Friday, May 23, 2014

What's in a Name?

One of the highlights of becoming a parent is naming the child.  People, both men and women, start at a very young age, about the time they get a new pet or learn where babies come from, thinking about names they might give their children.  And when expecting and prospective parents approach the event, naming the child usually becomes an exciting and serious part of the preparation.  Names are important, signaling belonging and identity, and having lifelong impact and meaning.

However, this ritual part of parenting is complicated when the child is adopted either by strangers or family, in the case of child welfare, international, and private adoptions or step-parent and grandparent adoptions.  When adoptive parents are identified before the birth they are often allowed by the biological parents to choose the baby's name or participate in naming the child.  That is not the case when the named child is adopted after birth, except in some situations, both foreign and domestic when the infant has not been named at all.  Generally, the older adopted child has a name and a birth certificate identifying the names of the child and the biological parents.

That means, whether the child was intended for adoptive placement or the court has determined that the child will be adopted, the biological parents and not the adoptive parents have chosen the child's name.  Like so much else in the adoption process this is sometimes a source of conflict and sadness.  The biological parent, whether intending to place the child for adoption or later having parental rights terminated due to abuse and neglect, took the first important step of claiming the child by its name.  The adoptive parent(s) who wants to make this child his/her own, misses this monumental privilege.

Sometimes adoptive parents try to take this privilege back for themselves by re-naming the child.  This can have detrimental and sometimes devastating consequences for their relationship with the child and the child's own development and mental health.  Last names are a little less tricky.  Adding a last name, as in John Doe Smith, says to the child and the world that John Doe belongs to the Smith clan.  But by changing John Doe to George Smith, the adoptive parents are sending a strong message that they wanted George, whoever "George" is, and "John" is simply not acceptable.  How John becomes George after identifying himself as John is cause for years of identify confusion.  You cannot make John and his biology go away by calling him George.  That just adds to the trauma.

It didn't seem to bother President Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. who was re-named after his adoptive stepfather from Leslie Lynch King, Jr. after his biological father.  But that was in the early 1900's before we understood much about identify development in children.  Through the 1950's the shame of unwed pregnancy led to "illegitimate" births (as if a child is not real) and secret adoptions with closed records.  Reaction to the stigma continues to this day with the state re-issuing new birth certificates replacing the biological parents names with the adoptive parents names pretending the original event did not happen.  How is that supposed to make an adopted person feel?  California and other states are beginning to make adoption records and original birth certificates available to adopted people.

To be sure, some names are quite unique and require explanation and pronunciation.  One biological mother named her girls Chevy and Corvette.  Another Johnny Walker.  There's a story there.  Early last century Beverly, Gay, and Adolphe were acceptable boys names.  These days North West seems to work.  Hollywood stars used to change their names to hide who they were.  Now we can celebrate the work of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlize Theron and learn to pronounce their names.  When a Chinese girl named Chan-juan is renamed Mary Rose she loses her country and her culture, graceful moon, but is expected to live up to her new identity.  Something says, "You are not who you are supposed to be."  Adoption is about addition, not subtraction.  Gerry Ford's legal name could easily have been Leslie Gerald Rudolph Lynch King Ford, Jr.  It wouldn't fit on a bumper sticker, but it would fit on a legal document.  No need for a new birth certificate.  His story is part of history.

In the teenage years, youth begin to explore their identities.  John becomes Johnny becomes Jack becomes J.R.  Or, a youth begins to live her/his gender identity and asks to be called Chelsea instead of Charles.  Generally, we do not get to pick our names.  Parents have that responsibility.  Adoptive parents have the additional responsibility of managing their own grief and loss over not giving birth and having naming rights.  They also have the responsibility of celebrating their chosen child for who they are and not the "ideal" child they had in mind.  That includes accepting from whom they were born and for whom they were named.  There is no shame in making another person's child your own.