Thursday, May 26, 2016

Much in a name

Naming a child is one of the greatest responsibilities a parent has. Short of some dramatic action by its bearer, a person is stuck with a name for life and all the nominative determinist consequences that flow from it. While opening it up to the whims of the democratic process was one option (Baby McBabyface?) and engaging the services of a baby name consultant was another, Melanie and I opted to take on the responsibility ourselves.

Our criteria? We wanted a name that suited a child as well as the adult she will become. We wanted a name that conveyed both warmth and gravitas. We wanted a name that carried some broader meaning, within our family and beyond it. We wanted a name that was easy to say and easy to spell. And we wanted a name that sounded good, in its entirety and when each part stood on its own.

For us, it wasn’t just the given names that needed to be chosen. With Melanie and I each keeping our family names when we got married, our daughter’s family name also needed to be decided.

In the end we named our daughter Amelia Sara Calvert. For those curious, there’s a story behind each part.

Amelia has a long history as a girl’s name across several European cultures. In Latin it means “industrious”, a quality we would be proud to have in a daughter. The name has recently come back into vogue across the English-speaking world, though unlike the emerging popularity of other names, there is no clear celebrity trigger for this one.

Instead the most famous Amelia is the great aviatrix (what a word!) Amelia Earhart, a swashbuckling American adventurer who in 1928 was the first women to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart’s story resonates with our family – she was independent-minded, loved to fly and was a talented writer.

A few quotes from Earhart tell you much about her approach to life:

"The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many. I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, but I was sure of it that night."

"The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward."

"One of my favorite phobias is that girls, especially those whose tastes aren't routine, often don't get a fair break... It has come down through the generations, an inheritance of age-old customs, which produced the corollary that women are bred to timidity."

"Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn't be done."

Sara, our daughter’s middle name, was given in honour of her great grandmother, who died in 2013 after a long and interesting life that started in Bialystok, Poland, and ended in Melbourne. Middle names have become an apt way to honour deceased relatives on my side of the family and we were keen to continue the tradition. 

My grandmother would have been very excited to have met her great granddaughter and would have no doubt imparted great advice, much of it wise but all of it entertaining. The family tree for whom Amelia is the newest twig shows a Chaya Sara Fink born in Krynki, Poland, in about 1815, so our daughter is bearing a middle name that has been around for seven generations in our family.

Calvert, our daughter’s family name, is Melanie’s family name. While we have defied one convention in this naming decision, we hope to create a new one.

Melanie and I have a very equal relationship. From finances to housework to decision-making, the two of us each enjoy equal benefits, and bear equal responsibility. So when we got married in 2014, it seemed natural to us that we would retain our existing family names rather than have one of us relinquish our name. (It was, perhaps, a reflection of the fact we were both in our 30s and had established independent lives, with our own names, when we got married.)

For us, the tradition of a woman taking on her husband’s name (and the inverse) had a faint hint of possessiveness that we could not countenance. It also put a partner in an awkward position if the relationship were to dissolve and they were left with a family name for a family of which they are no longer a part. While our relationship was strong then and remains so, you never know what the future will bring.

So what name to give to children? One option is a hybrid name that combines parts or all of the parents’ names into a new name, whether as a portmanteau or a double-barrelled name. But this relies on the good fortune of names that work well together, with was not the case in our situation (Shalvert? Carp?). It can also be difficult to perpetuate across future generations without names becoming long and unwieldy.

We needed another approach. We had long been fond of the idea of children taking on the family name of their same-gendered parent, so a daughter takes on the family name of her mother and a son takes on the family name of his father. This approach is a more equal one, giving both parents a chance to pass on their name and not privileging one parent over the other as the head of the household.

Once we found out we were having a girl, it was an easy decision to follow through on the approach we had agreed to. As the parent whose name would not be borne by his child, I was totally relaxed about the decision. The pride I will take in my daughter in the years ahead will come from her personality and her accomplishments, not specifically from her family name.

