Why I Can't Name My Unborn Baby Robert
by Abigail Davis
I am not pregnant. I do, however, have a list a potential baby names typed out in notes on my iPhone. The name Robert is at the top of this list. I’m in that phase of life, and I’ve been told from the women before me that name-snatching is a thing to worry about. I know Robert isn’t a unique name, but it’s a name I claimed for myself all the same, so I keep it guarded with a 6-digit code.
Early on I made the mistake of revealing my list. My first pregnant friend, Rachel, had her baby’s name already pinned down, so I felt my list was safe to share. Rachel has a 10-year plan, and she’ll ask you for yours as soon as she meets you. She gets a water with lemon when everyone else orders wine. She giggles at videos of goldendoodle puppies. She’ll invite you to brunch, and will show up early, in pastel. We have nothing in common, but our souls are in step, so it’s not a surprise that our lists matched up too.
Upon realizing the crossover, I told myself ‘never again.’ It’s better not to discuss beforehand. It’s better not to know who I’ll have to chase in this little name game.
But months passed, and I did it again. This time it was my close friend Élan. Élan can be found striding down Abbot Kinney in short shorts and over-the-knee boots. I don’t want to say that a baby would be Élan’s cutest accessory, but I’m not going to deny it. Élan dates Benji, a fast-talking, skinny-jeans-wearing, Swede. Benji wore all white to my wedding. If you are an American woman, you know this is a crime to the bride—off with his head—but he got away with it. If Élan weren’t a bridesmaid, she would have done just the same. Élan spilled her list like tea over lunch. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said as she passed me her phone, “this is top secret shit.” It came as no surprise that her list was très cool with names like River and Grey. Her plan is to raise a Rockstar, and she’ll need a name that can rise to the occasion.
After seeing Elan’s list, I immediately started second-guessing my own. I remember having the same feeling upon sharing a different kind of list when we were much younger, when we shared a wall. What was that feeling—regret? I couldn’t change that list, but I could change this one, so I wrote and re-wrote the names in different orders. I swapped middle names for first names and first names for middle. The whole list got revised, but Robert kept making the cut. Baby Bobby, Rob the teen, Robert the man. It’s perfect, or so I thought, until I read the list aloud to my mother.
I felt proud of my list and read it with the confidence of a master of ceremonies calling athletes into the ring. My mother amused my excitement with praise but had just one thing to say: “Anything but Robert, please just not Robert.”
It turns out, Robert is the name of the only serious boyfriend my mom had prior to my dad. We laughed this off as trivial, declaring our unconceived baby would just find another name—although we knew we were saying that to appease her in the moment. We figured she’d drop the disdain with Robert over time. But as time passed it kept coming up. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night more than once wondering, who is this Robert and why has he ruined my name?
The other day I was reading a book and the author revealed that he changed his name upon discovering he shared it with a prominent slave owner from years ago. So, I guess this game of abandoning names is not new. But if I go down this road then what names will be left? I can come up with a list of names of the people I’ve loved and the people I’ve lost, the people who have hurt me, and the people I’ve hurt. I guess I can do without some of those names.
I guess I too have names engrained in my mind that I’d rather not hear. There’s the name of that boss who I often still curse; There’s the name of the nose-picking girl from grade school. There’s the name of the man who covered my mouth as I screamed out for help in the woods. There’s the name of the president. There’s the name of the president’s wife.
So, this morning I called my mother to learn about Robert, to decide for myself if I could still claim the name, and this is what I learned: he was her first; he was mean and he lingered. He recently asked her to be friends on Facebook, which she thought was weird. Her last conversation with him wasn’t happy. He showed up unwanted, unannounced. He tried to make her feel bad about what could have been. He didn’t use words. My father stepped in. I had a feeling this might be the case. The story wasn’t new, but the name of the boy was never attached to the original telling. My mother and I are close. We tell each other practically everything, but this detail—a name—never occurred to me as important until now.
Some might think it’s funny—this new obsession with names—from a girl who can’t seem to remember any. I don’t mean to do it, but I’ll admit that it’s true. I spent my early twenties trying, (or not,) to remember the names of the people I met in apartments, and hallways, and bars. Every now and then I will stumble upon a foreign one as I scroll through my phone—Adam the douchebag, Andrew from Agency, Alex the realtor, Nick (Alex’s friend), Andi NBC, Andreas from cloudbreak, Andrew from Roosevelt, Ania (Vancouver), Andrew the Aussie, Claud (Maker Studio), Coffee Truck Boy, Conga Room Boy, Ken (Innout Boy)—that just gets me through “I”.
I think the reason I’ve become so obsessed with names is because, I want, so badly, to paint a picture of the person I’d like to conjure. I think that’s the reason I’m really writing this. It’s something that has taken me a long time to admit. I didn’t want to be like the baby-craving-beasts that we see on TV, the women who just want to be women, cradling their baby at home. I told myself for so long that I wanted the opposite. I wanted to be out in the world, declaring it as my own. But now I realize, I don’t want just that either. I want it all. I want everything. I want independence, success, and the most perfect baby name.
I write all this during the summer of names. The summer that keeps bringing new names into my home and into my prayers. The summer of chanting names next to strangers in the streets. The summer of lost names, divided names, terrifying names. The summer of names thrown like spears into crowds of red hats. The summer of headlines with the names of ordinary moms who build walls with their bodies to protect the bodies of others. The summer that has really been a lifetime for many.
And I wonder—how can I bring a new name into this?
About the Author
Abigail Davis is a M.A. creative writing student at Loyola Marymount University.