Quite a few people have asked where we came up with our eight month old daughter’s name—Laken.
I wish we had some super cool story with loads of meaning and an ancestor or two thrown in, but that isn’t the case (sadly!) To be very honest, I first heard the name when I was teaching in London. One of my colleagues was named Laken, and I fell in love with it the second I heard it. Any time she was mentioned at faculty meetings or in the hallway, I found myself rolling the name over my tongue again and again. It just had such a good sound to it—no matter whose voice said it.
Like all parents, Todd and I took our duty to name a human being very seriously. We wanted something that was unique and yet not impossible to pronounce or spell. Since that seemed a tad broad as a starting point, we added the requirement that it be Irish (for no other reason than just because Todd loves Ireland so much) and we both had to be 100% in support of it. Period. No compromises.
Todd’s initial pick for a name was Ireland. I just couldn’t give that big a tribute to the country, so we kept thinking.
The first time I mentioned the name ‘Laken’ to him, it took me by surprise to feel a rush of nervousness. I didn’t realize how much I actually cared about that as an option.
“Laken.” He thought for a second and then scrunched his face. “Eh.”
He must have seen my reaction because he added, “I don’t hate it. I just don’t see us naming our child that.”
Soon after that conversation, the name was a moot point because our doctor told us he was 99% sure we were having a boy.
Before confirming the gender, Dr. H asked what I thought we were having (and added that quite often, in his experience, a mama’s instincts are correct.) When I said “boy,” he nodded and said, “You are having a boy,” and pointed out a little phallic blur in the sonogram.
For us, a boy’s name was easy. I forget who said it first—Noah—but it took us all of five seconds to come up with and we were agreed.
Todd and I made a strict deal not to share the baby’s name until he was born. Reason being, even if they claim not to, most people have definite opinions and associations with names. We figured it’s hard enough as a couple to come to a solid agreement on what to name our child—why confuse ourselves even more by opening up our thoughts to the world?
Plus, I’m so easily influenced. All it would have taken would be one little twitch of the lip or a reflex suck of saliva in to the back of someone’s throat and I’d be done with. Trying to find a name that pleased the whole world wouldn’t work.
Since we were having a boy, though, I felt at liberty to answer the question when one of my IB (international baccalaureate) students asked what we would have named our child if she’d was a girl.
I told them the few that we’d been mulling over—Micah, Penelope (well, okay, Todd was not mulling that one over, I don’t think, but I was. And, finally, Laken.) Right away, they made some general comments that it was a great name. We talked about it for a while longer until it was obvious to me that they were doing that high school thing of trying to get me talking so I’d forget all about teaching (such a sucker for that!) and we moved on.
At our next appointment with Dr. H, he asked us if we would like to know the gender of our baby. Um…sure? Did we not cover that, already? I didn’t say anything, though, because I figured it would be fun to relive the big gender reveal. This time Dr. H didn’t ask about my motherly instincts and instead pointed, very proudly, at a much clearer shot between the baby’s legs and said that we were having a girl.
He was, yet again, 99% sure.
So, now that our doctor was 99% sure that we were still having one child but that it was both a boy and a girl, we were no longer sure of anything and went back to trying to find unique, easy to spell, Irish names. It crossed my mind that we were having a hermaphrodite. Which, would have been fine. It would just make some registry changes, necessary.
When I told my IB students we were actually having a girl, now, the only boy in the class (I teach at a very small international school) said, “Oh, good! And, by the way, we all think you should name her Laken. The whole class agrees.”
When I asked why, he said that it was unique, sounded good, and everyone could see her being some cool hipster chick in high school.
“The only thing is, Todd doesn’t like the name,” I pointed out.
“Well, you have to convince him!”
I knew that Todd was the type of person who, if I wanted something badly enough, would back off and let me have my way. But, I didn’t want to take advantage of his kindness and backpedal on the criteria we’d set for naming our baby. So, I didn’t mention the name again and went back to web sites like nameberry.com to search for inspiration.
Not long after our latest 99% verdict from Dr. H, Todd emailed me a list of name ideas. One was Raine. Another was something I don’t remember and, since I didn’t keep the email for some reason that goes against my general nostalgic tendencies, I’ll never know. The third was Laken.
“I thought you didn’t like the name, Laken!”
“What? I never said that.”
“Yes, you did. You shot it down right away!”
“No I didn’t. I don’t even think that name came up. Did it?”
“Yes, you did. You said that you couldn’t see us naming our child that!”
“I don’t remember that.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him. Todd will never agree with this but his memory is, um, flawed. There was an incident a few years ago where we went to visit his family and they literally had to remind him about a woman he had proposed to back in his early twenties. I am still floored by the idea that Todd had no recollection of her name, anything about her, or the fact that they were engaged. Todd claims that he gave her a ‘promise ring,’ which trips the significance of this life event down a few notches from a marriage proposal, but still. And yet, he still remembers what I ordered the first time we went out to a restaurant together in Philadelphia, on the weekend we fell in love. (It was a salad, FYI. I was still worried about maintaining my figure.)
