Naming, Claiming, and Letting Go

Naming our children is a very personal decision for all of us. My own parents preferred to think of new names, rather than naming their children after family. However, my husband and I gave our first child (our birth son) one name related to my family heritage and another after a recently deceased relative of my husband’s. We planned a girl’s name at that time also—a first name I had always thought was beautiful, and a middle name which was Charles’ mother’s, grandmother’s and sister’s middle name.

When we adopted, many of the Asian language names sounded strange to our ears. I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable with them, despite my belief that all cultures and languages are beautiful (and also perfectly American in this place which has so often been called a “melting pot”). Ironically it was my husband’s family, from rural New England and quite a bit more conservative than mine, who urged us to keep her Korean name. We worried that this might single her out among her peers even more than she already would be for being adopted, having a multiracial family, and having a minor special need. (Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Some of my kids’ schoolmates are boys named Tuan, Percy, and Theoden, girls named Carson, Ellis and Payton, and—I’m not kidding—a boy named Alejandro O’Kennedy. )

We also considered who bestowed the names. In some of the referrals the birthmothers had chosen names for their child and written of the meaning of the name and the wishes it conveyed for their child’s future. This would have been much harder for me to change than a name given by a social worker.

Some Asian names also have quite different meanings in English than they were intended to. The word “Dung” means noble in some Asian languages, but it wouldn’t be very fun for a child on an American playground. Some Asian last names, such as “Lee” or “Kim”, could also be first names in the U.S., and some adoptive parents do incorporate these into their children’s names as first or middle names. But we felt that while the given name signified the child’s identity, the surname signified the family membership and we wanted to completely leave the old last name behind—not to hide what it was, but to show that the family membership is now changed. The girls may still at some time have an individual relationship with a birth relative, but they are members of our family now.

One opinion I didn’t pay attention to was one I read in a baby-naming book suggesting that family names should “fit together”. “Dominique, Jorge and Gretchen sound more like a United Nations gathering than a family,” the article declared. Well, my kids’ names are now Irish, Hebrew, Korean and Latin—and our family, with our seven heritages plus our Brazilian exchange student, does resemble a United Nations gathering, and is no less a family for all that. Nevertheless I do know of one family, who adopted eight children from Cambodia to El Salvador to Africa, who felt that giving each child a name from the father’s Scandinavian heritage was a unifying factor.

We ultimately decided to keep their Korean names and add another name when they were baptized. (Many immigrants in our church have done this anyway.) We decided that which name became the first name would depend on how old the child was. We remembered that our birth son had seemed to know his name by about nine months old.

Initially we thought of giving our first daughter the girl’s name we’d picked out while expecting our son. But we didn’t for three reasons: One: since she was an older baby, we thought it might be easier if her new name rhymed somewhat with her old one; Two: she was born on a saint’s day and that saint is one known by Catholics all over the world—we thought that would be a uniting factor between her past and present since we knew that one of her birthparents was also a Catholic; Three: the social worker had incorporated her birthmother’s middle name into our daughter’s name, so we added my middle name (the abovementioned saint’s name) so our daughter now has both her mothers’ middle names. Our second daughter received the first name I had always dreamed of giving a daughter.

Many experts advise against changing the name of older children. They say changing the name may reinforce the idea that everything about the old situation (which in the child’s mind may include themselves) was bad and everything about the new situation is good. Nevertheless I would say that of those I know who’ve adopted internationally, what we did is by far the most common: give the child a first name chosen by the adoptive parents and keep their original name as a middle name. With both girls, we strive to call them by their middle name occasionally and to say it freely. The one who was older when she adopted was naturally called her Korean name or both names for a while, then gradually just by the new first name most of the time. The younger one we tended to call the new name right away (in part because her siblings and even her father couldn’t pronounce the old one).

We thought of giving one or both girls the middle name we’d always planned for a girl. Some adoptive parents do give two names as well as retaining the original one. I was very attached to that idea. But their Korean given names were already multi-part. “If they want to add a Confirmation name or married name they’ll have six names,” my husband pointed out. In the end, forgoing my choice of middle name seemed to me a way of acknowledging that I hadn’t been in these girl’s lives forever, that there had been others before me who had played a part in their lives I never would. Choosing that middle name had been their part, and I would let go of it.

My daughter went through a brief period in preschool where she wanted to be called her Korean name. We told her teachers it was fine with us. When the girls are older, if they feel they need to “reclaim that part of their heritage”, they can legally use their first initial and their Korean names with our last name.

What does my daughter think of all this now? Well, she’s now a typical first-grader, and she can’t wait until she’s old enough to legally change her name—to Tinkerbelle.

See related blogs:

The Family Name

Changing Your Child’s Name

Protecting Your Child’s Identity

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About Pam Connell

Pam Connell is a mother of three by both birth and adoption. She has worked in education, child care, social services, ministry and journalism. She resides near Seattle with her husband Charles and their three children. Pam is currently primarily a Stay-at-Home-Mom to Patrick, age 8, who was born to her; Meg, age 6, and Regina, age 3, who are biological half-sisters adopted from Korea. She also teaches preschoolers twice a week and does some writing. Her activities include volunteer work at school, church, Cub Scouts and a local Birth to Three Early Intervention Program. Her hobbies include reading, writing, travel, camping, walking in the woods, swimming and scrapbooking. Pam is a graduate of Seattle University and Gonzaga University. Her fields of study included journalism, religious education/pastoral ministry, political science and management. She served as a writer and editor of the college weekly newspaper and has been Program Coordinator of a Family Resource Center and Family Literacy Program, Volunteer Coordinator at a church, Religion Teacher, Preschool Teacher, Youth Ministry Coordinator, Camp Counselor and Nanny. Pam is an avid reader and continuing student in the areas of education, child development, adoption and public policy. She is eager to share her experiences as a mother by birth and by international adoption, as a mother of three kids of different learning styles and personalities, as a mother of kids of different races, and most of all as a mom of three wonderful kids!