I was ambling across St. Marks Place, thinking about the old days, when I was forced to an abrupt stop. I had run into a stroller jam-more specifically, a gridlock composed of $700 Bugaboos bearing infants in $200 frocks. On St. Marks Place! Just across the street from where I bought my first set of studded wrist cuffs at Religious Sex in 1983! So this is what it has come to? I pushed through with my own über-stroller-$400 on eBay-trying to convey some vague sense of urgency about my and my daughter’s trip to Tompkins Square Park. Since everyone else had the same idea, it took a while for the jam to clear. I left feeling like a very bad actress and just a so-so mother. It made me long for the early days of pregnancy all over again.
When I got pregnant, I was sure I was onto something new. None of my old karaoke buddies were having kids. Of course, I was thrilled to be having a baby-but the idea that mine would be the first on the block gave the project an extra frisson. Kind of like it felt back in kindergarten, when I was the first in my class to wear pink Mary Janes.
I remember one day I threw on a tank top and, for the first time after years of physical neglect, headed for a yoga studio. The tank top-which in pre-pregnancy days had rested modestly on my hips-now rode way up over the top of my tumescent, cocoa-butter-slathered belly. I paired it with a pretty sarong, convinced that I had chanced upon a new maternity style that would inevitably sweep through the world of motherhood and redefine prenatal chic.
To my chagrin, I soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one who’d had the ingenious idea to procreate. Everybody, it seemed, was pregnant. Even a pair of gay male friends were “expecting” in a complicated arrangement involving a paid surrogate. All of the mothers-to-be in lower Manhattan, furthermore, had signed up for prenatal yoga. And they were all already wearing my trademark sarong-and-T-shirt outfit over their well-oiled midriffs.
After my daughter was born, my anxieties diminished somewhat. I took solace in the belief that no one had ever loved any other person so much in the history of the human race as I loved my daughter. Plus, she was so smart! I was convinced of this because around the same time she learned to walk, she also mastered the Downward Dog. Then, one day in the park, she started doing her routine when, to my horror, the toddler next to her spontaneously executed an even more impeccable Downward Dog. I have since discovered that every 1-year-old in Manhattan can do the Dog. The really clever ones have moved on to the Lion’s Breath pose.
The greatest blows to my sense of maternal self-worth, however, landed regularly whenever I found myself in a crowd of mommies and babies. Inevitably, a mother would call out my daughter’s name-and her daughter would come running! Before our daughter was born, my husband and I spent many fraught nights with our stack of baby-name books. We were sure that “Sophia” was as unique as it was mellifluous. In retrospect, it’s clear that we didn’t have a chance. When I think back on the names on our short list, I realize that we were mere putty in the hands of the Village zeitgeist. Our top choices could now be the roll call at any downtown preschool: Bella, Ella, Stella, Ava, Maya, Coco, Ruby ….
Whatever happened to the Johns and Michaels, the Marys and Janes? These days, downtown babies are likelier to bear the names of Greek gods-although all the major ones have been tried, so parents are working down the lists of demigods and bloodthirsty Egyptian pharaohs. Table fruits and varieties of tea leaves are also popular. Abstract nouns are coming back in. Other parents choose to emphasize their distinctiveness with unconventional or frankly bizarre spellings. You wouldn’t believe how many vowels you could pack into Elizabeth.
Some of the most popular names are clearly intended to convey statements of offbeat cool (Miles), eccentric sensuality (Ava), retro chic (Ginger) or an unlikely degree of knowledge (Sophia). They may be cute, but at times, it seems, they strain a little too hard. Lola, for example, is undoubtedly a beautiful name; it trips lightly off the tongue. But having survived the Kinks, Vladimir Nabokov and Barry Manilow, doesn’t she deserve her beauty rest?
When I first discovered the ubiquity of Sophia, I consoled myself with the notion that it was just a New York thing. Out in the hinterland, I told myself, she will revert to her unique status. But then a cousin in Ohio told me that three Sophias popped up at her 2-year-old’s day-care center. In fact, that’s what’s happened with some of these other popular names. Olivia, to give one example, was the “It” name in New York, and then it reached Starbucks proportions. My fear is that Sophia will become the Jennifer of my daughter’s generation. We thought we were being original, but we were just riding the wave.
After I got back from St. Marks Place, I called 311. If I’m just a point on a trend line, I thought, I want to know more about this trend. What’s the baby population in Manhattan now versus 10 years ago? How many prenatal yoga classes are there? What about sales of Marc Jacobs yoga mats? I was put through to a statistician in the Department of City Planning. He seemed strangely accustomed to hanging out in left field with obsessive, arithmetically challenged members of the public. After tossing out various figures on the numbers of births at New York City hospitals, he lost me in a statistical haze. I decided I would have to rely instead on my trusty anecdotal evidence-like the fact that Balthazar’s at 8 a.m. looks like a playroom for children addicted to chocolat chaud.
Meanwhile, my daughter was demanding her quarter-hourly dose of attention. We had recently purchased some glittery ballet slippers for her “toddler yoga movements” class. Now she insisted on putting them on. She wanted to wear them to school; she was determined to be the coolest girl in the class. The fact that class wouldn’t resume until the next morning was beside the point. I pulled them on her little feet, and they looked so cute. Just like my old Mary Janes, I thought.
I wrapped my arms around her and told her that she was special no matter what she wore. She assured me that I was very wrong about that. “I hate boring grown-up clothes,” she pouted, tugging at my T-shirt. She sounded just like me. I had to smile. That’s the good thing about being a mother, I realized. Reproduction is the whole point. You don’t have to be original.
Katherine Stewart is the author of The Yoga Mamas (Berkley Publishing Group, July 2005).