Bottom line—Laken was our name. As it turns out, it might not even meet one of our key requirements. There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not it’s actually Irish or American born. I’ve seen the name in several baby books, now, and some claim it to be American, while others link it to Ireland in a different Gaelic form.
Whatever the case—by the time we finally agreed on a girl’s name, country heritage was less important to us than knowing we had more than just a pronoun (or two) to use when referring to our baby.
As a side note, there was actually a character named Laken Lockridge on Santa Barbara in the 1980’s. I bring this up because I don’t want anyone to think we named her after this character. She wasn’t such a bad chick—it sounds like she was a typical teenager (the first to appear in Santa Barbara) and that she was obsessed with some guy named Ted. Three times she fell in love; three times it ended; one time the person she loved was murdered. After that, she figured Santa Barbara had bad juju and moved away. Who can blame her?
After our little bub was born, I settled in to the cuddles, lack of decent sleep, and the tribulations of learning how to breastfeed. (It was initially a two person job. I steadied my nipple and pulled it up to a superhuman halfway point to meet Laken, who was still bobbing around, unsure of what to do. Todd tried to attach her to me.)
I also started leaving and receiving long voice messages on WhatsApp.
In light of what was obviously a fertile stretch for the staff of my school, six of us went on maternity leave at the same time. For a staff of only fifty or so, that’s significant.
Since we were all more or less rooted to our couches during the day, breastfeeding, there was plenty of time to leave long voice messages for each other. (I’ve found that, as an introvert, it’s easier to enjoy phone conversations outside of real time.)
I noticed that one of my colleagues, who I’ll call Jen because I’m not sure how this whole privacy and blogging on the web thing works, quite yet, kept referring to Laken as (LAH-ken.) She’d leave me a message with questions like, “How is LAH-ken sleeping? How many times a day are you breastfeeding LAH-ken?”
I’d reply with the correct pronunciation, “Lay-ken is doing awesome. She gets up every two hours, which I guess isn’t actually all that awesome now that I think about it. Lay-ken eats pretty regularly throughout the day. She always does ten minutes on each side. I know this because I track Lay-ken’s eating with an App because I’m so tired I’m afraid I’ll feed Lay-ken on the same side every single time and then that one boob will end up quadrupling in size because all my milk production will be centered there.”
This went on for a bit—messages where she asked about “LAH-ken” and replies where I stressed back “Lay-ken.”
Finally, we met up for lunch in real time, and I teased her about it.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know…I keep doing that. I give it the German pronunciation.”
I was in the middle of saying that it was no problem, whatsoever, when she hesitated before adding, “I keep thinking of the German word Laken.”
She watched my face carefully and added, “You know that’s a word, right? Laken? It means sheets.”
I will never, in my entire life, forget the following ten seconds. Dumbfounded was the word. I literally could not speak and all the implications of what she had just said, all the awfulness, a whole alternative future for my baby, the sudden and unseen German-ness of the word, a bit of a phlegm retch at the K in the center of her name, the brutal pit of a mistake I hadn’t realized—all of it rushed, along with plenty of blood, to my face.
What is the German word for sheets? I tried to think of it so that I could correct Jen. I’d been in the country for fifteen years. I was a notorious bedding hoarder. We had two sets of unopened king size Bed-in-a-Bag sets just sitting in our boiler room/basement. Surely I knew the word for sheets! What was it? Didn’t I just say “Bettwaesche?” I’d never—not once—heard the word Laken.
Right after lunch I called Todd and, close to tears, told him the story. “We named our child sheets.”
“No we didn’t,” he said, in unfettered Todd fashion. “Her name is not LAH-ken. It’s LAY-ken.”
“We’ve ruined her life! She’s going to be bullied. How did I not know this? I’ve never heard that word. Never!”
“Again—her name is not LAH-ken. It’s Lay-ken. They are totally different. We did not name our daughter ‘sheets.’ We named her LAY-ken.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that when she’s in school people are going to see the name and think of ‘sheets.’ ARGGHHHH, this cannot be happening! She’s going to have a target on her back…”
“I can guarantee that not one person has seen her name and thought of the word ‘sheets.’ It’s an Irish name. Not German. And, regardless–she’s not even going to a German school. She’s going to an international school. Everyone has a strange name there.”
This was true, and the only thing that stopped me from moving forward with a very serious consideration of changing her name. To point out the obvious, all of the kids at an international school are…international! And, so, they often have names that are atypical or hard to pronounce.. Since it wouldn’t be a German school, per se, the idea that someone would see her name and immediately think of the German meaning isn’t a given. Plus, international school kids are taught to be open-minded and caring. It’s in the learner profile hung up on all the classrooms.
