Should I Change My Child’s Name?



by Leceta Chisholm Guibault

The book Inside Transracial Adoption by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall covers naming and re-naming adopted children.

The authors state that because children as young as four-and-a-half months recognize their names (research from the State University of New York at Buffalo), the child is better served when adoptive parents keep the child’s name and continue to use it.  They suggest, “Asking a child whose world is changing to also change her name may be experienced as being asked to be someone other than herself.”

The authors write that most adoptive parents change their child’s name for reasons that make absolute sense to them (the name was hard to pronounce; they didn’t like the name; it broke family traditions; it didn’t fit their cultural norms; or “just because.” They ask adoptive parents to think of the naming issue from the child’s point of view.

All of my strongest views on adoption and its issues have come with time and experience. Almost 11 years ago when I was waiting for my first child, all I could think of was “What will we name him or her?” At that time, we didn’t have the Internet, a support group, a variety of adoption-related books or an informed social worker. We did choose a first and middle name for our daughter. Then I learned of her birth name. Back then we decided to give our daughter the name we had chosen and keep her birth name as middle names. Am I ever glad we did! Because, trust me—there would be hell to pay from this truly insightful 11-year-old. At age five, Kahleah told me she was so happy to have the names that both of her mothers gave her.

Our babies do grow up and may have interesting opinions on this topic. When I listen to adult adoptees speak, they often express grief over the loss of their birth name and a part of their overall identity. That’s it—I think it comes down to a question of identity!

In hindsight, or if we were to adopt again, would I change my child’s name? I don’t think so. Did Kahleah and Tristan become more “my own” because I named them? No. Maybe it felt like it in the beginning because of my inner fight with entitlement?

Naming or re-naming our children is very personal. What I hope to convey is that although my ideas and feelings may have been one thing way back when, they have evolved. What once felt like my “right” as a parent to name my children whatever I wanted when they were first referred to me, has mellowed. Now I am learning, listening and thinking “What is really the best for my child?” (And it just may be to change his or her name!)

As our kids mature, a true sense of identity is very important. It’s not an easy job for adoptive parents to give their child a true sense of identity—all of their identity, not just their identity by adoption. Maybe their name is the starting point?

I have heard lots of stories from adoptive parent friends about their children going through a phase of wanting to be called by their birth name (if it had been changed). This is normal. Kahleah does the same thing from time to time. I think the point is, if we do change their name we should try to incorp-orate their birth name, or part of it, so that they feel the empowerment to choose, if the feeling hits.

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to know you were born in a far-off land, born to another family, a different language, culture—and then boom—it all changes. Even if my children were adopted as infants, Kahleah can now intellectually discuss feeling like two different people.

Our kids are growing up and their personalities are developing. It’s funny how something as “simple” as a name can become so important.

I have a friend who adopted from China. She gave her daughter a very French name. A few years later, after corresponding with an adult Asian adoptee, my friend had her daughter’s name legally changed to include her very beautiful Chinese name as her middle name. My friend told me that she felt that the only thing her daughter came with from China was her name. She knew that the birth date and place of birth were false. Without any biological family history,  the name took on extra importance—even though the name had been given by an orphanage worker.

Out of curiosity, I asked Kahleah her views on the topic. She has always told me that she was happy to have both her birth name and our given name. I asked her how she would feel if we had not kept her birth name. She said, “My name is a part of me. To take it away is to take a part of me away. It’s like I would not be totally ‘me’.”

I asked her how she would feel to learn that her birthmother did not name her. I suggested that some children are named by a lawyer, foster parent or orphanage director. Kahleah said, “It would not matter, it would still be my first name, a part of who I am.”

I have Kahleah’s permission to share her thoughts. Knowing I was going to share them with other adoptive parents, she took her time to answer. I was a little surprised by her reaction to the second question. I thought she might hesitate at the thought of someone other than her birth mother naming her.

“Leceta.” Given to me by my mother, unique, hard to spell, hard to pronounce, not exactly a “Canadian” name—but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It is who I am.

Reprinted with kind permission of Leceta. First published in Adoption Canada, March 2004.