Q&A: What's in a name?

Today's question is from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. This one made me laugh, but only because it would piss me off to be on the receiving end of it:

"What do you say to family members who just aren't that dumb, but are acting like idiots?

In our family, we have four last names: MyLastName, Husband'sLastName, StepDaughter'sLastName and just to make things fun, we gave the last two kids in the family a hyphenated last name that is both ridiculously long and difficult for strangers to pronounce, MyLastName-Husband'sLastName.  Apparently we hate the kids.

Naturally, my in laws deliberately ignore everybody's actual last names and address everyone as Husband'sLastName, which is particularly confusing for StepDaughter, who will pick up invitations and cards and say "But...that's not my name."  She's old enough to know the difference.  For the record, her last name is neither long nor difficult to spell, nor has it changed recently.

I'm considering sending everyone a card with the correct names on it so they can keep it by the phone or something and stop with the "Oh, really?  I had no idea" crap.  Other ideas?  It's easy to say "Oh, gosh, it just doesn't matter," but eventually it does, as evidenced by my stepdaughter's reaction to her mangled name.

Second problem: One of the youngest babies has a very long name.  It's a beautiful name, and we love it, but it's also four syllables long and kind of overly formal for a teeny weeny little baby who still poops in her underpants.  Because of this, we have assigned her a teeny weeny little nickname.  It's a little old fashioned, but other than that, perfectly acceptable and very common.  We're not calling her Fifi Trixibell or Kal El, is what I'm saying.

I assume you won't be shocked when I tell you that the inlaws now refuse to use this nickname and insist on calling Not-Fifi by her full unweildy name?  This is not surprising, right?  And I know.  "She's a baby, who cares?  Why give her the name if you don't want people to use it?"  Well, because Not-Fifi knows her nickname.  She loves the sound of it, responds to it, and giggles when people say it over and over.  Not-Fifi does not know her full name.  It has as much meaning to her as Asparagus or Albuquerque, so I have to say, it kind of annoys me when my inlaws try to get her attention by using (to her) a nonsensical word.  They're starting to act like they think she's slow, since she 'doesn't respond to her name', despite our repeated suggestions to use her nickname if they want her to give a crap.

Third...I am just tired of this.  Calling people by their correct names is just not difficult.  It's Basic Respect 101.  A few of my inlaws have names that I don't care for or have unusual spellings, but I use their chosen names and spell the darned things correctly.  How big of a stick is it going to take to get them to return the courtesy?

Oh!  Bonus!  I just found out that in all the years I've been in this family (if my tenure with this family was a child, it would be in high school by now), they have never bothered to actually, uh, LEARN my last name, as in they still can't SPELL it.  Because my last name is half of the new kids' last names, this means that by extension, they don't really know the new grandkids' last names, either.

I think my head just exploded.  Sorry about the mess.

I know the standard patter of "Oh, it's no big deal, you can't change people, just ignore it," bla bla bla, but this is just full on ridiculous, and I think I'm about two years past ignoring this crap. What I need to know now is how to approach them, and if there is a place on the human skull that, if thwacked briskly, will knock the sense back INTO someone?

I'd rather be anonymous for this, so you can sign me:
Rumplestiltskin May Need Bail Money"

Here's the part in which I make this all about me: I am so glad I revealed my first name to you guys, because you'll understand when I say I really do know what it's like to have your name constantly messed up. My last name is a big hot ethnic mess that is completely phonetic in the language it's from but makes no sense to Americans or anyone else, really. And I didn't change my name when I got married.

So I had a different last name than my husband when I was married, and my kids have their dad's last name, so I have a different last name than they do. Now we're a four lastname household: mine, the kids', and the the cats' (Alex Rodriguez and Princess Blossom Pepperdoodle Von Yum Yum).

Plus, the whole "How do you pronounce Magda anyway?" issue. (After a long discussion with a linguist friend I finally figured out that I'm not sure Australians have the vowel sound that I use when I pronounce my name! If I could figure out how to record and upload a sound file I'd put it up so you could hear me say it.)

I've always chalked people screwing up my name up to their not really being aware of name issues. Just like I never really thought about what it was like to rely on wheels to get around the city until I had a stroller with me all the time, if your name has nothing particularly daunting about it you may just not be aware that other people's do. (I get called "Monica" ALL THE TIME because it's a normal name people hear when I say my name.)

So now back to Rumplestiltskin's problem: I think it's possible that the relatives, first of all, just don't get it. If they have a more common naming situation, they may just have problems processing the more complicated situation. And it doesn't mean that people who get your name wrong are deliberately trying to hurt you (for the first year or two, anyway.)

Add a little overlay of resentment for any number of reasons (I got a ton from older women in my family for not changing my last name, and I'm guessing there could be all sorts of things going on in Rumplestiltskin's family with a stepdaughter and twins and hyphenation and all kinds of stuff that seems to bug other people for no reason). And maybe some anger that they can't control things like they'd want to. And you have a recipe for naming hijinx and passive-aggressive games and heads exploding on all sides.

Basically, I think this is one of those situations you just have to breathe through. It's disrespectful and crazy-making, but it's also just a symptom of bigger issues of power and intimacy within the family. So if you're going to go head-on about this, you need to be prepared to deal with the rest of the iceberg that's under the surface. And it's probably not worth it, unless you're losing sleep about it. (The exception is that I think you do need to go to bat for your stepdaughter because it's clear that it is starting to bug *her*. If you can put it in those terms--"but it's for the children!"--it may click with the relatives.)

Also, it's not going to hurt or confuse your daughter to be called something else by extended family. Kids grow up with different nicknames on different sides of the family all the time, and they just figure out "oh, that's what Grandma calls me even though my name is X." When she's 30 you can have a conversation in which you confess that it made you crazy when they called her that, but she probably won't care, or will just chalk it up to "the older generation."

I hate to sound all Pollyanna-ish about things, but this is a chance for you to be generous with people who may or may not deserve your generosity, and a chance to model for your kids that they know who they are even when other people can't process it. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and smile, even while you're muttering curses on the inside.


Naming stories?