Dear Kiki: My cousin thinks I ‘stole’ her son’s name

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This question has been edited for length.

Dear Kiki,

My grandfather’s name has been passed down through the generations, starting with his grandfather. My grandfather and grandmother gave it to my uncle, who gave a female version of it to my cousin, who in turn, gave it to her son. I expected this, and never thought twice about it. Six generations: That’s great!

I have always been so close with my cousin. Being so close in age, we were always like sisters. We were so close that her kids call me auntie.

When I found out my second child would be a boy, I decided to honor my grandfather by using his name. My kids would never know him, so I thought it was important to give them some connection to him. I felt like it would be too confusing to use my grandfather’s name as a first name, given so many people with that name in the family, so I gave it to my son as his middle name.

A few days later I received a text message from my cousin … She was extremely upset that I had given my son my grandfather’s name without speaking to her first. She felt as though it was her family’s name. It was her father’s name and her son’s name. She told me that I was hurting my nephew. “He’s only 10 years old, what do you think this is doing to him?” I should have taken his feelings into consideration.

I was shocked. It took me a couple of days to respond. I was very kind in my responses, but still stood my ground. I had extreme anxiety leading up to Christmas, which didn’t help with my postpartum depression. On Christmas we were all friendly, but it was extremely fake.

Since then, I have run into my cousins a couple of times at the grocery store. We make small talk, but that’s it. I do send cards and gift cards to my nieces and nephew for their birthdays, but no other communication. My grandmother tries to show my aunt pictures of my kids, but she says she “doesn’t need to look at them,” and blows it off.

I was surprised that my family didn’t expect that I would honor my grandfather through my son. I thought that since my cousin’s kids got to know him and have memories of him, it wasn’t a big deal for me to name him, middle name anyway, after him. With the holidays around the corner, I’m just trying to figure things out.

—Confused Cousin

Dear Confused Cousin,

Naming is a powerful thing. Names are a gift we give our children, and they can carry the heavy weight of history, of family, of memory. They’re a way of imbuing hope and meaning and promise into someone whose personality we don’t even know yet. Giving a name is a great responsibility, and a lot of people take it incredibly seriously.

All that is to say, it might’ve been a useful gesture of kindness to reach out to your cousin before finalizing your son’s name, just as a heads-up. Just so she wasn’t blindsided. Acknowledging that to her, if you haven’t yet, might go far toward patching things up between you.

But you absolutely, without question, should not have been expected to give her a veto over your own naming responsibility. Because that power belongs to you, as well. Names are not possessions. It was a convenience and, frankly, a courtesy for you to use your grandfather’s name as your son’s middle name instead of his first. That was both smart and kind — but not necessary.

Naming is a powerful thing, but it’s also worth remembering that it’s transitory. Your cousin should take a step back and remember that while the privilege and power of naming can help shape a child’s trajectory, it cannot determine it. She can’t control what nicknames her son’s friends give him. She can’t control if he chooses to reject it entirely and choose a new one. That can be incredibly hard for parents to accept (as evidenced in the trans community).

Your cousin should come to terms with that, and how you handle this might help her. Is there something else in her life that is causing her to cling to what little power she has here? You can reach out and see if there is some lack of agency she’s feeling that’s underpinning this.

But ultimately, she and her family are treating you unkindly, and you have the right to protect yourself from that by stepping back from it. If she can’t connect with you genuinely this holiday, you may want to rethink where you spend the next holiday.

Xoxo, Kiki