Still. I was in crisis mode for the next few weeks. It was one of those things where you look back at recent events with a whole new perspective. I felt like I’d been at a party, all dressed up and feeling attractive, only to learn later that I had a giant tampon stuck up my nose the whole time and didn’t realize it. All those smiles coming my way—they’d been for a different reason!
So, for example, when I’d emailed my staff a proud birth announcement with a picture shortly after birth, her name, and the fact she weighed three thousand and something grams, were they replying their congrats but secretly tee-heeing about the fact I’d named her ‘sheets?’ Were they scratching their heads, wondering if I’d seen it as a section in of IKEA catalogue and decided, Aha! Just perfect for my baby girl!
As a mother in general, and the mother of a third culture kid in particular, the last thing you want to do is make things even more difficult for your baby. And here I was, not knowing better than to perhaps check that my baby’s name was not a noun in the culture we’re living in. Here it was. Tally it up. Life lesson learned the absolute hardest possible way number two hundred. Which, for me is fine and the way things have always gone. But, it killed me to learn this lesson on my daughter’s behalf. Check name meanings in the country you live in. Idiot.
Every day I tried to drop it. I’d move on in my thought process, be okay for a little while but then drop my head in to my hands and exclaim, “My God! We named our baby ‘sheets!’”
To which Todd said, “We did not name her sheets. We named her Laken! They are pronounced completely differently! Her name is not German.”
Several times I came back, quite seriously, to the idea of changing her name. I didn’t see any other way to rectify the situation. But, one of our key requirements had always been that it should be easy to spell. Laikyn or Layken was just way too complicated and might even exasperate the initial problem. I just couldn’t see her name that way.
And, of course, it would be bizarre to suddenly email everyone we knew and say, “Just kidding! Our daughter’s name is Micah.”
Plus…she is a Laken. I see that. It’s a name perfect for a baby with giant blue eyes, framed by a horizon of the thickest lashes I’ve ever seen. It is still, in my opinion, a beautifully unique and ‘right’ name. For us, and for her. When we named her, we had water in mind—the type of setting that soothes most people. We were not thinking about flannel or thread counts.
I’ve had some comfort in recent days. It goes without saying that I asked my German friends if they’d thought of the word ‘sheets’ when they first heard her name. More often than not, my friends never put the two together. They are pronounced completely differently. One or two had made the connection—when they saw it on paper–but not at first and never in the horrified, what were they thinking sort of way that I feared. They just had the offhand recognition of a German word. But, they knew we’d named her in English.
One thing I was told that really helped ease my mind is that ‘Laken’ is not often used alone. In other words, you wouldn’t go to a store here and say you’re looking for ‘Laken.’ You’d always use the longer noun, ‘Bettlaken.’
Hey. Google is on my side. When I pull up the text converter and type in ‘Bettwaesche’ in German, ‘Bed sheets’ comes up in English (just as I originally thought.) Okay, yes, when I type in ‘Laken’ in English, ‘sheet’ does come up—but it is one on a list of nineteen different ways to say ‘sheet’ in German. With that many ways of saying the one thing, it’s no wonder we inadvertently named her that!
Laken is going to an international school eventually. And, my international students (several of whom are German) were the ones who most lauded the name. They are teenagers, wonderful ones, and if there was any reason to avoid ‘Laken’ or any fear that she’d be made fun of, they would tell me that. Teenagers are so much fun—but also honest to the point that you have to wear a hardhat over your sensitivity. I pride myself on the open, mutually appreciative dynamic I have with most of my students. They would tell me if I was about to mess up something as important as a name.
Finally, Germany literally has a law in place regarding names. Several things are mandated. First, you must be able to tell a child’s gender just by hearing their first name—and if that isn’t clear, you need to include a middle name that is either masculine or feminine. Also, it is illegal for the name to be something that could potentially incur any type of ridicule. Finally, you may not name your child after a product. (Although, I did read that the name Pepsi-Colala slipped through the cracks, recently.) The Standesamt, (a German civil registration office) must approve of what you want to call your child, and they will go so far as to contact foreign embassies to check on names they aren’t familiar with to make sure they are common enough in that country.
So, if ‘Laken’ was a problem, I think I’d know about it
Finally—look at Todd. His name is one D away from being Tod, which means ‘death’ in German. Has he ever been teased for that? No. Do people hear his name and think of the word death? I doubt it. Will I tease him about what his name means now that I’ve made that connection? Hell, yes.
I think this just needs to be a case where we forget about being an expat, for a minute, and go all in for the home country. In most ways, I’m all about integrating and ensuring that Laken’s idea of ‘home’ is here as fully as possible. But, where her name is concerned, Todd is right. We did not name her LAH-ken. Her name is LAY-ken. It will be one way that, although she’ll grow up in Germany, we will emphasize her American-ness.
Or, I could shift pronunciation and opt for the conversation piece.
It might be interesting to greet new acquaintances with, “Hey, nice to meet you. This is Death, this is Sheets, and I’m Sarah.”