Wednesday, 18 July 2012

What's in a name?

I had an interesting conversation with an adopter recently. We were talking about names, and she was wondering if she should have changed her daughter’s name when she was placed as it’s so unusual.

If you’re not familiar with adoption, you might be under the impression that changing the name of a newly placed child is something that an adopter is easily able to do. And indeed, once that child officially becomes ‘yours’, you can, in theory, do whatever you want with their names.

However, Social Services drilled it into us at every opportunity before we applied to adopt, during our preparation course, throughout our home-study and before presenting any children’s profiles to us that we would be expected to keep the child’s given name, and even thinking about changing their first name was absolutely unacceptable.
Why? Well, names form part of our identity. For many of our children, their name is the only thing they have from their birth parents.  It’s their name – it belongs to them. To take that away from a child could be catastrophic for them. Although, it seems that changing or dropping middle names is more acceptable.

We were only ever shown Mini’s profile – 2 weeks after we were approved (a short wait thankfully). He sounded perfect on paper, we were shown a photo and he was (and still is) gorgeous, his name was the only thing about him that our social worker thought would put us off. Yes – it was that unusual. His first name was hyphenated, and the first part wasn’t a name I’ve ever heard of. We actually quite liked it, and talked about how we could drop the second part of his name, or if we just used the initials of both parts we could make another name entirely. It certainly didn’t put us off, and we were happy to proceed knowing that we could work around it, without actually changing his name.

However, the further along we got in the process of being matched for this child, the more Social Services felt that this unusual name could cause us problems later on in placement, especially coupled with his middle names, one of which was completely made up. They felt it was too identifiable (given the proximity to birth family, and the risks they posed), and despite all the preparation to the contrary, we were advised to consider changing it. We knew they were serious because they’d spent so long telling us why we shouldn’t change it, to make such a turnaround meant it was incredibly important.

We then had to choose a name for a child who we’d never met. Yes, I know most birth parents have names picked out during their pregnancy, or at least a couple to choose from and they haven’t met their children when they do this. But our child, this gorgeous little boy already had a character, he was already someone, and we had a matter of days (not 9 months) to pick a name. We’d already decided that we would give him a new middle name – that of my father. Now we also had to decide on a first name, whether to keep any of his birth names, which ones and which order they’d be in. Put on the spot in a meeting of social workers, we settled on his new first name, my father’s name, and then his original hyphenated birth name. This was followed by our own surname. This meant dropping his two birth middle names, but we were all comfortable with this because we were keeping that all important first name.

So names chosen, we then had to think about how to actually change his name because of course at 13months old, he knew and responded to his name. It’s much easier than we originally thought…we spent the first 3 weeks of placement calling him by the first part of his birth name (i.e Austin), then he became Austin-Mini for 2 weeks, then finally we were able to call him Mini.
However, the reality of remembering which point of this process we were at, and remembering to call him the right name was difficult. Until Mini was ours, he was still officially Austin, so during meetings and at LAC reviews, he was still referred by his birth name. We had to register him at the doctors in his birth name, but had to ask them not to call out for him in the surgery. We worried throughout this process about whether it was right and whether it would work. Thankfully it did. And he’s most definitely Mini…though I can still see that Austin would suit him.

Some days I regret changing his name. His birth name really did suit him and his personality. But I know that we had to protect us and our family, and this was the only way.
I write all our contact letters in his old name because his birth family don’t know that we’ve changed it. I’ve always felt they should know, and because his name now is fairly common it wouldn’t matter so much if they know what it is, they’re still not likely to find us via it. But Social Services feel it wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone so I have to remember to refer to him as Austin, and then have to triple check each letter before I email it on to the letterbox co-ordinator. The few responses we have had therefore refer to him as Austin. When he’s a bit older and looks through those letters, he’ll see that we haven’t been honest with his birth parents and I wonder how he’ll feel about that. Thankfully I’ve got the correspondence from Social Services where they tell me not to divulge his name in contact letters.

