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Can We Stop With the Unique Baby Names?

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Only days after having my son, people started apologizing to me. "I'm sorry, I know three other boys with that name," they'd say with the air of someone breaking terrible news.

And here is the thing: I know. It's a real name; I didn't make it up. It's a name used in a famous book and a popular song, and I figured other people would use it. In fact, I used it because I love the ways it's been used in the past. So why was everyone acting like my kid's lack of uniqueness was an awful thing?

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There is a crisis of uniqueness among parents. According to Nameberry co-founder and editor Pamela Redmond Satran, in 1970 there were only 14,773 total different names listed for babies in the U.S. But 2014 totaled 33,044. Satran attributes the influx of names to the quest for uniqueness. "Everyone wants their name to be special," she said.

Or not too special. A friend who doesn't have kids recently explained that every year she searches the end of the year baby name lists hoping her favorite baby names aren't in the top 10. "I don't want a made up name, but the name can't be too popular, you know? Then, I'll have to find a new one."

It was so exhausting being so unique all the time. Most of the time, kids just want to belong, you know?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I often skulked on baby name message boards where people would parse out just how popular a name was and what the odds were of their kid being in the same class with another kid of that name. It was a complicated numbers game to ensure that their children were special, but you know, not too special.

And I kind of get it. I was born an Elizabeth and nicknamed Liz. In sixth grade, tired of my complete lack of uniqueness, I changed the spelling of my nickname from Liz to Lyz. I have never been able to escape this adolescent decision, and after furiously trying and failing to change my name from Lyz back to Liz, I gave up and leaned into the crazy of my own making.

I once taught a class with a girl named Mercedes. She was in her 40s and I asked her how she felt about her name. "Honestly," she said, "it's a name that is more popular now, but when I was little it was so exhausting being so unique all the time. Most of the time, kids just want to belong, you know?"

This cultural scramble for uniqueness is a crazy of our own making, born out of some adolescent desire to make our children unique and special snowflakes. There is nothing wrong with being part of a grand tradition of names or have having a name that rode a popular tide. A friend of mine, Jessica, loves meeting other Jessicas. They all identify as '80s babies—mostly white with similar, middle class, upbringings. "We are like a tribe," she told me.

I too love finding historical and literary precedents for my name. I am one of a long history of Elizabeths marching through time, a grand procession of women including queens, writers, great literary characters like Elizabeth Bennett, and the first female doctor in America, Elizabeth Blackwell.

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And I will defend anyone's right to name their child whatever they want, always. But this search for uniqueness is largely misguided. While our children are special to us, to the world they are just another child, another human, another part of a teeming mass of humanity. And that is OK. You can't always be special to everyone and you shouldn't expect to be.

I'm OK with my kid being one of a legion of ones with his name. I imagine him as another in a grand tribe of people who proudly bear a name like a mantle of honor. Because uniqueness is exhausting and frankly overrated.

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