The Names We Choose For Ourselves

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In my head I keep a list of all the ways in which I don’t want to be like my mother. I can see it as if it were an announcement stuck to the family refrigerator, impossible to miss, printed in bold black text with extra large font. It includes items like: Don’t be passive aggressive; Don’t avoid unpleasant conversations; Don’t waste money on appearances; Don’t hold on to anything past its point of usefulness; Don’t play the martyr.

I believe many of us have lists like this, although the individual items vary from person to person. I had mine even before I became a mother, before I knew what it was like to be a single woman living in the world, responsible not only for herself but for teaching her daughter how to be the same. My mother might have had her own list. We write them when we’re growing and trying to figure out who we should be. We start by looking around, seeing what’s there, and deciding what we absolutely do not want to become.

Of course, I’ve done things on my list. Because no matter how carefully you work to identify them, how strongly you guard against them, all those habits and tendencies you hate and rebel against are still a part of you, and will make themselves known whether you deliberately want them to or not. I’ve heard the same phrases come out of my mouth, the same tones and inflections, that I couldn’t stand to hear from my own mother. A reflection of what I remember, but reversed. Now I’m the one who succumbs to frustration, who says the wrong thing because I don’t know what else to say, and my daughter is where I used to be, absorbing and reacting and—somewhere in her head—most likely starting her own list.

My daughter is on the threshold of her official teenage stage, but not quite old enough yet to see Lady Bird, so I went to see it by myself recently when she was away visiting family. I had an idea beforehand that the film would be exceptionally relevant to my own experience—and it was. A coming-of-age tale set only a couple of years after I graduated high school, check. Fraught connections to the place one grows up in, check. Strained, difficult relationship with mother, check.

In addition to all that, though, I have a daughter whose rocket ride through the onset of puberty over the past two years has been bumpy for the both of us. I’ve started to see traits in her that I recognize: anxiety, avoidance, an excess of energy that sometimes has nowhere to go. It dismayed me. I was not disappointed in her, but rather, I had always assumed these particular burdens were unique to me, t  hings wrong with me—and that she would escape this fate and be more like everyone else. But increasingly, my daughter is just like me. Which leads to an inevitable question: Who am I like?

I was not like Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, that much is for sure. Despite similarities in time, place, and certain family dynamics, she shines with more confidence and daring than I ever had. She’s a wonderful character to watch, earnest and determined and convinced not only that there’s something better beyond her current circumstances, but that she can get to it. She goes after the boys she likes and gets them, even if the relationships don’t turn out the way she thought they would. She applies to colleges that the school guidance counselor and her mother have declared out of her reach. Her enthusiasm is resilient, carrying her from a valley to the top of the next hill.

Even her mistakes have a certain purity to them. I remember all of the dumb stuff I did because I wanted to be seen, heard, or understood. When I made a mistake for these reasons, I was almost more ashamed about the revelation of my wants than I was about the mistake itself. Which is why it is so refreshing to watch Lady Bird run headfirst into her mistakes, without shame. She lies about where she lives to a richer, more popular girl and then has to admit the truth when the girl tracks her down to her real, much less impressive home. She trusts the wrong boy to take her virginity and comes to terms with the disappointing revelation that it wasn’t his first time. She has outbursts of temper, especially with her mother, and often overlooks her other’s feelings because she is so tunnel-focused on her own. All of it, though, comes from her desire to be more than what she currently is, which feels honest even when she isn’t strictly being so; when Lady Bird does apologize, it’s for the unintended consequences of her actions, never for the fact that she wants things.

Not apologizing for wanting what you want is a difficult trick for most women to learn. Naming one’s desire, saying it out loud for anyone to hear—or bringing it to other people for fulfillment—can be terrifying. I admire Lady Bird’s ability to do so.  It resonates. I see it. I hear it. I understand. She writes her name, when necessary, as “Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson,” and we know the essence of who she is not through the nickname itself but in the fact that she chose it herself. “I gave it to myself,” she says. “It’s given to me, by me.”

