A Rose, by Any Other Name

When I got married the first time, I was too young, not ready to make a lifetime commitment to anyone, and stubborn enough to deny both of those things. I recited all of the familiar platitudes (“It’s not about the wedding, you guys. It’s about the marriage.“) but one of the only changes I remember giving a lot of thought to was my name. Would I take his? Keep mine? Hyphenate? Though I first decided to move my last name to my middle name, I had a nagging discomfort at the thought of leaving Nelson behind. I was about to start my first teaching job, so whatever I chose as a last name would be one that I’d hear dozens of times each day. Shortly before the wedding, I decided to hyphenate. A compromise, I thought, not having the prescience to see what a gigantic pain reclaiming my maiden name would be just a few short years later.

Once recovered, I knew I’d keep Nelson forever, even if I ended up marrying the right person (I did!). I know it’s not flashy or unique, but it’s my name, and the feminist in me has never liked the assumption that women should automatically change their names without serious discussion. (But know that just because I didn’t change my name again doesn’t mean that I think anyone who does is capitulating anything. Different things work for different people for different reasons. To each her own, I say!) Another consideration was that, in my family, the Nelsons of my generation are all girls. Were we to all get married and take other people’s names, Nelson would be gone from our family.

When Matt and I had been dating long enough to get invited to events together, either we or our clever friends started combining our very similar last names, and we became the Nolsens. I loved it! Separately, we kept our own identities, but now we had a name that we shared, too. A name just for us. It wasn’t long before 90% of our holiday cards and wedding invitations came addressed to the Nolsens. We seriously considered legally changing our last names to Nolsen when we got married, but ultimately we decided to keep our own names.

This was in January of 2012. Two years later, we were pregnant. Our family was about to get bigger. We had already successfully named a girl: our dog, Vilas Rose Ost (Rose is my middle name, and Ost is Matt’s middle name). But we were a bit stuck when it came to names for boys. We searched all kinds of lists online. One of my coworkers gave us a baby book with a highly entertaining chapter of soap opera character names. We catalogued the names in our family trees. On car trips to my parents’ cabin last summer, we’d go through dozens of names and reject all of them.

But that was just the first name. With two last names to choose from, I started to toy with the possibility of her or him taking Nelson rather than Olsen. A divergence from tradition, but as a former debate teacher and coach, I am immediately suspicious of doing anything purely for tradition’s sake.

And there were so many other factors to consider that were more important to me than convention. Our baby would be just as much Nelson as she or he would be Olsen. My body would do the bulk of the work to grow and to bring the little sweetheart into the world. Matt and I would love and care for our child equally, as would our families. Why not Nelson?

I can’t remember when I first brought these thoughts to Matt, but one of the first things I ever learned about him and one of the reasons I love him is because he’s open-minded. He’s also really thoughtful. He listened and promised he’d give the idea serious consideration. It wasn’t such an unfamiliar idea to him, either. His mom kept her name when she married his dad, and he and his siblings carry her maiden name, Ost, with them as middle names.

As time went on, we learned we were having a boy, and our conversations became more specific. I told Matt that I would love for our son to have Nelson as his last name and Matthew as his middle name. Something from each of us.

We swirled around the first name for a while, narrowing and expanding the list, coming back to one again and again: Oscar, my great-grandfather’s name (and a name in Matt’s family too, we later learned). The more we thought about and shyly practiced it with each other, the more right it felt. We could easily match “Oscar” with the cherubic, elvish face we saw in our ultrasound. When he was born, we knew who he was.

L to R: Grandpa Nelson (Herb); Great-Grandpa Nelson (Oscar); Dad (Dale); me. 🙂

Now that Oscar’s been with us for six months (!), the name we gave him seems to be less of a gift and more of an organic, inevitable part of him. I love that we started our family with a little Nelson, and who knows? Maybe someday we’ll be lucky enough to add a little Olsen. Because that’s who he or she will be. So please keep calling us the Nolsens. Because that’s who we are.

(And: We’ve already planned to share my middle name with Oscar’s future sibling. If it’s a boy, then I think it’s clear what his first name will be.)

Axl Rose

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