What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself. ~Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Many years ago, we were working with prospective adoptive parents who were initially hesitant about open adoption. Like many adoptive parents who start off having little information about the benefits of open adoption, they quietly wished they could simply bundle a newborn under their arm, like a football, and run off into the sunset.
With education and an opportunity to talk with other families who were experienced with open adoption, their comfort with openness increased. They began to appreciate the meaning of openness for a growing child. They were ultimately chosen by a birth couple who wanted an open adoption (two visits a year) and they also had another request: they had a name in mind for their child that they wanted the adoptive family to keep. The name was important to them as it was a combination of two names – each of the birthparents’ mothers had died early in their lives and this name was a beautiful combination of both their mothers’ names.
When the prospective adoptive family was informed of the biological parents’ interest in them, they also learned of their requests. However, the prospective adoptive parents also had a name in mind for a daughter they would parent. It had personal and poignant significance for them as well. The request was difficult for the adoptive parents to accept. They understandably interpreted this as one more loss due to their history of infertility. “Not only can we not know pregnancy and birth, but, because of infertility, we can’t even name our daughter.” If this was how they continued to hold this request, it would be a hard one to accept and honor. We felt for them as they reflected on whether to accept the gift of being chosen if this condition was attached.
As I thought about it, it occurred to me that sometimes a name is part of the gift of a child, regardless of whether the child joins the family by birth within the family or by adoption. I shared a family story: Before our daughter was born, we knew she was a girl. I was of an age for which amniocentesis was recommended. We each came up with the most beautiful of Italian and Jewish names from both of our traditions. Then our daughter was born. She had the typical round baby face. None of the names we had tried on for size emerged from the list as ‘the’ name. From beneath the haze of delivery, I had a dream in which I saw her face in a still-picture portrait. The message, without sound, was that this is how she would look at age 21. In the dream, her face was oblong, like my mother’s. It neither bore resemblance to her round face at birth nor to my round face with the family heirloom square jaw. In the dream, she was not a bald baby, but rather her hair was long and she looked confident.
In the dream, there was only one ‘word’ – “Anya.” This was not a name on either of our lists. And, since both of our last names begin with A, a hyphenated name would certainly be an alliteration nightmare. But Anya it was. Our child had come with a name. (She did come to look exactly like the dream image in her late teens.)
What I shared with our clients was this: whether a child is born to you or placed with you for adoption, sometimes part of the gift of a child is the child’s name. It is part of the gift, not a deprivation of choice. Anya had never been on our “A” list.
This might feel soothing to some prospective adoptive parents, but not to others. Naming is a part of claiming, nesting, and enveloping the child into the folds of your family. Names are personal and laden with generations of meaning. For biological parents, a name is sometimes the only kind of enduring gift they can imagine giving their child. For prospective adoptive parents, it feels like the loss of one more exercise of self-determination in the very private process of family building.
It is important for prospective adoptive parents to come to terms with the fact that the biological parents can request that the prospective adoptive parents keep their chosen name. The adoptive parents can accept the match with that understanding and agreement or respectfully decline to be the chosen family even though this is a difficult choice to make. While not a subject of ‘negotiation’ because biological parents are simply entitled to ask for what they want, sometimes both sides want to find a middle ground because they do want to choose each other for an adoption plan. Before we discuss such tender communications, we should first address a question.
It is often asked, in a whisper, whether the prospective adoptive parents could simply agree to the request, but then use a different name than is listed on the birth certificate. It is important to be honest at every stage in the adoption process. Not being honest about the name would not be the best interests of the child or conducive to positive feelings between all as the child grows up. If one takes a child centered approach, one wants a child to grow up feeling as though those who love him or her are in ‘synch.’ A child will spend quite a bit of time on the proverbial couch if they grow up being called Ted and learn later that the placement with their parents was contingent on being called Gary. We want to give children the gift of themselves, not the gift of divided loyalties that they, then, have to find a way to internally resolve. In my experience, it can really take about 18 years to realize the truth in the Kahil Gibran poem:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
During the years of one’s child’s growing up, one ‘shares’ one’s child with other family, the school system, the pediatrician. Then one ‘shares’ one’s child with their best friends, a sweetie, college and the world. It is important to realize one’s role in helping a child actualize their potential, realize their dreams, overcome their personal challenges and feel better at the end of every day. But the ownership feeling fades over time; what endures is the sense of being an ‘enabler’ in the healthy, best sense of the word, but not someone who grasps to hold the child as if trying to catch a wave in one’s hand. The child has a birth family as well as an adoptive family, regardless of whether they know their names or have the opportunity to spend time with them while growing up.
Adoptive parents have the challenge of a recent history when their very personal needs have commanded a strong inward focus. Infertility and grieving related to this draw one, understandably, into a focus on oneself and the couple. It is therefore, normal, that it may take some time to find the awareness, compassion and empathy for the long range feelings and needs of the adopted child and his/her biological family. As one adoptive family poignantly shared in an adoption conference, “It took me a while, but at some point I had a blink moment and realized, it’s not just about me, it’s about her too.” (He was referring to the biological/birth mother.)
Sometimes both biological and adoptive families have challenges around the feeling of owning by naming. Once we worked with a birth couple with regard to the adoption planning for their expected child. The biological mother was confident of her plan. The biological father was less sure.
