Naming Your Child
You may not think that naming an adopted child is any different than naming a biological child. You may even resist the idea that there is a difference between adopted and biological children.
Nevertheless, adopting a child is different in a number of ways than having a biological child. Any adoption, by its very definition, involves a child who was already connected to another family, his or her birth family, before they came to us. A child who is ours through adoption (whether through domestic or international adoption) may also have a birth culture or community that they are moving away from. And, they may already have a name.
Children who were adopted have many losses that they have to cope with in their lifetime, most of them occurring at the time of their adoption. Besides providing a loving and secure home for our children, we must also find ways to minimize the losses and to honor all that was in their past. In Raising Adopted Children:
Practical Reassuring Advice for Every Adoptive Parent, Lois Melina talks- About how grieving for these losses can arise years later and how parents need to be mindful of this and prepare to help their child.
Adoptive families, especially those adopting a child from a different ethnic group or country, can benefit from celebrating their child’s birth culture. A name from their child’s birth culture, and ideally spelled the way appropriate to that culture, is a clear celebration of the parents’ respect and love for their child and their culture. It sends a message to all those the child meets, even those people who may never have occasion to learn more- About the child’s history, but who will know the child’s connection through their name. (Also, as our society has become increasingly appreciative of the value of diversity, a “different” name stands out less and less, so this should be of less concern to parents than in previous decades.)
Studies clearly show that parents who are immersed in their child’s culture have children with a stronger ethnic identity. And, the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum and others also clearly demonstrates that adolescents (and adults) of all races/ethnicities who have a positive ethnic identity also have stronger self-esteem.
Another way to build your child’s self-esteem on a secure foundation is to treat your relationship with your child’s birth family with openness. For some families with very open adoptions this may mean regular visits with the birth family, for others who adopted from countries whose current laws and customs result in closed adoptions (where not even the name of the birthparents is in the adoption records), this means talking in general terms- About the birth family regularly with the child. Even for children coming from birth family situations that were very troubled (such as children who were removed from their biological homes by the state), honoring their birth family through discussing the birth family with your children in a truthful yet kind and empathetic way is important.
This approach allows the child the freedom to bring their birth family with them to their new home, at least symbolically and emotionally. As Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall write, “Whether you know your child’s birth family and have ongoing contact or not, your children will have to resolve their dual family membership to become healthy functioning adults.
If birth parents are not discussed openly, then children will assume that they shouldn’t be spoken of. What will they do, then, with the questions that certainly will arise? Your child will explore them apart from you and the family unless you find a way to allow the process to unfold within the safety of the family.” We want to honor their first family as much as we can and allow them into our kinship network in whatever way we can. This allows the child to freely have the connection that is rightly his or hers and to know the love of all who have had a part in his or her life.
A very significant and easy way to minimize the child’s losses is to keep the name that the child comes with. This does several things—it honors her birth culture (if different than ours), keeps her connection to it, and if her name came from her birth family, it honors her birth family as well.
If your child’s birth family named her, there are many positive reasons to keep these given names for your child. The child’s name will probably be the only significant and highly symbolic gift from the birth family that your child is able to keep her whole life.
If you are able to develop a relationship with the birth parent's) prior to or shortly after the birth of the child, try to work out a name that you both like. This is a way of showing the birth parents respect while building your relationship. This will be a precious story to tell your child—how you and his birth parents together chose his name.
As knowledge grows- About the value of open adoption and retaining connections to a child’s past, prospective birth parents may be more likely to ask that the name they have chosen for the child they are considering placing not be changed. Some birth mothers (and fathers) will pull out of an adoption plan or cancel their plan to place their child altogether if the family she chooses will not agree to the name she wishes to give her child. Melina talks- About how prospective adoptive parents’ appreciation of the value of working as a team with birth parents to choose a name can help to keep an open adoption moving smoothly through the crucial initial stages. Although it may not feel like it at times, a request such as this is an incredible opportunity for the prospective adoptive parents to show their sensitivity and caring for this child, the child’s past, and for the birth parents.
If your child is coming to you with a name given by the orphanage or foster care home where they lived, also consider keeping it, at least as a middle name. When you keep this name from their birth country as part of their official name, it honors your child’s culture and shows your pride in their background.
Susan Tompkins, MSW, LCSW, Executive Director Journeys of the Heart
Pamela B. Vergun, PhD, MPA
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