In Amelia’s case, we had extra reason to give her Melanie’s family name. I am one of five children (including three boys) so there is a strong chance that my family name will be passed on through at least one of us. But the future of the Calvert name in Melanie’s family is less assured. Melanie has one sister, whose wonderful daughter has her father’s family name. Melanie also has two female cousins with her family name. Under the conventional approach to naming, the Calvert name in this part of the family would end at this generation. I am pleased that, with the arrival of Amelia, there will be at least one further generation of Calverts.

So that’s how we came to name our daughter the way we did. Of course, now that the name is hers she is free to do with it what she wishes – to keep it, to modify it or to replace it with something entirely different. For now, though, we think Amelia Sara Calvert sounds just great.

Amelia Sara Calvert

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The joys of new life

As I sit writing this post my soundscape is filled with the contented murmurings of my daughter as she sleeps in the bassinet beside my bed. During a point in each sleep cycle she becomes quite animated, her breathing quick and irregular, her little palms flailing in front of her face and her lips letting out wordless utterances of agony or ecstasy. Such is the way with the dreams of a newborn child, where the realness of the experience manifests itself in the physiology of the dreamer.

Just what a newborn dreams about is hard to imagine - perhaps a pleasant dream about the cosiness of the womb or a nightmare about her sudden exit from it.

My daughter Amelia entered the world just two weeks ago. Every moment since then has been one of bliss for my wife Melanie and I, even the moments when Amelia's contented murmurings metamorphosise into pained screams from deep in her lungs.

As parents of a newborn we can quite happily while away the hours with Amelia, cuddling up and talking to her when she is awake and watching and listening to her as she sleeps. At first the appreciation centres on her physical cuteness - the dainty feet, the elaborately formed ear, the smooth crevices of her neck. All are a sensory delight that look so delicate, smell so fresh and are so soft that your fingertips barely detect that they've made contact.

But then the appreciation moves to the things she does. If she's in the right mood she can beguile us by making eye contact and staring deep into our souls - or so it seems. She can signal her desire for a feed not just with a throaty cry but with pleading eyes and an outstretched tongue. She can perform multiple bodily functions in perfect synchronicity and seemingly minimal effort. She can appear completely unconcerned as her whole body shudders in the throes of hiccoughs. Perhaps most satisfying for me is to watch her grapple with mild distress by taking in her surroundings and adjusting herself to achieve physical and psychological comfort on her own, rather than pushing the infant panic button.

Yes, I know, all these things have been going on with newborns since the dawn of time and are of no great interest to people other than a child's parents. The seen-it-all-a-thousand-times-before malaise of some of the midwives we've encountered is hard to miss. But we are her parents and so can't help but be captivated and intrigued by them.

Perhaps a small part of my fascination with the minutiae of my daughter's existence comes from the small but real possibility that I wasn't around to enjoy it. Before she'd reached the end of her first trimester in the womb I was diagnosed with my lymphoma and told I would need to undertake a battering of chemotherapy to maximise my chances of survival. The tumour in my chest was putting pressure on a heart valve, and my doctor later told me that it would have killed me within a week if we didn't start treatment when we did.

During the long months when my energy was sapped by the cell-killing drugs of my R-EPOCH cocktail I yearned for the day when it was all over. Sure, there was the relief from the physical symptoms, but most importantly, I wanted to know that I was one of the lucky ones who could tell stories of survival rather than a poor soul unable to escape cancer's deathly grip.

In the depths of my treatment I dreamed of the life I would have if only I could be among the survivors. Top of the list of things I desperately wanted to do was the cradle my newborn daughter in my arms and tell her everything is okay, knowing it was the truth.

It is a cliché of confronting hardship, medical or otherwise, that your children give you a reason to battle on. In truth I was pretty determined to battle on regardless. But the looming arrival of my daughter meant that my survival was not just something I desired so that I could continue to enjoy my life, but was now an obligation I had to another person in order to ensure she had her father in her life. To have succumbed to the disease would have denied my daughter something very precious.

Of course there is still the very real prospect that my health troubles will return and I will once again have to confront the prospect of denying my daughter an active father in her life. For now, though, things are looking pretty rosy and I can marvel at the wondrous things my daughter does, even if every other person in the history of humanity has done something similar.

Such simple pleasures, I am rapidly discovering, are the hallmarks of parenthood.