My complicated relationship with names

Once upon a time, I hated my name.

I hated that the name was so uncommon. I never met another Denise, I would never see my name in gift shops on novelty magnets. I hated the fact that the stress is on the second syllable, when most names stress the first. Like you have to ease into it. DeeeeNISE. I hated the morphemes that comprise it. Duh. Niece. Duh! I once had a French soccer coach, and every time he shouted my name during a game, I thought he was saying Deh knees, the knees, so I would bend my knees awkwardly and keep playing. I hated the jokes people used to make, Where’s de-nephew? HA. HA. HA. Or worse, the unavoidable error that teachers would make once a year,  the dreaded DENNIS. I can still hear the sixth grade bully in my ear singing Dehhhh-nnis the meeeeenace. 

The name didn’t feel like me. So at one point, after graduating from college, I considered going by Robin instead. Because my last name is Robbins, so… close enough?

That ran into complications, because then what could I say was my last name? Robin Robbins? NO. Regardless, I tried to get my friends to call me Robin, and some did for a while. I went on a trip to Belize and introduced myself as Robin, but at the end, when the people I met wanted to stay in touch and find me on Facebook, I had to fess up. It was awkward, it felt like lying. When I returned, I had a steady job at an organization with 100 people who varied over the years from acquaintances to work-friends to boyfriends, and who all knew me as Denise, and who was I to tell them they were wrong?

Some people go by their middle names, but I always avoided my middle name as well. Here’s a secret: My middle name is Sylvia. But I used to pretend that it’s Sylvie. It’s in my personal email address (, so I guess I still do. Sylvia is my dead grandmother’s name. Sylvia is a Latin name. Sylvie sounds French and mysterious, and coalesces better with Denise, also a French name. They both sound better with a French accent. Deh-neez Sylvie, ooh la la

I’ve since realized that this was more of an identity crisis than an issue of the name itself. What is a Denise, what does it mean to be a Denise? What does a Denise do once she graduates college, what does a Denise make of her life? I still pose that question frequently. Some days I feel like a completely different person than the day prior. Or the week prior. The month prior.

Eventually, though, I got used to it, stopped worrying about it, and just lived each day like I was the person I said I was. Denise is me, whoever I am.

The reason I’ve been thinking about my name this week is because I suddenly need to use it all the time. Here’s why…

ANNOUNCING: “Denise S. Robbins,” the business! Owned by Denise S. Robbins, managed by Denise S. Robbins. Employing communications consultant Denise S. Robbins. Found at

(What does the “S” stand for? I’ll never tell. Why do I need the “S,” then? So no one confuses me with the cyber-thriller-romance author of books such as “Killer Bunny Hill” and “Phish Net Stalkings.” Yes, there’s another Denise Robbins author out there, and she is now my nemesis.)

I let a couple people know I was interested in “freelancing” and now here I am, registering a formal business. That means it’s going well. I’ve found myself with one solid long-term client and two potential additions. 

The fact that I am officially a “business owner” with “clients” threatens to bring me through a new identity crisis. I thought I was going to spend this year being an edgy artsy activist, and now I’m writing proposals and thinking about taxes. But it’s been pretty nice to have a work schedule. It’s not too many hours and it keeps me sane. And I still get long mornings and full days to bring my head into worlds of my own creation (right now I’m writing about time travel, mothman, and mining). It’s also nice to know that all this will allow me to extend my non-9-to-5 lifestyle indefinitely.

I did once vaguely dream of exactly this transition. If you had asked eight-year-old Denise what thirty-year-old Denise would be doing with her life, she probably would have said owning a big company, a mansion, and five cars. Or being a veterinarian. If you’d asked twenty-eight-year old me, she’d have said full-time freelance by thirty-five. It’s all just happening sooner than I expected. (Identity crisis averted.)

Not without some frustration. Which brings me to the noticement of the week. Taxes. Taxes! I’ve learned I need to file quarterly taxes. One day I spent hours trying to figure it out. I’m two months early, but I want to get the hard part over with. The confusion. I spent an afternoon clicking around on tax websites. There’s the social security and medicare tax, which self-employers pay twice over, which is set in stone, then there’s the income tax, which I thought I found the rate one day but couldn’t find again this day. I searched through a dozen tax websites and got nowhere, only finding complicated things like schedule SE and schedule ES and things that claimed to be calculators but were more like big worksheets and is my company a “farm” or do I have the wrong sheet ah! 

I didn’t realize I was getting frustrated until I shut my computer down and went for a walk. Not just frustrated. Despondent. Deeply sad that it was already dark and I had already failed. Depression tends to grow in my mind like cobwebs; connecting one thing to another, making everything feel static and stuck. 

But, for me, fresh air has a way of cleaning it out. As I walked, I realized how sad I was. And for no reason. I have a business! I’m figuring things out. I have time. I can ask for help from someone not named Denise. It doesn’t all need to be on my own.

And by the way, I like the name now. I like that my middle name and my last name come from my progenitors. I like Sylvia’s meaning: of the forest. I like being connected to robins, a funny bird with a nice song. I like that Denise derived from Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and good times. I like that my first name is a product of my parents living in Belgium, speaking French, and falling in love with a French name for their only daughter.

One day I’ll move to France and meet all the Denises in the world. We’ll drink wine and have a wonderful time. Maybe I’ll even change my email address to Sylvia. 

Hm… maybe not. 


PS: This a very me-centric post, but for more from me, I had a short little piece published by Neutral Spaces Magazine about cake and awkward goodbyes. You can read it here.

Ellie of the week: making a pillow out of Seth’s foot.

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