Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's all in a Name

I remember when I got married I felt a brief twinge at losing my maiden name as I took my husband's name as my own.  Was I giving up my identity?  What about that feminist pride I held dear to my heart?  Would I be an equal if I was giving up my name while he gained a wife?  I miss-spelled that name the first time I tried to sign it after our nuptials and wondered quietly if it would ever feel like MINE or would I always feel like an impostor carrying a name that was not my own.

That twinge was forever erased when I stared at the hospital bed that held my newborn son.  Next to his perfect little body was a name tag and that name tag held OUR name.  On that day I became part of a family.  We were a family.  We were THAT family.   That family included my precious first born son and I could not ever imagine holding a name that was different than that of my child.

Naming our adopted sons continued to be important rite of passage for claiming in our family.  Eric's name was not going to be changed except for the addition of our last name but for our oldest, changing his name was crucial to his healing.  He was a "junior".  Named exactly after his abuser, in his mind, at that age, he needed to know that he wasn't the same person.  We kept his first name essentially the same (changing it from Greg to Gregory) and added a new middle name.   Initially we were told that he had no legal middle name, and at 4.5 we let him choose one (with some guidance because Tarzan just wasn't going to be OK with this mommy).  He chose a name we loved and he was thrilled with the princely connotations of his new middle name. 

Home with us three months, he suddenly realized that his new middle name was not the shared middle name of his new daddy and new brother, and he demanded immediate recourse.  "Jon" was added to his name, and that of Eric's name as well.  Jon is a family name.  The middle name of my father, also their great grandfather as well he boys' cousin and of course their dad and both of our biological sons.  At the adoption finalization ceremony the judge literally penciled in Jon as a second middle name to both of the boys and over the last decade, that has been an important part of their claiming our family as their own. 

I have talked to the boys regularly about our decision to change their names.  They are PROUD of their (our) last name, and it does come up often enough in conversation that I know it has meant alot to them as they grow up that they share the same middle name with so many of our extended family.  They have their original birth certificates.  They know what their original name was.  They know why we changed their names, and they know they are forever a part of our family.   They also know they have the legal right to change their name to whatever they want when they turn 19.  But I do believe that being of one name has been an important part of their claiming us, and us claiming them, as family.  A permanent, forever, an ALWAYS family.

And so we face a decision.  A name change is not automatic with the legal procedure that brought our girls to us as daughters but it is a decision we need to make.  We don't make this decision lightly.   We have talked with a psychologist, we have talked to long term foster parents, we have talked to children raised in foster care and we have talked to social workers.  Universally they state that having the same last name is a psychological benefit for children with this life experience.  Naming means permanence and claiming and legitimacy.  It labels us as a family to the entire world we will interact with.  But I question if I am taking something that isn't mine to take, or am I simply giving something that they rightly deserve to have?

Certain images ring clearly in my memory.  There is the 12 year old (foster child) who cried on my shoulder that all she wanted was the same name as her (foster) parents, not that she didn't love her mother, not that she didn't value that connection but just that she wanted to be part of a "normal" family. She didn't want the stigma of every classroom friend, every teacher, ever coach knowing that she didn't "really" belong to the family that was raising her.    There are my facebook friends who also happen to be kids raised in foster care who change their last names to that of their (foster) parents as time goes on.  Taking the name that the system has not bequeathed them, yet life has.   

There are my sons who are adamant that the girls' names must be changed, and changed quickly.  My 14 year old who can't express why but just tells me through watery brown eyes that is is IMPORTANT and he doesn't know how to say it any different than that.  There is my 15 year old who asks if he can change his own name to Xavier 'cause it's SOOOO COOOL  but that he definitely is keeping Jon and as such the girls should get my middle name. 

Alas, that is the angst of our decision.  I will bequeath our last name easily because I do feel that there is strong evidence that being visibly part of our permanent family will benefit the girls.  But my secret heart has always dreamed of a daughter.  A daughter to whom I can give my middle name as my husband gave his.    Joy.  My middle name.  And merely stating the desire makes me feel selfish. 

I do not want to rob my daughters of their heritage, their name as a gift from their other parents, their first parents, but I do ache to give them this connection to me.  My "experts", the adoptees I live with and raise and call my own, unanimously vote I should.  But I know others would believe differently.   And so we debate and discuss and pray. 