Although his birth name is in part of his current name, we only use it on official documents. Mini knows what it is, but frequently forgets it. He knows why each part of his name is what it is. He’s quite protective over his first name…and gets upset if we call him by a shortened version or a nickname sometimes. I only hope that when he grows up, he really understands why we had to change it.


  1. Big decision isn't it? After all our names are so much part of our identities. It was surprising that social workers told you to change - it was drummed into us that that was a big no no! I am glad that the 'changeover' period was so easy for you and Mini.
    I find it a little hard to know sometimes that I couldn't chose my kids names. After all it's asumed that you have the right to name your kids. I know that if they were my birth children I'd have chosen different names. However we didn't change our boys names, (despite the fact that one of the names is not at all fashionable these days and has an unusual spelling, which could put him at slight risk of being traced). We've learned to love their names, and couldn't imagine them with other names now. We did add second names of our choice, and we 'lost' one if their original second names because we disliked it. It took us a lot of thought before we made the decisions.

    Like Mini our boys do not like having their names shortened, and hate nicknames. It's strange, because we have a family 'culture' of nicknaming eveyone, and the boys are happy to use nicknames for us, the cats etc.

    One issue we have at present is that one of our sons dislikes his first name (even though he won't let us nickname him!) and he wants to change to the name we gave him. We are discouraging him, not because we don't want him to change (it is entirely up to him) but we want him to be sure, and we want him to change for the right reasons. So we've told him he can't change until he starts senior school at the earliest. In a way I hope he changes his mind - I cannot imagine him with any other name!

    1. It's hard isn't it? I do wonder if Mini will rebel later and want to be known by his birth name. Or he might choose to drop the birth name that we retained as a middle name.

      Mini's name issue impacted on the names we then chose for our birth daughter. We felt we *had* to give her two middle names - just like him. We also felt like we had to choose a fairly plain and common name for her (although the name we'd originally chosen was really quite unusual), so as not to bring attention to our family when we'd tried so hard to protect Mini's identity.

      I've 'spoken' to several people today who felt saddened at not being able to choose their children's names. I must admit, I didn't ever think about it - like I say it was so drummed in that we wouldn't be able to change it, and I knew whoever I adopted would come with a character, an identity and a name of their own.

      Like you, we all have nicknames and Mini is happy to use them with us and with Dollop, but not himself. I guess that he already has a strongish sense of identity and it's important that he retains it. Or perhaps he's struggling with identity at the moment, and his name is all he knows of it? Either way, he knows we gave him his name and it makes me feel fuzzy inside knowing that he's really proud of the name we chose.

  2. A really interesting blog! I'd be very interested to know how extended family members and friends dealt with the name change, or current children in the family. Did they know the original name? Part of me thinks that would defeat the purpose of changing it for security, but not sure how they could get around it.
    Anyway, excellent read - thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Do you mean my extended family and friends? And my other children? If so, Mini was my first child, so there were no other children involved.
      Our close family and friends knew/know Mini's birth name, because that's what we called him by when he first moved in. Our extended family just know him as Mini. But because in the early days of adoption we only allowed really close people to meet him, they took our lead in what to call him.

      I'm not sure why it defeats the purpose of changing it for security though? If we were out and about and birth family overheard us call out 'Austin', they'd know it was us. They are a risk to us and Mini, so obviously we want to minimise the chances of them seeing us.
      Also, I try to keep my kids identities private, but in years to come when they're online etc, putting himself out there (even unintentionally) as Austin would make Mini easy to find.

    2. Sorry, I probably didnt explain myself properly and I was partly pondering your blog, mixed with thinking out loud about my situation as well as others!

      I already have 2 children, adopted older and who kept birth names. We are soon to be adopting again and most of the children we have considered so far would definately need their name changing due to how unusual they are. Whereas part of this is exciting - getting to choose a name - the other part of me worries about how we could manage this. I would not want people to know the child as Polly when we are trying to change it to Dolly, because of the risk of word getting out that "Mr and Mrs Smith have just adopted a girl called Polly, but they are changing it to Dolly". Since having my elder two I have learnt that its a very small word on planet adoption! So when I said it defeats the object of changing a name, I meant that if lots of family/friends etc.. knew the old name then word could get out and risk your security.

