Adoption and a Child’s NamePosted by Kim
For any parent, picking a child’s name is one of the most personal decisions we make in the beginning. Bedding can be changed, rooms repainted; but we’ll be calling our kids by their names for the rest of our lives. So we want to get it “right.” Something that fits with our last name, something with a good meaning (if you’re into name meanings), something that doesn’t conjer up images of elementary school bullies or weirdos for either parent.
But what if your child comes to your family pre-named? Ours did, and so, like most adoptive parents, we had to make a different kind of naming decision: keep it? change it? modify it? What’s the right answer?
We know adoptive parents who have done all three, and with great reasoning behind each choice.
1. Keeping the Child’s Original Name – With older children who know their names, this is the simplest way to keep something consistent amidst all the changes that they experience. Even with infants, the original given name stands as a marker of their life story – that they are the same children throughout, and that the past and the adoption are open for discussion. While adoption is a joyous thing in many ways, it also involves the loss of the birthparents, foster parents, and/or orphanage caregivers. And with transracial adoption, it involves the loss of culture, diet, and sometimes homeland. So the name may be the one thing that doesn’t have to be lost.
2. Changing the Name – On the other hand, giving a child a whole new name can symbolize a new beginning, the complete belonging and acceptance of that child in the new family. I have friends who have known what names they wanted to give to their kids ever since they got married. Then they discovered they had an infertility issue, and so they adopted their two kids. And gave them those two names. For them, it’s a way to say to their children “you are the ones we always wanted.” Other times, name-changing is just the practical choice because a child’s name is hard to pronounce or doesn’t translate well in the new family’s language. Rather than have the child go through life with his name constantly fumbled over or mispronounced, it seems more considerate to give him a name everyone knows.
3. Old Name/ New Name Combination – I’ve encountered this choice most often in our circles. The new daughter’s original name becomes her middle name, and her parents pick a new first name. It make a lot of sense, meeting both the acceptance and consistency benefits of the first two choices.
With our sons, we went with keeping their names. Their birth/first mom gave them to them, and she did parent them for the first couple of years of their lives. As far as we can tell, ours kids’ early story was never one of abuse or intentional neglect. She was simply a single mom in a socioeconomic position that made it increasingly hard to care for twin boys. So out of respect for her, our desire to reunify the boys with her in the future, the very hard choice she made in a desire to give them advantages and care in life she wanted for them, and the gratitude we have to her for the lives of our (shared) sons, and out of respect for their culture and the fact that they knew their names and each others’ names, we’ve kept them.
Frankly, calling my sons by their names is a daily reminder to me that they are a gift with a special kind of responsibility. We could have ended up with a different pair, but they are the ones in our care. They match us so well it’s uncanny, and when I did go back and look up their names’ meanings, those meanings suit them so well it’s uncanny.
And as they get older, their names also remind us that they do have a heritage that is different from mine or Fred’s, and that we have a responsibility to educate them about it. WE made the choice to adopt transracially; they didn’t even know what was happening. So the burden is on us to make sure they know people who look like them, have a sense of their cultural identity, and are prepared for strangers to approach them out of how they appear despite the fact that they’re being raised by white parents and fit comfortably into our local (accustomed-to-racial-diversity) Anglo-American culture.
So what’s in a name? All that, for us and our kids. And while people do mispronounce their names sometimes, both boys are very proud that they still have them. One right choice down. So many more to negotiate!