The XX Factor

A Lot of Mothers Regret the Names They Gave Their Children, According to a New Survey

Princess Charlotte leaves St Mary’s Hospital in London on May 2, 2015.

John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images

When baby names make the news, it’s usually because a celebrity has named their newborn something ursine like Bear Blu or Buddy Bear. But this week’s headline concerns less eccentric yet somehow more regrettable names. A new informal survey conducted by a British parenting website found that 18 percent of mothers suffer from “namer’s remorse”—and not because they chose names that were outlandish. The list of most frequently regretted names is strikingly staid: Charlotte, Amelia, Anne, Daniel, Jacob, James, and Thomas.

Of course, any single uncommon name is by definition not going to be commonly regretted. But the survey found that mothers’ top reason for onomastic discontent was that they hadn’t been bold enough; 25 percent said the name they chose was too common, and 11 percent said it was not distinctive enough. It’s hard to imagine “James” being the cause of such angst, but this is an era in which blending in too much is as horrifying as standing out.

Only 2 percent of survey respondents said they had acted on their regrets and changed their child’s name, although 9 percent said they’ve considered it. That process is onerous both logistically and emotionally. Libby Copeland wrote in Slate last year about realizing her 5-week-old son Liev was really more of a Lev. Rather than live with regret, she braved New York state bureaucracy to erase that off-key “i.” The process required a notarized affidavit, a legal notice published in the newspaper, multiple trips to the courthouse, and $210:

Our mistake, I surmised, wasn’t in changing our minds, but in the timing. You can vacillate while you’re walking the hospital halls, waiting for your water to break, but once the kid arrives, the name defines him. You’re supposed to be certain.

For other families, events intervene to make a once-cool name sound suddenly gauche. Think of all the little Isises out there; the name had been trending upward until a few years ago. And what will become of baby Khaleesi and Arya if Game of Thrones tosses off a twist that turns a heroine into a villain? When Harper Lee’s controversial novel Go Set a Watchman revealed Atticus Finch to be a racist in 2015, parents who had named their babies after the noble Southern lawyer were seized with horror. One family went so far as to rename their toddler son, telling People “we just felt like, this does not at all encompass the values that we want for our son to have and know.” So, at 14 months, Atticus became Lucas.

All this fretting about finding the perfect baby name is something of a recent phenomenon. Parents have always thought names are important—think of Puritans naming their babies Temperance or What-God-will. But it is only recently that names have been treated like artisanal products that must perfectly express a family’s unique taste and culture and values. “I think it’s something that happens more often now than it did a generation ago,” the founder of a baby-name website told Today in a recent story about a family who changed their daughter’s name from Ottilie to Margot after coming to dread the reactions when they introduced her to strangers. “Parents care a lot more and think a lot more about names now than they did back then, and agonize a lot more about names than they did, say, in the mid-‘80s.”

Where there is insecurity, there will be consultants. So some wealthy parents now pay thousands of dollars to avoid the kind of regret that plagues the rueful mothers of (shudder) Charlotte and Daniel. “If you are getting somebody who really knows the evidence, then I’ll say it’s worth every penny, whether its $500 or $5,000,” one expert told Bloomberg News this spring. “You don’t want to name a child with an unattractive name and have them go through life and suffer the consequences.” He has developed a baby name report card that scores potential names according to dimensions such as “Ethical-Caring” and “Popular-Fun.” One name that gets a perfect score is “James.”