What am I missing?  Is it a gift or a theft? 

There are three options we can do  (well four if we don't change anything).  

Birth First Name - Birth Middle Name - My Middle Name - Our Last Name

Birth First Name - Birth Middle Name - Bio Mom's Last Name - Our Last Name

Birth First Name - My Middle Name - Bio Mom's Last Name - Our Last Name

I am looking for input here.


Kristie said...

I think that I would go with the first option. The way I see that is that it honors Bio Mom's choice in their names but it also honors your desires and gives the girls a sense of connection to you, their mother, and to their (your) family.

Rayanne C. said...

In my humble opinion, my vote is for birth name, birth middle name, your middle name, your last name.

I am not well "edumacated" in this area, but from a "belonging" standpoint I can tell you story upon story from the kids in our childcare center that belonging IS everything. A name means EVERYTHING.

For the children in our care who are also fostered, attachment, security, sense of self worth and knowing that they belong - that they belong permanently to someone is a challenge these kids face everyday. As an adult, I could not imagine not knowing who I belonged to, or who I was connected with in terms of my name.

Your girls will always know their heritage because you and Shel make that a priority. However, from a "belonging" standpoint, my personal opinion is to change their name so they are forever and always connected to your family.

Di said...

Jen, I think that they are blessed to have you and Shel, parents who TRULY consider all angles before jumping in, and brothers who think it is so important. I imagine that the comon link for them will squelch fears of history repeating it's self. Blessed little girls indeed!

I think that if it were my choice, I would go with the last option. Gives respect and recognition to all parties involved.

I do however suggest that they not be strung together with hyphens inbetween, that is just WAY to confusing ;)

Regina said...

Jen - with our son, we went with: Birth First Name - Birth Middle Name - My Middle Name - Our Last Name

We all liked the symmetry here - two names from birth, two from adoption, four parents uniting through him. In our family we all have a 'story' of our name and this is his 'story', something he trasures as he's grown.

Not sure how helpful that is, it's just what we did and it's worked out well.

Danae Hudson said...

I enjoy reading your posts...I think you are really helping me understand fostering.

If it were me, I would still feel guilty (it's in my nature), but I would probably go:
Birth First Name - Birth Middle Name - My Middle Name - Our Last Name

Maybe my thought is that her birth first and middle name were more of a gift? I guess maybe last names are looked upon differently in different cultures...but I feel like people really take the time picking out the first and middle names while the last name is always one you just get, whether you like it or not.

I'm not sure how much sense that made...but hopefully it's helpful.

TerresaE said...

I would go with option number 1. As previous commenters said, the names you think long and hard over are the first and middle names, last is just a given in most circumstances. I feel that leaving the names their first mom chose for first and middle, adding your middle and the family last name will honor everyone involved. Their heritage will always be honored in your family.

Sunnie said...

I think you should do: Birth First Name - Birth Middle Name - My Middle Name - Our Last Name

I also think their names will be very important to these girls and if they know you have given them your middle name along with your last name they will definitely know without a doubt that they are one of you...forever and always.
Just my opinion!
Sunnie in NC

Anonymous said...

Hi Jen, I absolutely love reading and boy do I wish you fostered 20 years ago. I would of been so honored to be your foster daughter. All I longed for was someone to unconditionally love me and also to belong. i wanted a mom and dad like other kids had. I wanted a mom and dad to come to my school events etc. I never had that! Instead i bounced and moved out on my own at 16 longing for a family. I now have created that. This is a second relationship for me and my 2 older kids have taken on my new married name as the same as their siblings. This was important to them they wanted to be part of the whole family not half my daughter said. In saying all this I am in favor of birth first name your middle name and definately your last name no hyphens just your name!Thank you for sharing your life with the world so we all can learn and grow along with you.

Anonymous said...

Tough decision and maybe no right answer. As they go thru various stages of understanding adoption and their lives, they will likely like/dislike any decision regarding their names.

Having said that, I think birth first+birth middle+your middle+your last name is the best solution. It allows them to keep the part of their past given them by their mother but yet equally acknowledges their connection to your family. It also satisfies your other kids' need to have them named w/ your family name.

