By Any Other Name

Names aren't just how others designate you—they are how you come to own yourself

I once knew a guy who had a knack for vetting baby names. He could imagine the jeers that might dog a child with a rhyme-able first name ("Lil the Pill") or an ill-thought set of initials ("Paul Ivan Somerton—'PIS'? Try again.") He once advised someone with the surname "Chin" not to call his daughter "Isabel." Listen to it: Isabel Chin. IsabelChin. Is-a-belchin'! No way!

When I first heard this, I laughed out loud. Oh, those hubristic parents, thinking they can shield their kid from every little taunt. Then my partner and I saw that pink flag on the drugstore pregnancy test, and I understood.

For nine months, after all, you are the kid's chief environmental engineer: you decide whether to spike the umbilical meal with garlic, whether to bungee-jump or gallivant in smoky bars. You can become convinced that everything—your kid's popularity at birthday parties, her college admission, his future earning potential—depends on whether you dub the little zygote Caspian or Charles, Raven or Rachael.

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In our case, we named her before we met her, even before we knew if the tadpole fishtailing around Elissa's womb was a boy or a girl. We wanted a strong name. We wanted a beautiful name. We wanted a name our kid would thrill to hear, whether declared from a podium or murmured from a pillow.

We also wanted to follow the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition of naming after a relative who has died. That's not as confining as it sounds; modern Jews often give the baby an ancestor's Hebrew name along with a more up-to-the-minute English version. Great-Aunt Raizel's namesake could be Rebecca; Pop-Pop Yossi becomes Jesse. The Old World morphs into the New, then yearns back again: I thought of my own Jewish cohort, classrooms full of Stevens and Nancys, Lauras and Michaels, now the beaming parents of Sadie, Harry, Max and Rose, like the pinochle team at the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

"What about 'Sasha'?" I asked one day. Soft but not fussy, sturdy without being harsh. When I said it, I pictured folds of velvet, an August sky flocked with stars, the scent of warm apricots, a square of buttered toast. Elissa wasn't sure, and I felt the same about her first-pick boy's name, "Abraham." Right: the Torah's Big Man in the Desert, the one instructed by God to schlep himself and his caravan "to a place you do not know" and, in reward for this vague adventure, become the father of the Jewish people. It seemed a lot for a seven-pound being to bear.

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But the names grew on us. Just minutes after she emerged, squirmy and pink, and we ascertained her girl-ness, we whispered through our tears, "Hello, Sasha Rose Goldberg Hochman." Confidence and trepidation joined hands. We'd just marked our kid for good. I imagined the Torah's first couple naming the animals: Impala. Ostrich. Hummingbird. Did Eve nudge Adam in the middle of that night: "Honey? The cheetah? Are you sure we shouldn't have called it 'ibis' instead?"

Maybe the uncertainty was rooted in my own odd name. In Atlantic City gift shops, I used to shuffle racks of monogrammed bike plates and toothbrushes: "Abigail, Amy, Anne," but never "Anndee." As an adult, I've grown used to the momentary stutter when someone reads the message slip—"Andy called"—expects a bass voice on the phone and gets me instead.

My father once asked, after I'd come out, whether "all this" was happening because they'd given me a gender-neutral name. Oh, Dad, I wanted to sigh: I know plenty of lesbians named Susan or Catherine, and straight women called Pat or Syd. Then again, was it possible that growing up with an atypical name gave me the courage to buck the crowd? As Allison or April, might I have been coaxed into conformity, gold-scripted name-necklace shining at my throat?

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When they work, names are resilient, roomy enough to hold us as we change course, reboot our identities. We hope our kids will grow into them, and not out of them. And yet, I know adults who realized that their given names tugged like ill-cut suits. I was all for it when my best friend Heather became Hannah, when a friend's child, Shira, switched to Yonah, when my cousin Scott wanted to be called Ian.

That was before I tasted parenthood's daily bereavements. Two-year-old Sasha, who said "chicken" when she meant "kitchen" and earnestly counted "fourteen, fifteen … nexteen," is gone for good. But at least there is a new child—young woman, now—who bears the same name and occasionally offers up a glimpse of our vanished toddler. If she were to change her name, I'd feel bewildered, as though a stranger had stepped into my daughter's skin.

And what about me? I never wanted to be "Mommy." It felt diminutive, a word whined from the top of the stairs. We decided early on: Elissa would be "Mama" and I'd be "Ima," the Hebrew word for "mother." There was just one problem: Sasha wouldn't use it. For 18 months, she called me nothing. Finally, she tested a different name every day of the week: "Ma … Meema … Mom … Anndee." I responded to each one, delighted as if I'd won a prize. Tryouts over. She made up her mind. "Ama," she said, and then it was "Ama" all the time.

The name, it turned out, fits me like a bespoke shirt. At school, I'm introduced generically—"This is Sasha's mom"—and I have to refrain from glancing around: Where's the woman with the lipstick and the minivan? "Ama" sounds like "Mom" pulled inside out, which is how I feel much of the time. Try saying it: Ah-ma. I begin the day, and end it, open-mouthed.

In French and Spanish, the verb for naming is reflexive—je m'appelle; me llamo—literally, "I call myself." Today, I am "Hoch" to the colleague I call "Koch." I am "Andrew" to my dear friend Pattie, "Anndeleh" in the muzzily remembered voices of my grandmothers, "Anndd" yelled from the kitchen when the phone call is for me. Names aren't just how others designate you; they are how you come to own yourself, an identity knit through a lifetime of relationship. The calling goes both ways.

"Ama!" Sasha hollers from her bedroom. I appear at the foot of the stairs: overalls and mismatched socks, cell phone in my pocket, lentil soup splotch on my shirt. A work in progress. A woman who comes into focus a little more sharply each time her name is said.