Why Your Baby Name Choice Is Making You Miserable, Part 2
Yesterday I discussed the "paradox of choice": that we try to maximize our options to give ourselves the freedom to pursue happiness, yet research shows that an abundance of choices actually makes us miserable. Now I'd like to show how baby name choices have exploded in the past generation, escalating angst and remorse for parents.
In theory, American parents have always had a wide-open choice of names. Choice, though, isn't just about the theoretical options available. It's about the culturally and psychologically realistic ones. (We all have the theoretical choice to wear our underpants outside of our khakis and tie socks to our ears for warmth, but none of us dresses that way.) In the past generation, our realistic baby name options have skyrocketed.
Historically, names in the English-speaking world were a relatively constrained set, with a small collection of classic names dominating. In England in 1800, the top three names for boys and girls accounted for more than half of all babies born. Traditions to name after relatives and benefactors clarified choices even further. I think it's fair to speculate that the typical name-selection process of that time was a straightforward one.
By 1950 in the United States, you needed 79 names (through Gregory for boys, Paula for girls) to get the same population coverage that those six names achieved in England in 1800. Today, it would take 546 different names, including names like Raegan, Yaretzi, Jace and Heaven. And even those names barely scratch the surface of what's considered "normal." There is no longer any pre-defined set of acceptable names. That means there is no limit to your choices.
The names marketplace does plenty to drive that message home. The very existence of a national top-1,000 names list encourages parents to think of 1,000 different names for boys and girls as “popular.” Then there are baby name dictionaries. You know how they like to include the number of names they list in their titles, impressing parents with the vast choices available? (“50,000 Best Names!”) Well, the number of titles doing that has skyrocketed, and so have the name totals themselves. Take a look at what an expectant parent would have faced in bookstores over the past century. Each dot below represents a new number-laden title, and the y-axis shows the number of names promised:
Yes, the current leader promises a soul-crushing 140,000 choices. That's already a guaranteed recipe for misery, but there's more. Today's parents also want to choose names that are distinctive and not too popular. Popular, of course, means "well-liked." So you're choosing from a limitless menu...with the most appealing options crossed out.
Now add in the perceived importance of the decision. In all phases of parenting, we've seen a rising obsession with doing all possible to give your child every advantage. Names are naturally part of that, and with good reason. As I've discussed before, your name literally means more today than ever.
Endless choices, challenging criteria, and high stakes. It's a decision-maker's nightmare. And brace yourself for the final kicker: both parents have to agree.
Take a deep breath, expectant parents. It's tough, and there's no magic bullet. But we're here for you, and we’ll make sure that the BNW book and tools keep focusing on making your decision easier, not harder.