In Name Only

How I Learned to Love My Unique Name

It's not always easy living with a name that's often misspelled and mispronounced. But the special meaning behind this writer's unique name makes her love it. She shares her parents' naming strategy to help you choose a cool, unique, and uncommon name for your baby girl.  

Mother and Baby Looking At Each Other Outside Sunset Julie Johnson/Unsplash

I'm on the phone with the receptionist at my doctor's office, because I just need to quickly reschedule my upcoming appointment. After a moment or two of dead air, the young woman on the line says, "Marissa? I can't seem to find you in the system." Without missing a beat, I reply, "Oh. No, it's Maressa. M-A-R-E-S-S-A." Thankfully, that did the trick.

My name is always confused with its more popular counterpart. In cases like this, spelling it out usually helps. Ensuring that a stranger nails the correct pronunciation is a whole different ballgame. Sometimes, when introducing myself, I'll have to say it several times before a new acquaintance will say it back correctly. Even then, over the course of more than three decades with my name, I've learned to live with the fact that teachers, colleagues, neighbors, doctors, group fitness instructors, maybe even old classmates, are simply going to call me Marissa. And don't even get me started with Starbucks' baristas.

If it sounds like it's enough to give me an identity crisis—or at least make me contemplate throwing in the towel and embracing an easier nickname, it is. But I always come back to the fact that my uncommon name is special.

See, when my mom and dad learned they were expecting their first child, it was 1983—well before they could type "different girl names," "uncommon girl names," or "rare girl names" into a Google search bar for a plethora of options to consider. Maybe my mom paged through a book of baby names to find a cool girl name she'd love, but she knew she wanted to stick with the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition of naming her daughter after a dearly departed loved one. The thought is that the namesake keeps the memory of the relative alive. Of course, that tradition often causes both sides of the family to compete for the honor. So, it's understandable that my mom wanted to make sure she pleased everyone.

Enter "Maressa," which combines names of three great-grandmothers: Marion, Marie, and Esther.

My mom has fond memories of staying with Marion in downtown Chicago, visiting the Art Institute and Field Museum, shopping at the original Marshall Field's department store, and painting with watercolors together. She says her paternal grandmother had a "salty" sense of humor and was a wonderful listener.

She also recalls Marie's memorable cooking at holiday meals, noting that her maternal grandmother took lessons with famed, Chicago-based gourmet chefs Antoinette and Francois Pope.

My father's eyes light up when he recalls visiting South Haven, Michigan where Esther ruled the roost of the dairy farm she owned with my great-grandfather. He says his maternal grandmother was a social butterfly who loved flaunting the latest fashion with a chic hairstyle and fresh manicure at the local resorts that visitors from the Windy City flocked to every summer.

Maressa Brown Essay Maressa Brown as a toddler with her dad, Stuart. Maressa is partially named after Stuart's maternal grandmother, Esther. Provided by Maressa Brown

When it came time to name their first child, my mom wasn't thinking about a play on the name "Marissa." As far as she recalls, she wanted an "M" name for Marion and Marie, but a way to work "Esther" in, as well. My mom's a poet and writer, so it's no wonder she masterfully weaved the names together to come up with my unique name. 

Holding all of these strong and amazing personalities with me in my name inspires me. So, that entire school year my chemistry teacher called me every name you can think of but Maressa, that time a coworker of three years called me Marissa in a meeting, and the mild frustration I feel when dealing with just about any customer service scenario, are easy to ignore. I can live with all of that and then some, because it means my name, inextricably linked to my identity, has a beautiful, meaningful backstory.

Sure, as a kid, I found it harder to appreciate my unusual name. But I never daydreamed about being a Jennifer, a Beth, or a Michelle, who would generally have to be called by her first name and last initial because the name was shared by several of our classmates. I never asked to be called by nickname or abbreviation or alternate name completely. I always knew the significance of my name—the memories of my great-grandmothers and the pride that comes with being distinctive—made it worth the frequent need to clarify it.

Jewish scholars say a baby's name should be "a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life." I have to say, my mom absolutely nailed it: By giving me a unique girl name, she not only memorialized my great-grandmothers but inspired me to live up to their legacies.

These days, in the era of baby names like Rumi, Khaleesi, and Bodhi, millennial parents are often intent on finding a particularly uncommon name for their little one. Take my parents' baby naming strategy and allow heartfelt meaning to drive the process. Whether you're honoring a beloved family member or paying tribute to a piece of art, a name given with intention and love will be one a child will undoubtedly, ultimately adore.

When it's time for me to name my future son or daughter, it will certainly be a challenge. The naming bar has been set so high for me. But knowing firsthand what it's like to have a meaningful, unique baby name, I'm more than up to the task.