Naming for difficult family members?

A reader asked me this question,

What do you think about family names that the person/persons have had a rough life/difficult personality? I really want to use family names but there are a few names in our family tree that almost seem… how do I say it… to have issues attached to it? On one hand this is our family and heritage and the names are of wonderful saints and are great names, on the other hand, the name evokes at least for me, negative or stressful feelings, even though I may love the person… What are your thoughts?

I thought this was such a sweet and sincere question — a good example of trying to make the best of what (and who) we’re given. Family dynamics can be ah-MAZing! And also the worst ever!

On the one hand, I think doing something like using the name of a particular family member can go far in repairing relationships and even mindsets towards those people, if that makes sense. And hearing the name of a beloved baby over and over again in a loving and safe environment might really help soften hearts toward the original name-bearer, which I think is a good thing (reconciliation and peace of any kind, even small, is a step in the right direction, right?). Almost like an act of charity? On the other hand though, if you think giving the name of a difficult person to your child would have a negative impact on your relationship with your child, or other family members’ relationships with your child, and the child’s view of his/her worth and standing in the family, then I do think that’s a serious consideration.

It’s definitely something that needs to be prayerfully considered on a case-by-case basis. I do love the idea though that, as in the reader’s case above where she actively wants to honor her family and heritage and it sounds like she loves some of the names belonging to people who give her “negative or stressful feelings,” that giving one’s child the name of a difficult relative is sort of an easy thing to do — an easy act of love or reconciliation. Even if you can’t bear to be around the family member too frequently or for too long, your child’s name bears witness to the decision to love.

What do you all think? I’m sure there are some doozy stories among you about this topic — just remember it’s a public blog and nothing published here is private!


17 thoughts on “Naming for difficult family members?

  1. My husband actually loves a family name of mine that I have said we can never ever use, due to one person attached to it. It’s a shame, because we both love the name itself and I would love to honor the other person in the family with that name, but that first person makes it too hard. Plus we know that everyone would assume we would be honoring the first person, which would definitely not be the case.

    I don’t mean to come across as too flippant, but I can think of way better acts of charity than giving your child the name of a difficult family member. I don’t think it is a parent’s or child’s responsibility to repair relationships by using a name. I’m wary of all honor names (particularly in the first name slot) because you just never know everything about a person or how they could create problems down the road.

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  2. We ran into exactly this problem in naming our second daughter. (Apologies in advance for a long story…) We are SUPER picky, but one day I ran across the name Annette. It was perfect and fit every single one of our many rules. I even knew my crazy picky husband would love it. I excitedly suggested Annette when he got home from work, only to have him remind me of a cousin of his with that name who has caused many (very serious) problems in his family. As far as he was concerned, there was no way we could use the name. I asked that we get his family’s feedback as I still loved the name and hoped he could be convinced. When we mentioned that we were considering using Annette’s name, the reaction was very strong. It was clear his parents and other extended family would see it as disrespectful to the family and endorsing her behavior to use her name. So, I gave it up.

    My next good idea, months later, when I was beginning to despair of ever finding a name, was Grace. We both loved everything about it. The only problem was that I have a sibling who has broken off all contact with my family, and he has named one of his daughters Grace. I wasn’t concerned about cousins who would rarely (if ever) see each other sharing a name, but I was concerned about our daughter’s name being a constant painful reminder for my parents of the grandchild they have no contact with. I decided to give up on that name. But then we were truly desperate. We couldn’t find any other name we both liked. I finally just asked my mother if us using the name Grace would be hurtful or painful to her. She was so gracious and gave us her full blessing to use the name. I knew she was sincere, so I had no qualms about naming our daughter Grace.

    So… In my experience, this is not a cut-and-dried matter. Every family dynamic is going to be very different. I think it is good to be mindful of how your name choice will impact others in the family, and when in doubt, just ask what they think!

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  3. I think it really depends on what someone means by “difficult” family member.

    Are they just someone you don’t really get along with? Maybe using the name would do a good job of healing the relationship within the family.

    Are they someone who is truly toxic? It might be really painful for the people who they have hurt. I know there’s a family member who if someone used their name it would just bring up so many painful memories for me. it would be hard to even look at the child. I have trouble being friends with people with the same name as this person. Names are such powerful things, and create powerful associations.

    I agree with Rachel that it isn’t cut and dried, and you need to talk with family, and actually listen to what they say. I feel like sometimes people might be like “well I’ll just use it anyway, because it’s my choice.” But family is so tough sometimes, no need to make it tougher.

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  4. There is a particular name that I really like, Harriet, but can’t use because a family member by this name did not intervene when her husband was abusive to their children. So, it just bears too much negative connotation and it’s so sad because it’s a beautiful name.

    On the other hand, my sister and I have both used names (Helen and John) that belonged to some challenging relatives and it has actually helped soften them with our parents (for whom those particular relatives were challenging).

    I do think it depends on if the person is living or deceased, too. If the person is living, it can seem a lot more like naming a child AFTER the person than if the person is deceased.

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  5. I think in this situation you have to be fair to the child. It is him/her who has to bear the name, so you have to think how the child will feel having a name that reminds his/her family members of such a hurtful situation.

    Also, is the association so obvious that people will always think of that difficult person? Or is it a more generic name? For example, if the name is Sarah, I don’t think that would be an issue, because people will most likely know several other Sarahs that have good associations attached, and eventually, in a few years, whenever they hear the name Sarah, the association to the new child in the family will be stronger than the one with the other family member.

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  6. A relative avoided using her father’s name (a very common, classic masculine name) for her son because the name also belonged to her husband’s brother, whom she did not particularly want to honor. But then her son ended using his maternal grandfather’s name as a middle for his own son. His wife was on board because the name also belonged to HER father. A lot depends on how common the name is and how negative the associations are. I don’t think it’s ever fair to a child to give him a name that the family associates with someone or something unpleasant.

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