Now that we’re well into the throws of this adoption, we’ve been getting used to some questions coming up over and over again. This is super helpful as it’s all fodder for blogs, so keep the great questions coming! But the questions we’ve been getting a lot revolves around names and naming adopted children. And it seemed like a good topic to broach today as we welcome more and more older children into our families.
For years, convention wisdom stated that you are not doing your internationally adopted child any favors by keeping their original name. It was hard to say, hard to spell, and let’s face it, most of the time completely arbitrary based on the name of the orphanage director or season of the year the child came into care. So respect for their culture or not, we basically viewed it as a good thing to change their name and give them a name that truly meant something to you. And then we encouraged you to keep part of their original name as their middle name. Thus the great Mia Elizabeth Zhong Smith years emerged. And that’s still all well and fine, but what about when you adopt a child who already knows and has a connection with her name? What to do? And what to do when that name is hard to say (for example, take Yiyi, that nobody knows if it’s yee-yee or yiah-yiah or yih-yih)? So then you have a conflict…keep true to their culture or add yet one more thing onto their plate that makes them different?
I think the answer to this question is to keep it flexible and see how it goes. Like anything else, there is no certain right or wrong answer. And like everyone else, your child will have a very special personality who makes him who he is. And you won’t know this until you have him. So why not just roll and see how it goes? I know this will kill some of you crafty moms out there who want to have their girl’s bedroom all ready with hand painted letters, embellished to the hilt, and up on the wall, as if to say “Welcome, Isabelle! I hope you like pink and zebra prints (because its done now and you sure better!)” Maybe Isabelle isn’t really an Isabelle at all. Maybe she’s Bella, or Lexi, or Grace, or Hannah, or yes, even Yiyi. And if you’ve committed yourself, and those around you, to Isabelle, there’s no going back. So try to keep it loose and do yourself a favor and just call her Mahalet until you’ve decided on what you are going to stick with. Because trust me, it’s a lot easier for people to go from Mahalet to Lucy, rather than the other way around.
This being said, I have a ton of kids on my caseload who truly want to have English names. I think this is part of their mental process of accepting their adoption and their new life in their new family. Like a new chapter starts with a new number, so their new chapter starts with a new name. I think it can be a really healthy thing for some. One family I’m acquainted with was able to connect with their 13-year-old as they were preparing to adopt her from China. In some of their correspondence, she asked what her name was going to be. They sent her a list of names they had been talking about and allowed her to choose. She is so very proud of her name and truly embodies the spirit of her sweet and unique spelling of her name. Another family of mine had selected a name for their child, but chose to be flexible and see what she wanted after the adoption. One of her first questions, five minutes after they met her in China (through the translator was) “what’s my new name?” They told her, she decided that was sufficiently cute and started using it immediately. Fast forward to this last weekend when I’m at a post adoption visit for a family who has been home one year with their child. So I ask the child, “when people ask you what your name is, what do you say?” And he replied, first and last name, his original Chinese name. And yet others garner notoriety from their kids’ not wanting to change their names. Last summer, my dear friends enjoyed an all expenses paid night out to the T-Bones, food, drinks, tickets and all, thanks to sports radio 610, when they won an interesting name contest for their son’s name. When his dad called in and got on the radio he said, “He goes by Maja, but his whole name is Noble Majachasa*.” Clearly that was a winner! They had selected the family name, Noble, before they met him and then decided to keep his whole original Ethiopian name as his middle name, but continued to call him Maja. After he had been home awhile, he had figured out that some of his Ethiopian friends had English names, so he asked his parents if he had one too. They told him he did, and that he could keep being Maja if he wanted to (because by this point, this child was a Maja), but that his name was Noble. He wrinkled his nose, patted his chest and said “I’m Maja”. Oh buddy, yes, yes you are, and nobody can pull that name off better than you can!
It just goes to show that every child is different and you can’t predict how each child is going to identify with his or her name. Because it’s really about more than the name, isn’t it? It’s about identity and them trying to figure out their place in this crazy world. And aren’t we all?
*Chill out people, I got a release from my friends to use their son’s real name. I have some professionalism, wrapped in me somewhere, underneath those rolled up jeans and no makeup that I sport with you most of the time.