      Hope that makes sense xxx

    3. It does indeed make sense. I think if you know before that you are definitely going to change the child's name, there is no need to share their birth name with your friends etc, just tell them the child's new name. Of course if they are likely to meet the child then it would be difficult. But we didn't invite lots of people over straight away on the advice of social services, to allow us to bond with Mini, so it wasn't a problem for us... x

  3. Thanks for this. We gave Baby Spouse all his names, as he came to us without anything except a last name, but I don't know why people say the name is the only thing children get from their birth family. He got everything up to the point he was placed with us, and many things that have developed since, and are still to come (good and bad) from them.

    1. But their name, in many cases is the only thing their birth parents have knowingly given them, knowingly done for them...
      Our children may indeed develop skills/talents/character/personality that comes from their birth parents, but no-one knows exactly what will develop, and whether it comes from birth mother or birth father. Certainly we don't know either of Mini's birth parents well enough to know where traits come/came from.
      With a name, there is a thought process involved, an active and considered choice that the birth parents make for that child. A choice they made and passed onto that child.

    2. I disagree, even before birth, parents are making choices that will influence children's lives. To take a really minor example, someone posted on the AUK boards that their child loves rice - which was eaten loads in their birth home, but they were still on milk only when they were removed. And of course many pre- and post-natal choices are not as benign.

    3. I don't see how your example shows how parents are knowingly and actively making a considered choice for their child? Eating rice lots in a birth family doesn't guarantee the child will be a rice lover too.

      Mini's mum made choices with regards to her lifestyle that of course have impacted on Mini, but I don't think she made those choices knowing how they'd affect him. I don't think she gave him a second thought when she made most of them either.
      However, I *know* she named him as she did because the initials and names were important to her and were variations of her other children's names. The name for her, was something that connected him to her, and the rest of her family, and is the only thing that we can guarantee came from her.

      To me, that's where the difference is.

    4. I said it was a trivial example, because I didn't want to go into detail about the negative stuff. But people DO talk about whether their baby will like the foods their mother ate, or the music their mother listened to, while she was pregnant. Pregnant women who take drugs but can't give up choose to change their use e.g. using methadone instead of heroin. And where babies are in the birth family for a while their behaviour IS a choice. We were always told on our prep course to emphasise that our children's birth parents did have a choice but they didn't choose the best thing for the children so they couldn't look after them. It's still a choice with the child in mind even if it's a choice not to change.
      And some birth names are clearly just "whatever, I have to name him" or pressure from other family members or like other choices a BAD choice (naming after a drink or drug).

    5. Yes some people do talk about those things, but many don't.

      I'm quite aware people make choices whilst pregnant and of course many of them do so to have a positive impact on their child, and I'm aware that children who spend time in their birth families have choices made that affect their lives.

      You'll notice that I don't say a name is all that ALL adopted children have, just for many (which is what I was told on my prep course, and subsequently my social worker). I think the thoughts about a name being all a child gets from their birth parents is about intent.

      When I was pregnant, we happened to play a particular piece of music a lot, just because we all like it. Yes, we made a CHOICE to play a piece of music a lot. And now Dollop loves that music and as a tiny baby was soothed by it, so clearly I made a choice that affected her life.
      But I didn't make that choice knowing she would love it, knowing she would be soothed by it. There was no intent there.

      The lifestyle choices that Mini's birth mother made were her lifestyle choices, they were bad choices, but she didn't make those choices to impact in him, to affect his life, she made them to protect herself and her own life. And to be honest, if I'd been in her situation I don't think I would have looked at many of them as choices, just what had to be in order to survive. As I said before, she didn't consider Mini at all. She did however, choose his name - specifically for him. There was intent.

      This blog is based on my experiences; what I learnt on my prep course, and from my social worker, and what I know about Mini's birth mother. And also my own experience as a birth mother to Dollop.