I wish I had come up with my own name, along with the courage to insist that the world should address me by it. Instead I bristled silently, shackled with the single most popular name for a girl in the year I was born, which seemed to strand my identity in a sea of commonness. My middle name was Ann, which I liked a little better, but I preferred it with an “e.” When my daughter was born, I gave her the “e”-version as a middle name, and a first name that inherently lent itself to a myriad of nicknames, each with their own sound, feel, and personality. The result was a mix of my own wish fulfillment and her opportunity for choice, which is the best inheritance we can ever hope to pass down to our children.

But when we are children, we tend to see our inheritance as more of burden than a boon. Lady Bird, perched ready to fly, sees what surrounds her as either a direct tether or an accessory to stagnation: Sacramento, the stolid northern California town she lives in, and has always lived in; her father, out of work; her brother, a college graduate working at the grocery store and living with his girlfriend in the family home; her best friend, a sweet and unassuming girl who plans to go to college nearby.

Lady Bird, however, vibrates with desire and intention. It’s her senior year of high school and she knows what she wants. She chases after boys, she makes friends with the popular kids. It doesn’t always work out. She missteps, she circles back. She’s kept in her orbit by a healthy enthusiasm, a familial safety net, and (her most restrictive tether) her mother.

Marion McPherson is a lot like her daughter, or maybe it’s the other way around. She feels deeply and reacts strongly. Around the edges of her daughter’s story we see the ways in which she stretches herself for the sake of others: the double shifts she works at the hospital to support the family, the kindness she shows to her son’s girlfriend, the care she gives to colleagues and patients. Like her daughter, she has a clear idea of how she thinks the world should be, and she pushes those elements within her reach to make it so.

And, yet, for all their similarities, mother and daughter consistently find themselves diametrically opposed, often swiftly and without warning. A drive back from a college visit finds them both in tears at the end of a Grapes of Wrath audiobook —and then just a few minutes later, engaged in an argument that escalates until Lady Bird throws herself from the moving car and breaks her arm. A visit to the thrift store sees them trading passive-aggressive barbs with increasing irritation until Marion discovers a dress she thinks would suit her daughter, and Lady Bird erupts in joy over it. Their relationship rocks up and down in this way, at turns almost too much for either one to handle, bound up with superficial friction and profound need, the sort of connection that cuts to the core and takes a lifetime to understand.

In my early 20s, I became a single mother. It was not how I had planned to go about being a mother, if I planned to do so at all, but it’s what happened. This is how it goes, sometimes. It was not a particularly easy or stable period of time for me, but out of it grew a better understanding of my own mother. I didn’t live with her during my teenage years, and so there were few soft moments available to round the edges of our clashing personalities.

We had retreated most often into activities that gave us each enough space to remain unruffled and self-contained. She made a series of miscalculations in life, which left her raising my half-sister alone and barely keeping her head above the poverty line. She was not untouched by resentment and bitterness. Beneath our calm relationship exterior I pitied her, and, deeper still, I swore I would do everything differently than she had done. But ultimately, I ended up more like her than I ever thought I would, which I suppose happens as well. And as a result, she made more sense to me.

My list of things to avoid as a mother doesn’t carry the same weight now as it once did. Instead of focusing on the negative I have to defeat, I instead practice accepting the whole. I apologize where I make mistakes. I set the example that perfection isn’t necessary. I hope that, after our storms, my daughter will also one day come back around, and understand.

Lady Bird does in fact escape California and heads off to college in New York. At a party she introduces herself as Christine and remarks, “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.” I’m not sure exactly what she means by this; chances are she doesn’t quite either, but there’s something there. Something tangled around faith, and gifts, and trusting that someone is looking out for you in the end. That not only does illumination show itself in odd ways, but that it can take us a long time to fumble our way towards it. That we can choose what we’ve been given.

The next morning, Christine calls home and leaves a message for her mother, to tell her that she loves her.