Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. New boyfriend renaming my kids: My wife is a second-generation immigrant. Half of her family was murdered before she was born. She wanted to make sure our daughters had a connection to their past, so she named them after her dead aunts. My family history is as exciting as white bread. It was an honor to give my daughters a name with real meaning. We always have insisted that our girls are addressed by their actual names, not their Americanized forms, unless and until the girls are old enough to ask for an alternate pronunciation. My mother’s fiancé refuses to do so, no matter our explanations or requests. Apparently “Katie” is so much easier than “Kaja.” I don’t like this guy, but he seems to make my mother happy. I kept my peace until my older daughter got upset at him for saying her name wrong. He replied, “Katie is American, and I like it better that way.” My wife called him out, and it devolved into a shouting match. We left, and my daughter tearfully asked if this was her fault and if her “name was bad.”
We are not going to get an apology from my mother’s fiancé. My wife refuses to let our girls go over to my mother’s unless he is not there. My mother refuses to agree to that arrangement but still complains she doesn’t see her grandchildren. According to her, Katie “is just a nickname,” and we are being unreasonable; she hangs up on me when I ask her why, then, is it so hard for her lover to call my girls by their given name? I don’t want to cause a rift in my family, but I agree with my wife: This isn’t about nicknames, it is about control and respect. I love my mother. How do I get this across to her?
A: Start calling your mother’s fiancé by a name that begins with the same letter as his, but otherwise bears no relationship to the name he’s gone by all her life—let’s say “Lemuel” if he goes by “Luke.” If your mother insists on throwing her weight behind him, do the same with her—“Morganicus” for “Mary.”
That may be better left as a last resort, but I don’t think you’re the one causing the rift in your family, and it’s absolutely ridiculous—and frankly racist—for your mother’s fiancé to insist on renaming a child according to his own whims because he doesn’t like being reminded of her ethnic heritage. If he can’t respect your children enough to call them by their names, then he can’t see them. If your mother can’t either, then neither can she. You’re making a very low-impact and basic request. Don’t let your mother reframe the issue. Remind her that she has options: “You know that we’d love for you to see the girls, and as soon as you’re willing to stop changing their names against their will to sound white, we’d love to set up a day to get together. When are you ready to stop renaming them?”