But What’s Your REAL Name?

At least once a week someone asks me what my initials stand for. My stock answer is “My first and middle name,” which usually gets a chuckle, but almost never deters the questioner. When they realize I’m not going to tell them, a lot of people just start guessing. Curiosity is persistent, it seems.

I can’t really relate to this particular curiosity. There’s no good analog–I’m sure a lot of people who go by Jen or Alex get asked if that’s short for a longer name, but in most instances there are only a few plausible explanations, so there’s probably less guesswork involved. I’ve asked people to spell names, but I’ve ever just been dying to find out a name’s origin.

The part of this that frustrates me the most is that I go by my initials because I prefer them. I’m not one of those people who says “Oh, call me Mike or Michael–whatever” and genuinely means it. I very much do not enjoy being addressed by my given name. I don’t introduce myself that way, I don’t sign communications that way, I don’t fill out name badges that way. I generally have to use at least my full first name for a lot of legal documents, so I get a fair amount of mail addressed as such, but that’s really it.

It’s not that I don’t like my full name. This is an important distinction. My first name is also my mother’s first name, and my middle name was my grandmother’s first name. These are two women I love and respect very much, and I think there’s something to be said for passing along family names in this way. (Interestingly enough, my dad, a III himself, felt very strongly that his son should have his “own” name, so my brother isn’t a IV, whereas I have a multigenerational name. Go figure.)

I also like that my full name is sort of a period piece. My first name was number 32 on the top baby name list for the year I was born (according to one of an overwhelming amount of baby name websites). Go back another couple of decades and it shoots to the top of the list. 2013? Not even on the screen.

It’s not that my parents gave me some horrendous name that I should probably legally change. It’s not like my name is, I don’t know, Doorknob. I didn’t spend 18 years in and out of of lockers and trash cans, wondering how my parents could be so cruel. I didn’t wake up one morning and start telling teachers to call me DK because maybe kids would finally stop coming up with cruel, suggestive rhymes.

Instead, I spent much of my formative years answering to a name that never particularly suited me. I didn’t like always having to distinguish myself from my mother on the phone, and I still held out hope that girlhood would make way for a teenage boy when I hit puberty–a boy who most certainly wouldn’t answer to an extremely traditional girl’s name. My father had called me by my initials periodically since I was quite young, but it wasn’t until I met two women years later that I started to imagine myself as someone who actually went by that name.

The first woman was the first adult friend I think I ever had, a friend of a friend who would take me to movies and absorb all my tween and then teen angst. I don’t remember when or why she started calling me by my initials, but I can remember feeling an enormous sense of relief. Whatever her shortcomings–I think her good intentions combined with my adolescent ennui led her to believe my parents were much harder on me than they were–she created a space where I was always comfortable being myself, where I answered to my name not because I felt stuck with it but because it finally seemed attached to my own identity.

The second was my freshman crew coach in college. I’m deeply grateful to her for a number of reasons, but a big one is the fact that partway through the year–after rounds and rounds of messages back and forth about practice times and the like–she ended an email with an observation, and a question: “I’ve noticed you sign your emails mk. Is that what you’d prefer to go by?”

This might not sound like such a big deal if you don’t have a complicated relationship with your own name. But I do. And it was. Even though my legal name never changed–and I have no intention of changing it–I changed almost overnight. I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I would always answer to a name everyone else associated with me that had absolutely no place in my own identity. Imagine living for 18 years with everyone in the world calling you one thing but knowing, deep inside yourself, that you’re answering to someone else’s name. I couldn’t have told you then what my “real” name was, but that feeling had always been simmering there.

And now I have a name I love. It’s unique, and combined with my last name (which I’ve always loved) it’s pretty badass. People don’t always get it right–I get MJ occasionally, MC more hilariously, and baristas have a tendency to think it must be Mike if periods are involved. Every once in a while people assume I’m a dude (although, let’s be honest, that happens with or without my name) because they’re unused to the womenfolk using initials, but that’s usually just a momentary blip.

A few family members and close friends who have known me since I was tiny still call me by some variation of my full name, which I don’t mind. Thankfully the closer you are to a person, the less likely you are to call them anything at all; my brother and I, for instance, generally just call each other Dude.

So please excuse me if I don’t feel like indulging your curiosity when you ask me about my “real” name. My full name has very little place in my life, and I prefer it that way. It’s not like we’ll suddenly become closer if you know the source of my initials. I don’t go by one name in my professional life and another at home. My Library of Congress name authority doesn’t even include my full name. (And yes, I’m very pleased that the LOC has weathered the shutdown so that I could include that indulgent link.)

What if you introduced yourself to someone knew and that person asked for your “real” name? How would you even answer?


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