Thursday, July 17, 2008

When a Child Grows Into (or Out of) Their Name

Pop and television star Miley Cyrus - who was born Destiny Hope Cyrus – legally changed her name several months back to: Miley Ray Cyrus. Her nickname as a child was “Smiley,” which was then shortened to “Miley.” At the ripe old age of 15, she decided to chuck the “Destiny Hope.” This move in part prompted my own 15-year-old daughter to change her name this summer. But not legally. No way.

When perusing a baby name book nearly 16 years ago, my husband and I came upon the name “Jessie.” Not “Jessica” but “Jessie;” it was its own listing. The definition of which included the fact that in Scotland, Jessie is the nickname for “Janet.” My husband’s grandmother was named Janet and she was, in fact, a Scot. So although we preferred Jessie we thought it was the hand of fate and family to officially name her Janet. But call her Jessie or Jess. Stay with me here… Until she started kindergarten at age five, she was known far and wide as Jess. But there were a lot of Jessica’s running around the playground by then, so to avoid confusion, we began to call her by her given name, as did the school, friends and family members. Except for me and her oldest brother Blake. We couldn’t shake the moniker Jess. So for 10 years, my daughter has seemingly been the only “Janet” under the age of 40, which has been kind of unique.

In early July, my kid asked me if she could legally change her name to “Jess Evans.” When I queried “why” she said that “Janet Evans” has been done already (referring to former Olympic swimming gold medalist Janet Evans), and that Jess Evans sounded like a good stage name. Let me be clear here – my daughter is not on the verge of becoming a famous actress, at least not yet. So while putting the kibosh on the legal action, I happily informed her boarding school, summer camp and family far and wide of her decision. Of course old habits die hard – as they did for Blake and me – and Jon and Jack are currently struggling with the name transition. (Poor Jack, 12, has known her as “Janet” his entire life!)

As they grow, children often prefer to be known as the shorter or longer version of their given names. “Mike’s” morph into “Michael’s” and vice versa. “Katherine’s” may go for the jauntier “Kat” as a teen, and then turn back to Katherine once they begin a career. I had a friend growing up whose name was/is: Mary Frances Gannon. We all called her Mary until high school when she impulsively decided she wanted everybody to call her “Fran.” A boyfriend after college had always been known by his middle name, “Tyler,” but when he became a police officer he felt his first name “Donald” sounded tougher.

Once people get to know me, “Julie” is shortened to “Jul” or “Jules.” During my sophomore year in high school I tried writing “Jules Butler” on the top page of assignments, but it didn’t take. Like my daughter, I asked my parents about legally changing my name and received the same answer she did (don’t you cringe when you hear your parents’ voices echoing in your own?). There were some teachers who – like my pals – called me Jules anyway, but I could never get it in print. Ah well.

I drove Jess up to her boarding school a couple of weeks ago and she was thrilled upon arrival to pick up her student identification card with the name “Jess Evans” boldly imprinted on it. She began this school half way through her freshman year last January, so she is still fairly new. And the name change has given her the feeling and attitude of a fresh start. She was beaming as I drove away as her roommate cried out “Jess! I’ve missed you!”

I don’t know if one day down the line she’ll revert back to being called Janet; that’s her call. But she knows she’s really always been – and will forever be - my Jess.

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