I can understand the guilt feeling, having BTDT. But while you are considering everyone else' needs on the subject, you also need to consider yours. Connections are two-way streets. :)

Julia said...

I vote for option #1...birth first name, birth middle name, your middle name, and the family name that you all share.
Tough decision, but I think that this option embraces both their past and their present and acknowledges them as part of your clan/family now and forever.

Sue said...

I personally love Birth first name- your middle name, birth last name- your last name.

In which case everyone is represented. You would be honoring a name that their parents chose/gifted to them and a family name to represent their heritage and extended birth family, as well as your own family names.

But I don't think you can go wrong with any of your choices. Just follow your heart.

Crys said...

I would go with the second option, or a combination of second and third...or what ever would include your last name and not erase any of their birth given names.

As you know, our kids come to us through loss, and I feel a huge responsibility to minimize that loss. Add, add, add, but let them keep what they have.

(In this case. In others, as you know...erasing is a healing and protective measure.)

robyncalgary said...

complex multi-faceted decision, but i like regina's reasoning of having 2 names (birth first, birth middle) from birth family and 2 names (your middle name, your last name) from forever family. has a nice balance to it. i do agree with you not having the hyphenated option for last name. i also think it's really special that your oldest boys have such an opinion on it, from personal life experience, they know how all of this feels. perhaps it was a bit "easier" with them since they were old enuf to tell you how they felt, instead of with the girls you feel more like youre imposing YOUR opinion on them. best of luck <3

Anonymous said...

Both our kids have bparents first name choice, my or hubby's middle name and our last name. I think a version of of birth first name, your middle name and your last name (with the birth middle or birth last name in between somewhere). Is the birth middle name Chilcotin or is the last name more-so? ... I'd go with whichever is more connected to their heritage.
Maria (TDKOL)

Anonymous said...

I would try to keep birth first + birth middle together. Many people work hard to make the two sound good together, so keeping them as a unit honors birthparents' original concept of the name as a whole.

stellarparenting.com said...

birth first and birth middle and then your middle and last, it continues witht he tradition, it includes them and belonging and being like the rest of the family is so important to kids like ours.

Amanda said...

I like option 1. For the record, we just made a similar decision (though her name had no cultural attachment or meaning, it was her name for 2 years). We went with Birth first name, my middle name, birth last name, husband's last name. I really wanted to represent ALL of us (Lex, of course, me, her first family and my husband).

As an aside, I think (no real evidence, just anecdote) that foster moms are more likely to want to give their child their middle name than those who give birth to daughters... I think it's part of our proclaiming, and affirming our family bond... interesting.

Anonymous said...

Oh the decisions that foster and adoptive parents deal with that so many of us do not have a clue about. I too respect the thought you are all putting into it.
I like their birth name, your middle name then whichever birth name (middle or last) that ties to their heritage and definately with your last name.
Have you talked to the birth mom? Perhaps the birth middle name may have special meaning (family name, named after someone, etc.) that she would feel strongly about keeping. I can imagine that could be a hard discussion.

Coco said...

Jen - I have been thinking this over and here is what I'm putting out as my final answer:

One First + One Middle + One Last is a Western societal naming construct. Even the tradition of hyphenating, etc.

I know several people whose families hail from Mexico and the Philippines, for example, and it is very common to have 4,5, or 6 names. Legally! So if it is an option, I would say Birth First + Birth Middle + Joy (or other middle name choice from your family) + Birth Last + Your Last. No hyphens! This gives the kids ALL their options, and while yes, it is true that one day they will likely fuss about any choice made, in the end, this gives them a wonderful blending of their family heritage and their family who raised them. It ensures they can select names to use and not have to jump through legal hoops. Lengthy? Sure. In school you may wish to send a note explaining preferred names, but honestly, at work we have learned and adapted quickly. Maria Luz Milagros Marcos Kwan = Luz Marcos, for example (name changed of course)

IMHO. Of course that plus five bucks will buy you a cup of Starbuck's latte. ;)

Whatever you choose, I know it will be with love and care.

Bless your heart as always.

Lily Miller said...

