DEAR CAROLYN: I am almost 50, a single mom to an awesome 9-year-old daughter. My parents and I have a great relationship, with one glaring exception. Every year they come out for my daughter’s birthday (that’s not the problem!). This is when my given name came up.
I grew up with a speech impediment and could not pronounce my own name. When I was younger I would start to cry after repeated attempts to say it when asked. As I grew older I avoided drawing any attention to myself. Finally as I stood in line to register for college, I wrote my name using just my middle name. From that moment on I could say, “Hi, my name is [blank].” My whole life turned around; I wasn’t scared to meet people; I became the me that I had been too petrified to be.
At her birthday dinner, my daughter relayed a story Mom and Dad had told her and used my given name. I asked her to please not refer to me by that name.
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That was when my mom, with a lot of pain and anger, told me again how much I have hurt them by changing my name.
I feel like I have spent my life trying to explain it to them. I love them so much, and I meant no disrespect to their beautiful name, I just still can’t pronounce it. Can you help me find the right way to communicate this? It has put an emotional burden on them that I can’t lift.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: A burden on them, are you serious? That it’s your responsibility to lift?!
What about the burden they’ve laid on you, both in showing zero respect for your childhood pain, and in compounding that pain by prioritizing their feelings over their child’s?
So often my job involves pointing out other sides to a story. There is no other side here. It is your name, your life, your pain that matter. Your parents are also hurting, apparently, yes. But the pain of having their name rejected — not for reasons of taste even (which still barely registers), but because of a disability, an accident of genes or fate — doesn’t even approach your childhood pain of feeling humiliated in every single encounter with someone new. Their insensitivity and self-absorption appall me. And co-opting your daughter? Dirty pool.
As for helping you find the “right way” to explain this, the only right one is the one your parents are willing to hear. I am not hopeful. Think about it: If they actually wanted to feel better about your name change, then they would have taken one of the countless opportunities to do so over the past 30 years. An opportunity such as your relief at having a name your mouth could form.
You might not want to drop this lit match on your relationship, fair enough, but allow me to role-play it for you: “Can you pronounce your own name, Mom? Have you ever been 18 and unable to say who you are? Has your own mother ever wanted you to keep feeling humiliated just because it would vindicate her on a purely cosmetic point? Until you have, I suggest not telling me how badly you’ve been hurt.” Some earth begs to be scorched.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living