Adoption allows for a wealth of topics on which people can debate. There are multiple sides to each topic and many seemingly valid reasons why one person thinks their opinion is correct. One such topic is changing a child’s name once they have been adopted. This debate is based on the idea and the practice of adoptive parents legally changing a child’s name to something different than the name the birth parents bestowed to the child. This hot topic has been debated for years and some think there is no middle ground. I have heard a lot of great stories from each side of this debate and have pondered this topic for many years. I have gone back and forth on my own opinion of this and have still not landed completely firm on one side or the other. Is there a middle ground or is there a firm right and wrong?
In the debate on whether or not a child’s name should be changed after an adoption, people typically fall into three categories. One of these categories is having no idea where they really fall. A second category is firmly believing that it is the adoptive parents’ right to change the child’s name once they have officially been adopted. There are many reasons why people believe this or feel this way, but one of the main reasons would be that the adoptive parents simply have a different name that they would like for their new child. The third category is those who firmly believe that a child should be able to keep the name they were given by their birth parents. There are also many reasons people believe or feel this way, but one of the main reasons is that people feel it is part of the child’s identity and therefore, should not be taken from them.
If you are a part of any online adoption group or run in any adoption circles, you know how debated this topic can be. It can be difficult to surrender to the idea of not being able to choose a name for your child, oh, especially if that child is an infant. I understand this side completely as I felt very much into that area when we were first asked to adopt. However, I very much saw the validity and arguments from the other side after talking with my child’s birth mother and other birth parents. It is definitely a hard debate to navigate and fully grasp the importance of a name. Some may say that it’s just a name, however, many believe that a child’s name will mean everything to them as they grow.
When my daughter was born, we had multiple names picked out for her. However, her birth mother had already given her a name. At first, this took me back a bit. I had longed to name her and had thought of names even as a child. Many adoptive parents deal with this dilemma. I believe there is this innate desire, especially for mothers, to want to name their child. It is really only normal. However, that being said, it is only normal for a birth mother to want to give her child a name. That desire does not go away just because their child is being placed for adoption. Some birth parents view a name as one of the only things they can give to their child before the child is placed. Some even view their child’s name as the one part of them that the child will carry with them for their whole lives.
There is an incredible amount of loss that comes with adoption. Not only are birth parents and the birth family losing a child, but the child is losing their birth family. Luckily, with open adoption becoming more popular, this loss can be minimized. However, nothing will completely eliminate the feeling of loss that comes with adoption. Many adoptees will struggle with their identity as they grow. It is only normal to want to know where you come from and know parts about you that are biological. For some adoptees, the feeling surrounding their name becomes very personal. Many adoptees I have talked to in various adoption groups have noted that they feel that it was inappropriate to change their name from the name that their birth parents had given them. This was just another loss that they had experienced. Others were okay with the name change and understood. However, there was a general feeling that there was not a black-and-white answer to this question. There was no way to avoid the sense of loss that came with the changing of their birth name.
Interested to know what others thought about this topic, I reached out to fellow adoption writers to see where they stood on this issue. While the responses received were primarily from adoptive parents, it provided some good insight that not all adoptive parents feel the same on this issue. One set of adoptive parents shared,
“We have three adopted children and very open adoptions. However, that wasn’t the case when we first adopted our oldest. Due to a safety issue with the birth father, we chose to change her first name to sound different with a bit of a play on words and also changed her middle name. For our next adopted daughter, her birth mom had placed her in foster care voluntarily at first, but later asked us to adopt her. She said the only thing that still left her sad was knowing her daughter would lose the family name, and there were so few family members left carrying that name. We chose to give the gift of leaving that family name as a middle name—her name is the exact name her mother gave her at birth, with our last name at the end. After this, I regretted not keeping our first adopted daughter’s birth mom’s last name as a middle name as well. I guess I saw it as a loss of identity. Her birth mom has assured us not to worry about it, though.”
