Coping with Aisling

This post is dedicated to my youngest niece, Aoife Bishu. Her name is pronounced “Eefa.”

I love my parents dearly. Truly, they are the most generous, humorous, and ethically-minded individuals I know. They have taught me to be thoughtful, considerate, anxious, and hard-working. They raised me to love music, literature, and good cheese. I am very lucky.

They may have (s)tumbled slightly, however, when they decided to give me this name. Thirty-one years ago, thinking that they would one day return to Ireland permanently, my parents christened me Aisling Oonagh Quigley. It was insufficient to give me just one culturally exclusive name, so they gave me two. (In a previous draft of this post, I referred to my names as “unpronounceable,” but my brother aptly suggested that this word didn’t quite describe my dilemma. He offered “culturally exclusive” as an alternative, and I think it is quite appropriate.)

In the scheme of things, having a culturally exclusive name isn’t really a big deal. My name has had zero impact on my educational and career opportunities (as far as I’m aware, at least), or my physical health. It has never put my life in danger.

It has, however, impacted my life. (Sorry, mom and dad, if you’re reading this!).

Although I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, “somewhere in the middle America,” my name ensured that I would, and will, never forget my Irish origins. As a child and teenager, I sometimes wanted to shed my first generation status, and just fit in with my Midwestern classmates. I had an American accent, did American things, but I was still Aisling. I felt that I was still different.

I was a very shy child. I remember carefully formulating full sentences in my head before opening my mouth. I didn’t like being the center of attention, in part because that required me to explain and pronounce my name. I would and still will avoid introducing myself whenever I can. If I’m forced to give a name to a stranger, I will not correct them when they inevitably call me “Ashley” or “Ashlynn,” even though I despise being called those names.

The hardest part about having this name is that I have let it chip away at my self-esteem. In college, I took a class from a well-regarded professor and invested significant time and energy into the coursework. But by the end of the term, she still could not pronounce my name, so I felt as though I had failed in some way. In subsequent courses and jobs, I have experienced similar issues. I’ve found that people will immediately forget the pronunciation of my name as soon as they see it on paper or in an email. Of course, all of these challenges make it all the sweeter when someone successfully pronounces my name after only one or two meetings. It warms my heart.

When I moved to Pittsburgh from Minnesota five years ago, I intentionally introduced myself as “Ash” to most people because I wanted to prioritize pronunciation over accuracy. My parents and family call me so many different names: “Ashplant,” “Plantus,” “Ashes,” “Rashers,” “Ashy,” and “Planters Peanuts.” It didn’t feel exactly right to go by “Ash” with strangers, but it was and is better than being called “Assling,” “Azeling,” “Ainsley,” or a coterie of other things.

This post seems narcissistic, perhaps, but there is a point to it (I hope! I think!).

I am a fairly cynical person, so this name is, in a way, a gift. I hate saying things like that, but there it is. Having this name, I believe, has contributed to my ability and compulsion to empathize with others. I have many flaws, but I am deeply empathetic. As insignificant as I am on this great planet, and as fortunate as I have been in so many ways, I feel that this one struggle has helped me to understand and inhabit the role of the odd duck in the room. I am the odd duck, too! I know what it is to struggle with identity, and to simultaneously embrace and pull away from it.

Names can seem like trivial things. In America, the name I carry has always seemed like a big deal. I am grateful for the conversations it has sparked, the connections I have made even as I describe its pronunciation for the umpteenth time. Ultimately, I feel like this name means that I can never sever the umbilical cord that connects me to Ireland, to my parents, or to my family. And this is a good thing. I LOVE my name when it is pronounced correctly.

I only wish that more people would take the time to figure it out.

My name is pronounced “Ashling.” Like “Ash” plus “ling.”