The following is an excerpt from my new book, an essay collection called Things You Can’t Un-see, which releases this week! Pre-order your copy here.
My husband makes fun of me for my obsession with monograms. After he caught me looking at a rotating display case of silver letter charms at a local boutique, I told him, “If you had the opportunity to name yourself, you’d be obsessed with them, too.”
First day of fourth grade, circa 1997: the teacher takes attendance with strict efficiency. Since my last name begins with C, I am the fifth student called. “Sarah Caplin?” she calls. I raise my hand. By the time she gets to the end of the list, it is apparent that “Sarah” is the female name of choice: there are four Sarahs in our class of a dozen students, which Mrs. F thinks is hilarious. She places us all at the same table: Sarah K, Sarah M, Sarah W, and myself. It was not the first time I had to be differentiated by my last initial, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was nine; I was already tired of it.
My parents told me, “We just liked the name; we had no idea it would be so popular.” It never occurred to them that giving me a name from the Bible with timeless appeal (why else do so many women have it?) and no pronunciation problems in the English-speaking world would be such a burden to me. And of course they didn’t know any other Sarahs at the time – it appears they were all in utero. According to Social Security records, the name “Sarah” was at peak popularity in the United States between 1980 and 2000. I was born in 1988: an awkward place with Sarahs above me, Sarahs below, and plenty more to grow up with.
Wanting a name to “stand out” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previous generations not only wanted their kids to blend in so as not to be teased on the playground (and we all know just how cruel kids can be), but passing names down through the family was an important, tangible way to honor deceased relatives.
For a while, my parents were settled on the name Samantha for me. Only toward the end of my mother’s pregnancy did they decide to give me a family name – my great-grandmother’s name. It was the traditionally Jewish thing to do. Where religion failed in importance to my parents, they made up for in keeping the cultural tradition going.
Somewhere along the way, blending in became boring: a generational curse. Now it’s all about uniqueness; making sure everyone remembers who you are. The Internet has helped fuel this “identity panic”: previous generations didn’t have the ability to type in a name on Google, view statistics for how many other babies born that year had it, and then panic that the name has been “taken.”
As an adult introvert, I’m okay now with blending in, but Childhood Me was the opposite. How could I stand out with a name shared by so many?