The Backup Name

When I was little I didn’t like my first name at all. It was just too uncommon for life in the fifties, where it seemed everyone was called Sally, Jane or Dick. My best friends then had pleasant enough names, though they all began with A’s: Amy, Anna and Anita. So why was I cursed with Monica? And worst yet, why didn’t I have a middle name to fall back on? You see, a middle name is not just for being in the middle anymore. It’s become the backup name.

Nowadays, if you ask the federal government, they’ll tell you my name is Monica M. Medina. Yet that M that sits so blithely, and so intrepidly, between my first and last name stands for nothing. Nada. Zilch. It just stares me down and wins every time because the federal government won’t let me remove it. In fact, whenever I have to sign official papers, I must sign with the M in the middle. As a result, I live in dread of writing the misguided M. No doubt about it, I was robbed of having a real middle name, a backup name—the oft misunderstood and useless name that most everyone else has.

Once, I asked my mother why I wasn’t given a middle name. It must have been a custom in our family, for neither she nor her sisters had a middle name. She explained, “You don’t need one, you’re a girl.” What my mother meant was that as a girl, it was assumed I’d grow up and marry and take my husband’s surname as mine. Then, my maiden name would step aside and become my middle name. She had it all figured out. Which is exactly what happened when I married. Then a decade later, when the divorce became final, I officially took back my “maiden” name. Which explains why all that’s left of my “middle” name is the sad and lonely M.

Each of my brothers has middle names, procured from names of family members and friends. Even my younger sister has a middle name, Regina. She uses it as her backup name and doesn’t seem to mind that it rhymes with our surname. In fact, I know quite a few people that have taken their middle name as their backup name, simply because, at some point they realized they didn’t like their first names. That’s why Clare calls herself Clare and not Lee. Megan prefers her middle name more so than her first name, Emily. And another Claire I know, hands down likes Claire and not her given name, Lucille. Luckily, they all had other options.

Does this kid look like an Alice to you?


So here was I, a kid from Queens with no options. I came up with names to call myself. Names that really didn’t take off. First there was Alice. To me, Alice was a much better name than Monica. No one had ever known another Monica in my neighborhood, but Alice was everywhere back then. The Disney film version of “Alice in Wonderland” had come out only a few years earlier. Alice, with her blond, lustrous hair, blue dress and white smock, represented all that this little Latina with thick unruly black hair aspired to be. Yes, Alice would be my new name. But no matter how many times I called myself Alice, no one took it seriously. They laughed and assumed I was joking. I tested out a few other names, like Betty and Shirley, but Alice was the name I really wanted to be called. Funny thing, though, I really hated that Disney movie.

Of course, over the years I’ve come to appreciate my name and its uniqueness. My college advisor once told me that I had a movie star name. I’m not sure what he meant but I think he was saying that my name was easy on the ears. Like Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mantle . In that case, I am in good company.

For years, I never came across another Monica. The closest was Corbett Monica, the comedian who once toured as the opening act for Frank Sinatra. Then, when I moved to San Diego, with its high Latino population, suddenly I was surrounded by a bevy of Monica’s and Medina’s. In fact, one year, I almost lost my entire state tax refund because of this. It seems there was another Monica Medina, who clearly lived on the wrong side of the law. She had more than a dozen unpaid parking fines in Chico, California. It was a simple case of mistaken identity that I was able to prove by showing my ID. Though I didn’t have a middle name I had something just as valuable—my trusty middle initial! Yes, I am Monica M. Medina and not the Monica B. Medina who parks willy-nilly in Chico, California!

And now, as I embrace my whole name, with my precious middle M, I wonder, how do you feel about your name?

10 thoughts on “The Backup Name

  1. Love this post…I do have a middle name but I hated my first name growing up…I was always teased that I had a boys name and what little girl wanted a boys name, although I never thought to use my middle name. My middle name to me meant that I was getting in trouble…whenever I heard my parents use that middle name I knew it was not good. Now I absolutely love my name, first and middle. My older family members call me by both to distinguish me from my dad (who of course I was named after)…some of my bffs call me by my last name (coincidentally also a first name)…others call me by names not related to me at all but are me now. My boss calls my by my first name…not such a boys name anymore, a female singer made it famous in the ’90s, Miss Toni Braxton and a writer as well, Miss Toni Morrison…I thank you for making a boys name not such a boys name anymore.

    • It’s amazing how our names truly identify us and serve as a symbol for who we are. I’m glad you reconciled and learned to love your given name. For me, all I wanted was a middle name, but have come to accept that all I have is an “M.”

  2. I thought you liked the name Monica. Didn’t you once make a coworker with the same name go by Monique? That would have been a good time to embrace “Alice.” I’m sure “Monique” would have appreciated it. 🙂

  3. That is a great photo, Alice ! Although you do look more like a Monica to me…
    I actually don’t have a middle name either – my mother came up with the idea to name me two first names – each with their own capital letter; hereby forever confusing every legal document I will ever have. I am also forever correcting the way people pronounce my name, but I can accept that – it’s a small price to pay for something a little different !

  4. Great post! I had no idea you didn’t have a middle name. I like my name and cannot part with my middle name (or last name for that matter).

  5. My sisters name is Margaret Tamela (but don’t tell her I told you!). When we wanted to tease her, which was often, we’d call her Maggie or worse, Mag the Hag! Kids can be so cruel. She has always gone by “Tami.” Every year in school on the first day of class she’d have to argue with the teacher that no, in fact her name was not Margaret it was Tami. She has some how figured out that using M. Tami on checks and where her signature is needed works. Me, I like my name. Have no use for my middle name “Ann” which, like Ashley was only used when I was getting reprimanded. Trisha Annnnnnnn get in here and clean your room…right now!

  6. Monica,

    My grandparents and all of their siblings are without a middle name… I however have four, rather long names (Ashley Nicole Thompson Rodriguez… (and since we all want what we can’t have), I wish my middle name had been stricken.

    However, this wish is not just for the sake of having a concise name, or gaining more of a “ring” to my name… but more so because “Ashley Nicole…” was the title my mother chose to use for me whenever I was in trouble [never real trouble, but in cases where I forgot to do the dishes and such of course : ) ] Therefore, my middle name’s only “ring” is the tone of my mom berating me for a missed chore. *I’m grumbling at the thought*

  7. I can relate so well Monica. I too have lived without a middle name. I’ve wanted one my whole life. I was thrilled to find out you pick a name for your confirmation. I would finally have a middle name. I spent my nights imagining all the possible combinations I could make. Then the nuns told us you had to pick the name of a saint that you admired. You had to have a valid reason for your choice. Since I did not break rules in those days, especially a church rule, I ended up choosing Teresa. My dreams of a middle name that went with my short boring name were dashed. It must be a Medina curse. I am curious, however, to know what Regina’s first name really is. This is one of the famous Medina family secrets. Will you spill the beans?

    • It’s an interesting story. We had a family friend whose daughter was named Regina. My mother loved this name so much and decided to use it if she had another girl. But when my sister was born, my father, in a flurry of excitement, named her Mary, after my mother. Turns out, my mother hated the thought of another Mary in the house. So she made Regina the middle name and swore to always call her by that name. My mother ended up breaking her own rule of no middle names for girls. Somehow, I can’t imagine my sister with any other name.

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