Even though these adoptive parents were initially comfortable changing their child’s name, they still understood that sense of loss. They understood enough to even feel a sense of regret. The child’s birth mother also expressed confusion on where she landed on the issue. She felt a sense of sadness but also a sense of understanding. This type of situation, where both parties are unsure of how to proceed, can be very difficult to navigate. When both parties build a good relationship, there can very much be a sense of wanting to respect each other’s wishes and feelings. It is understandable that either side would go back and forth on how they feel about this issue and the impact it may have on their child in the future.
These same adoptive parents further noted, “For our most recently adopted son, it was a very unique situation. His birth mom, being friends with the other two birth moms of our other adopted children, called us out of the blue and asked us to adopt her son when he would be born in a few months. One of her few requests was that we keep the name her and the birth father came up with, but they also asked if we were okay with the chosen name. They chose a first name and middle name for two different people we had all gone to high school together with, but had passed on. We were more than happy to do that, and included the birth mom’s last name as an additional middle name (birth father did not want his name attached).
“We have felt honored to include the birth parents in this process, and to carry forward their heritage with the names—and mother’s last names—given at birth. If our oldest adopted daughter later wants to reinstate her birth mom’s last name as a middle name, we will certainly pay to have that done.”
For these adoptive parents, they understand that their feelings may not be exactly “right” or even that there may be no “right” or “wrong” answer. For their family, they are open to honoring their child’s birth family while also trying to honor their own family. They are also open to the idea that their child may one day feel differently than them about the situation. There is much to be said about admitting when we are unsure of the answer and letting our children speak for themselves when they are old enough to express how they feel.
A second writer, also an adoptive parent, confirmed this feeling of a “gray area” by stating,
“We changed both of our children’s names when we adopted them from foster care at 2 and 3.
“With our son, 2, he was not called by his given name due to the popularity and there being 3 in his first foster home. We talked with him in therapy and at home and he always chose …[the] name we chose for him. We also choose to give our children a family name as a middle name.
“With our daughter, she was nearly 4. She would get very tense when someone would call her by her full name. Our sons shortened it to a nickname when she arrived and she very much identified with that nickname. We again talked with her for several months—we presented her given name and two other options. We kept the part of her name that was her bio mom’s middle name and gave her a family middle name.
“We chose to change their names for different reasons. Our son’s name was just uber-popular for our small area and we wanted a name of positive meaning for him and us.
“For our daughter, her given name was very distinctive and she was well-known. She hated being identified and she became more confident when we would answer that no her name wasn’t (given name).
“We have talked that if they eventually want to go back to their given names, we will help them make that change. Or add a part. We talk openly about their names then and now and how they were special to each set of parents.”
For many adoptive parents, it seems that the answer is not so cut-and-dried. While many are comfortable changing their children’s names, some do feel a sense of regret or doubt in the practice. There are also adoptive parents who feel that changing a child’s name is taking something away from the child that does not belong to them.
Another adoptive parent from an online adoption group I spoke with stated, “Of course I had the desire to change my daughter’s name. The name she was given by her birth mother was not what I would have chosen. However, she was given the name by her birth mother. Though we have an open adoption and I adopted her as an infant, she had been given an identity. It was not my place to change her name. Her name did not belong to me just because I was adopting her. That was a part of her identity that was not mine to take.”
For this adoptive mother, there was no gray area. In her eyes, changing her child’s name after an adoption was not her right. There are others who feel this way about this topic. This side of the argument is not limited to birth parents or adoptive parents. For some, the answer is clear. Some feel it is their right to change your name While others feel that right should not be taken from birth parents.
While adoptive parents may feel one way or the other, I would love to know more about what adoptees feel about their name being changed. My hope was to hear from more perspectives than just adoptive parents. However, I hope to follow up and hear from more sides of the triad, especially adoptees as it is their voice that matters most.
We would love to hear more opinions on this topic, especially from birth parents and adoptees. Are there any other topics of debate you would like us to cover? What are your thoughts and experiences on changing a child’s name after an adoption? Please discuss and provide your feedback!