The biological father took several weeks to ponder his choices with regard to the child. Ultimately, he decided adoption would be the best choice for the child because he was not prepared or able to parent, but he wanted the child to carry his last name. “Why?” we asked. The biological father responded, “He’s my child. I want everyone to know he’s adopted.” His social worker inquired, “But if you think of the child before yourself, if you think about the child’s happiness, wouldn’t you want him to feel like a full member of his adoptive family, not an outsider, not divided in his loyalties, not having to answer everyone’s questions about the difference in his name and that of the family raising and loving him?” The biological father answered, “Uh, that’s what I want, I want everyone to know he’s adopted.”
In general, it is important for adoptive parents to either accept a biological parent’s wishes with regard to a name or simply decline the potential match. But, this went to the issue of a child’s sense of wholeness in the adoptive family.
We asked the adoptive family how they would feel about having the biological father’s name, “Richards,” as a middle name. “No way,” said the adoptive father. “It’s Stepanopolous or not at all.” (All names and circumstances have been changed for confidentiality.) Interestingly, both families had strong feelings about his. And then we remembered that the prospective father had a nickname and a legal name. “How many people know that Rocko is not your real name?” He grew quiet. Rocko answered, “My parents and my brother.” Their social worker asked, “Does anyone know that Pankratios is your legal name on your birth certificate?” Rocko answered, “No one knows that,” he said with some determination. The social worker then asked, “Who’ll know that he has a second middle name?” With that realization, the little boy had a chance to grow up in a suitably prepared and loving home and everyone’s wishes were acknowledged.
The goal here was not to dishonor the biological father’s choice of name, but to help both families find peace with naming, to the extent possible. The goal was to fulfill the adoption choice both biological parents had made and not have the child growing up split from the root.
The desire to name a child comes from a wonderful place in everyone’s heart – for many biological parents, it is part of honoring the experience of birthing and loving the child; for prospective adoptive parents, it is part of the process of bonding with the child and encouraging bonding with others in their family and friendship circles.
So, it should come as no surprise that, increasingly, biological and prospective parents talk together about the child’s name and, in a planned and respectful way, come up, together, with a name they both like.
As a matter of practice, although we are comfortable with direct communication between biological/expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents, it is best for the communications around naming to be handled through the adoption professionals.
One way is to encourage both families to come up with a short list of 5 names which they truly like and could ‘live with.’ Then the agency looks at the lists to see if there are any names in common.
The reason for doing this is to avoid tender, unintended insults. “Bartholomew?! You gotta be kidding!” is not a response that either side would appreciate hearing. “Naming the child Thunder? I don’t think so!” These kinds of reactions could easily undermine an otherwise warm connection between the families. The adoption professionals can serve as a buffer, smooth the experience of remaining open to at least hearing each other and finding tactful ways of saying that a mutually interesting name has not yet been found.
It is not uncommon for expectant/biological parents to say, “I’d like them to name the child.” This is a relatively common sentiment – many expectant parents considering adoption are women and men who are already parents. They know the joy of naming a child. They understand the significance for bonding. At other times, it is equally sweet for both families that they arrive at a name they chose together. The child will know that both families care and love them. The intertwining of that love began before they took their first breath. The name becomes a reminder of the pledge of both families to each other and to the child to give the child a life they both envision.
Sometimes it is not either the biological or prospective adoptive parents who name a child. One family came up with a very thoughtful way of helping an older sibling, whom they’d given birth to, bond with the child who was joining their family through adoption. The birth family wanted the adoptive family to choose the name. The prospective adoptive parents came up with a short list of three names they genuinely could live with. Then they turned to their eight year old son and asked if he would like to be the one to choose his baby sister’s name. He was very excited to be a part of this process.
The parents gave him the three choices and he chose one. Needless to say, he feels very connected to her. This same child made a batch of chocolate chip cookies with which to welcome his sister home. “I’ll help her by eating them, too,” he said, “since she doesn’t have teeth yet.”
One theme in adoption that tends to be discussed in more political than philosophical tones – the fact that prospective adoptive parents pay agencies for professional services; that expectant parents sometimes live in a state that allows financial assistance so that their pregnancy is not a financial hardship. But, at the heart of adoption, is a spiritual gift. One family bestows on another the gift of a child. The gift is also a gift to the child – the opportunity, the biological parent hopes, for a more stable life. The trust involved in such a gift is perhaps a greater trust than could be imagined.
When a name is part of this sacred trust, it is also often intended as a blessing. It is as if the biological parent might be saying, please always know, by this name, that I care and that I love you deeply. The biological parents may be trying to convey, “I wish to protect you with the equivalent of Superman’s cape with the one thing I know can indelibly travel with you, unchanged by circumstance or time.” To the extent that, at times, the prospective adoptive family feels deprived of an opportunity to bond with the child by this naming process, perhaps they will also know, as they speak the name of the child, that the biological parents have blessed them too and that the name is a way of being part of the music of their love that the family will always hear.
As I conclude this essay on naming, I am mindful of many more lessons related to naming that have emanated from the experiences of families over the years. I welcome your stories on naming and adoption as well, as this is an ongoing interest. Please feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marla Allisan, JD,LICSW