. The Native American naming tradition inspires the individual to continue to change throughout life.”

While sitting with my family, I looked at my sisters, at their children, and understood that I wasn’t the only one who had changed, the only one who had broken free of my childhood identity, from the white of the flock, to paint my own color on the world. Gone were all of the feuds of young sisters – sitting before me were women, mothers, each as changed by life as I was. I was reminded of my favorite Broadway shows – my sisters and I had split from the family to go off and sing our own songs, each tune specific to our individualities, but at the end of the show, there we were, grown-ups all together on the stage, our separate songs somehow joining together, overlapping, breaking off and overlapping again, to create one powerful harmony.


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