what’s in the middle

First names make a statement, middle names tell a story. Often they preserve a memory. In the Jewish tradition, there is a disinclination to name after the living. Ours is not a culture of ‘Junior’s or ‘Second’s. The important people keep their own names when they are alive and then it is sometimes the letter, the initial sound of the moniker only, that gets passed down. My middle name is Jena, for instance, after my great grandfather Jacob. When it came time to choose a middle name for our son, we were certain of its source, so very sadly.

I heard Oliver’s heartbeat for the first time a mere matter of days before my husband’s sister, Stella, died of cancer. No matter how aware you are of the cycle of life and death in the abstract, losing a close family member in the same year as giving birth to a new one drives home its power in an unparalleled way. Stella was a bright light, as her name suggests, and her parents must have known that because it was not a particularly common thing to call a girl in 197os England. We had the option of going with the ‘S’ alone, but I wanted to enshrine the ‘star’ aspect. It so happened that the year before I became pregnant, celebrities Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, an Anglo-American couple just like us, had a boy. They called him Stellan, a Swedish name I had never heard of before. It was perfect.

Life and death continued to swirl together with the next child, as my second son came into this world on my uncle’s birthday, my Uncle Russel who had been killed in a car crash 12 years earlier. It was a wild coincidence of dates and it should have been a sign. There is a large part of me that regrets not making Leo’s middle name Russell - I would have spelled it with two ‘l’s - after my mother’s younger brother, a second child himself. My husband didn’t like the name enough to use it solely for its significance. And while we could have done something with an ‘R’, we picked Isaac instead. Isaac, the only one of the middle names which was chosen for aesthetic reasons only. We loved the name, plain and simple. Its old Jewish feel, its striking double ‘a’. If I had known for certain that we would be having another son, I would have saved it. Alas.

Our ‘third’ baby, however, was not a boy. She was a girl, longed for not because I longed for a daughter but because I longed for three children. Badly. My husband did not. The decision took cajoling, it took negotiation, so when he finally did concede there was an air of now or never to getting pregnant. That two week wait between the pangs of ovulation and the pink line on the stick is otherworldly in any circumstance, a no man’s land between not knowing and then knowing, instantly, that your life is about to change. The two week wait to find out Phoebe was on the way, which then became a six week wait to find out Phoebe and Jasper were on the way, felt eternal.

Half of it took place on Skye, a stunning island off the west coast of Scotland, where we were having a late spring holiday. As we sat one day on a small patch of beach overlooking the harbor of Portree, the boys were playing in the sand and my mind was making deals with the wind. If I did manage to get pregnant, I said to myself, and if it was a girl, her middle name would be Skye. And then I did and she was.

But my sister talked me out of Skye nonetheless. My sister was the only person other than the one who sired them that I discussed the names of my kids with before they were born. I trusted her opinion implicitly and I wouldn’t have been happy with a name she wasn’t happy with too. It’s not Skye, she said, in a frantic email exchange conducted from my hospital bed: it’s Isla! Another Scottish island (Islay) that meant something to us, an island famed for its whisky-making and stark landscape, and the probable first name of the second twin had that one been a girl as well. I wasn’t sure at first; I remembered the unspoken pact. But when she wrote out all of the children’s names together - Isla partnering so well with Isaac, making sense of it in a way - it became clear.

Leo and Phoebe, the heavy-voweled first names, were now connected by their similar-sounding middle names. Oliver and Jasper, the ‘er’ set, would be comparably linked. The name Jasper was a concession for my husband. Concessions, well, they lend themselves to consolation prizes. In this case, it was Dylan. After Bob Dylan. My husband is a great fan of the 1960s/1970s folk rock scene, to the point where, when I am feeling magnanimous, I let him think that Leo was named for Leonard Cohen. Now he can say with confidence that his last son shares something ineffable with one of his musical heroes. I liked the name, on the other hand, because the ‘lan’ ending complemented Stellan.

Oliver Stellan

Leo Isaac

Phoebe Isla

Jasper Dylan

The full name matters. What comes in the middle is not a throw-away. It is a bridge between the individuality of the first name and the legacy of the last. For a parent, it is another opportunity to engage in the wonder of creating a tiny new identity. For a child, it is the gift of their own story to tell.


a whisky distillery on the banks of islay

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11 Responses to what’s in the middle

  1. Rachel Fishkin

    Love this! My kids all have the same middle name and the same one as me, my sis and her daughter: Holder, my mom’s maiden name. My mom passed away exactly a year and one week before my first son was born and it was our way of honoring and including her. Not exactly Jewish tradition, but now it’s our own tradition.

  2. Beautiful weaving of all these naming stories. Our oldest has my oldest brother’s first name as his own middle name: my brother passed away years ago and I wanted both to give his wonderful name new life and to offer his example of a life well-lived to my own boy. So these marriages of life and death, all in one name, are close to my heart, too.

  3. Wonderful. They tell a story and they all flow so well (And Jasper Dylan is just a very cool name!)
    My kids’ middle names are also meaningful - it was their middle names where I paid homage to family (though my first girl was going to be Natalie, no matter what, after my maternal grandma’s sister, who died at 21 of leukemia more than 50 years ago - my grandmother spoke of her so often that I think the name just seeped into my brain!)

  4. I love your first paragraph the most. This is a gorgeous posts about names and stories and lineage and love.

  5. Lovely post. My sister named her son with a name I suggested but now she insists she came up with it! My sixteen year old daughter uses a shortened version of her name which annoys me a bit, but what can I do.

  6. Adrienne Stone

    Lovely post. Are you going to broach the vexed question of last names? Mom’s, Dad’s or Mom-and-Dad’s? Surely that should be the last in the series.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful replies: now I want to hear ALL of your children’s full names!

  8. Lauren,

    These words certainly resonated with me. When I gave birth to my daughter, my father battled cancer. The contrast between the pendulum swinging between sorrow and happiness is always at the forefront of my mind.

    Names carry power. I love the first line and sentiment of this piece.

  9. I liked this a lot. When I married my husband, I changed my name to his for a variety of reasons that were important to our family, none of which included my being super-mega-psyched at “losing” my last name of 34 years. I have a long Italian maiden name (oof, “maiden”…): Carbonaro. Not exactly middle name material. Yet, it means coal miner in Italian, so we gave our son the middle name “Cole” as a nod to my family. Henry Cole G. :) I agree that a middle name can mean a lot more than meets the eye!

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