How to Name a Baby


In the earliest days of pregnancy, the easiest thing to focus on, when you know nothing of parenting or babies or life after giving birth, is what you will name the baby. Josh and I didn’t so much “focus” on it as we glossed over it, around it, and through it, nightly, as we gathered ourselves onto the couch with Penny, our dog. “How did we name Penny?” Josh asked one of those early, first trimester nights. “You named her,” he added. “Yes,” I agreed, always happy to take credit for anything good we have done. “Well,” I continued, “I remember looking at her, after she fell off the couch, talking about the spot on her head, and it was really copper, and I thought, ‘Oh! Like a Penny!’”

A few days after naming Penny, I emailed my cousin a photo of her. “She looks JUST like our dog Penny!” she said. My heart sank. There was, in fact, another Penny. Inspector Gadget had a Penny. I knew a Penny in grade school. The TV show Lost had a Penny. The world was, in fact, lousy with Pennys. “I’m not so original, maybe!” I thought. But Penny grew into her name until, she was the only Penny I know. She inhabits the Penny name better than any Penny, before or after.

So, when I thought of naming my child, I took Penny as an example of “good naming.” I would name my child as I had named my Chihuahua: a good, strong name, not very common but not so obscure that it stuck out. And, for whatever reason, I operated, in the earliest days of my pregnancy, under the false assumption that my baby was a boy; I considered the possibility that it would be a girl, but discarded it because naming a girl seemed like a chore. Our son’s name would be Max. It was the only obvious and pleasing choice.

The fact that the baby’s last name would be Topolsky made it trickier; it’s a hard name to build a rhythm with. Topolsky is Eastern European and people are critically unable to sound it out. “Penny Topolosky?” the vet gingerly squeaks out as we stand up. People mispronounce it and fumble around as we wave our hands “Yes, that will do!” I, who was born with an even MORE flummoxing Eastern European surname, thought it was a decided upgrade as I signed the forms to legally change what was given to me at birth. If Topolsky was to be the surname, a good, strong, monosyllabic first name like Max would offset it.

But then I was having a girl. “Well, she will be a June, obviously,” I said to Josh.

I was born Laura June, conveniently in the middle of June. My mother, whose own middle name was June, was born in August. I confess that I began to track my family tree to find out what the root of “June” was: not my grandma Peg (born in June, 1924) or her mom, Anna (born June, 1893). I get lost after that. I had always been proud to carry a name from female to female, there in the middle, not really bothering anyone, a little matronymic reminder.

But we had nothing for a first name. Girl names, we agreed, were much harder. For months, we floundered. Naming a child seems like a huge responsibility. It IS a huge responsibility. You don’t want to fuck it up. The baby-naming industry is born of this fear: that you’ll fuck it up.

“You gotta just go big with Topolsky,” my brother-in-law Eric said, just a few weeks before she was born. I’d never thought of it in that way, really. We had a few odd names, but for the most part, simple, quiet names dominated our very limited list. “Why not be sure there is never another whatever you name her? Go big,” he seemed so confident in this advice.

Josh and I had flirted with names that started with Zs for a while: Zora we liked because it sounded like an alien name; we discarded Zara because of the brand. The week before she was born we sat on the couch. I was so fat I could barely breathe. “Zora June,” I said to myself, looking at the books on their shelves in front of us. “It’s pretty good,” Josh agreed. “What about Zelda?” I asked. We talked it over. It was big; it sounded good; it was classic but unpopular; it worked well with the middle and surname; and it was unlikely that there was another Zelda Topolsky out there in the world. Still, we sort of put it off.

The day that Zelda was born, I spent a few minutes alone in the operating room with an anesthesiologist and several nurses getting the epidural that I needed for the C-section. “What are you going to name her?” the nurse asked, trying to relax me enough that the epidural could be properly inserted. I didn’t answer, looking off into the distance. “You know what’s weird,” I said, already inhabiting the hazy space between waking and sleeping that would dominate the next three days, “That Adolf is just a ruined name. You can’t even use it at all anymore,” I continued as he pronounced the epidural a success, laying me down. “If you ask me, it wasn’t that great of a name to begin with,” he said.

I wanted to avoid saying “Zelda” out loud, because naming a thing always feels somehow crooked or off right at first. The name seems hastily applied rather than earned. But when she was born ten minutes later, a little purple thing pissed off in a giant plastic salad bin with a heater, Josh and I agreed. Zelda it is.