I've been following your blog for a while and even though I don't have much time to comment I thought it was important to give my input this time.

We've adopted our daugther at age six from Brazil (she's now almost 8), where I'm originally from. To change her first name wasn't an option, even though many friends suggested the we should give her a more american name or even a nickname since she was going to be raised in the US. But we think her name is beautiful: IZADORA

We discussed the change of names with her and I also had to say no for "Cinderella" as a middle name. In our family the girls' middle names come from our aunts first names, my middle name for example is Ann, my dad's sister's first name. I explained that to her and she was happy to take my only sister's name as her middle name: CAMILLA (it's kind of similar to her birth middle name Kamilly).

We thought it was important for her to keep her birth last name (she doesn't sign it and she doesn't care for it, but we would feel selfish to just drop it) and added our last name, but no hyphen. So the name turned out to be Izadora Camilla Rodrigues Miller. We all love it, it follows the family tradition, includes her to our family (her German-American father's last name) and reminds her where she came from.

So there's my opinion for your girls:

FIRST NAME + JOY (they couldn't have more perfect middle name!) + BIRTH LAST NAME + YOUR FAMILY'S LAST NAME and no hyphen.

Angel said...

Hi, I was reading your post on adoption.com and clicked on your blog. Your last posting moved me to tears. We have just started to licensing process to foster/adopt and I want to oneday be able to post beautiful pics of my kids as well. Your children are gorgeous. Great post:)

Anonymous said...

I don't know - it's a difficult one. First off though, I think it's great that you're considering this so carefully, and are planning on keeping at least some of their names.

My first thought is - can they not have more than four names? Over here we can have as many names as we want - 3 is the most usual, but some have 4, 5 or 6. That might be a way to solve the problem. Otherwise my instinct would be to go for the second one - that is, so that their names contain both surnames. I know that middle names are the ones that are "chosen", but if you are keeping the first name, they already have one of the "chosen" names. But with the surname they have the family name too. But I'm coming to this from the point of view of what I would have wanted, and there is no way of knowing whether they'd agree with that. I just see fostering/adoption/guardianship from the point of view of adding families, meaning that the logical course to follow is to add names, not take away.

I think, though, that the variety of opinions expressed here demonstrates the crux of the issue. Everyone values different things differently. I'd've wanted one thing, but your daughters might want another. Heck, come 18 or so years, it might turn out that one of them wants one thing, and the other another. One might wish you hadn't taken one name away, whilst the other might hate you for one of the names you've given them. Or one or both of them might not even care.

I think, therefore, that the key, alongside ensuring that they keep some or all of their birth names, is to be honest in how and why you made your decisions with them whilst they're growing up, and (if you're OK with this) to let them know that it's OK for them to legally add one of their birth names or one of the names special to your family when they're 18 (or before). That is, part of me feels that somehow you have to make a decision, and unless you don't delete any names but just add names, this is going to be a compromise. You have no idea how they're going to feel. But basically you have to be able to look them in the eye and explain to them - "We thought about it carefully and because of reasons A B and C we chose this combination". And, if you're willing, to let them know that because it's their name, they can at some point add names if they want. ie. that you made a decision when they weren't old enough to do so, but that you're giving them all the info (eg. all about all their birth family names) and that they can make a choice.

I suppose the background to this is that I am very, very glad that I have my (adoptive) parents' surname. I would never change it, even if I married - in part because a part of me wonders "If I change my surname, am I still part of the family?". But I also wish my birth surname had been kept as a middle name - and I would love to be able to add my foster family's surname to my middle names too, so that my name reflects my entire heritage. But the thing is, someone else in exactly my position might want something else. So basically what I'm saying is this: whatever you choose, your choice is not foolproof. It could backfire. But you have the basics there - eg. keeping the birth first name, acknowledging that there has to be a mixture so that they belong to both - and you just need to be able to discuss it honestly with them and allow them a degree of self-determination as they grow older (within reason obviously). (Also, FWIW, I think it's important that they have your surname, at least while growing up. Having been both in foster care and adopted, it's a huge thing to have the same surname. Not having the same surname marks you out as not really "theirs". Hard to explain this, but because I share genes with my birth family, in some ways I need the name less. But then others may well feel differently)