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What’s in a Name?

For a child who joins his family with his own history, his own culture—his own name—the story’s rarely rooted in the pages of a baby names book. AF readers share how they made the naming decision.

by Lisa Milbrand

All parents want to choose the perfect name for their child. It shouldn’t be too common or too unusual, and it should fit the child’s personality. We debate spellings and nicknames for hours on end.


But when a child comes into your family with his own unique history and culture—and his own name—it can make the debate that much tougher. There are no strict guidelines (See "Naming Your Child: Legal Considerations") for choosing your child’s name, but here’s how other families have handled the decision.

Honoring the past
For many families, preserving a link to the child’s history is the most important factor in the naming decision. “People would ask what we would call the baby we were adopting, and were always surprised when we responded, ‘Whatever name she is given,’” says Holly Montague of Kenai, Alaska. She kept part or all of her three children’s names when she adopted them from Guatemala. “Our children’s names are a connection to their birth family, culture, and country.”


Alexander, Andrei, Ang, Arie, Bebe, Becky, Benjamin, Brogan, Caden, Collin...

Keeping the birth name can be very important to children adopted at an older age, as they have been known by their name for years. “When kids come in to the family past infancy, they don’t like to have their names changed,” says Deborah Gray, a social worker and author of Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents (Perspectives). “It is disconcerting to have so many identity factors change, and also to have their names changed.”


That’s what led Erica Zito to keep her daughter’s birth name. “By the time we finalized our daughter’s adoption, she was two years old,” says the mom of two in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Samantha had been her name for two years. It maintained a link to her birth family, and we liked it!” If the child you’re adopting is old enough, the best course may be to ask for his input.

“Parents should talk with their newly adopted child about his name. See if he wants a different first name, or wants to keep it as a middle name,” says Vicki Peterson, director at Wide Horizons for Children in Waltham, Massachusetts. “And let children know that, at a later point, they can change their minds about what name they wish to use.”

Open adoptions allow both birthparents and adoptive parents to weigh in on naming. “We chose our children’s first names, and asked their birthparents to choose their middle names,” says Carolyn Halliburton of Plano, Texas. “We love that their names reflect their birthparents’ love for them.”

Dylan, Ella, Emma, Eve, Grace, Gwen, Jake, Jennifer, Jeremiah, Joshua Kimberly...


Some adoptive parents find that the child’s birth name simply fits him—and their family. “Our child’s birthmother selected Joshua for his first name, and Edward for his middle name, for her deceased father,” says Amy Stipancich of Davidson, North Carolina. “We already had ‘J’ names in our family, so Joshua fit well. We kept his entire birth name as a tribute to his birthmother.”

New family, new identity
Choosing an entirely new name for a child is a way to welcome him into your family and claim him as your own. But many families bypass the baby names books and turn instead to their family trees. “To emphasize the claiming nature of naming, you might choose a name that is significant—a beloved relative or other special person in the family’s life,” says Mary Ann Curran, director of social services at World Association for Children and Parents in Seattle. “That will increase the honor of having that name.”

That’s what Kim Marie Nicols of Needham, Massachusetts, did for her daughters, Parlee and Jenny, named for their great-great-grandparents. “The family connection was important,” she says.

For Sharon Valente of Medina, Ohio, deciding to name her son after his grandfathers was easy—but picking the names was not. “Both of our fathers, my brother, and a nephew are all named John, so we chose our fathers’ middle names, Peter and Angelo.”

Leif, Lily, Linda, Madison, Maya, Maria, Mark, Maxwell, Mia, Nanuk, Naomi, Ningdu...

Allowing siblings to participate in naming the new arrival can encourage a strong bond. “We bought a baby names book, and I made a few suggestions,” says Susan Huston of Claire, Wisconsin. “But it quickly became apparent that our daughter had set her mind on one name. ‘If I get a little brother, we’re going to name him Max!’ she repeatedly told us. This wasn’t a name my husband and I had ever considered, but Emmaleigh obviously knew something we didn’t, because Max is a Max through and through.”

Something old, something new
For the majority of adoptive parents, the answer to the naming challenge is easy: Combine their child’s existing name with a new name. (See more naming trends at "The Name Game.") That’s what adoption experts often recommend. “I advise families never to drop all components of the birth name,” says Curran. “Keep some piece of it, perhaps as a middle name. It sends the message that a child’s past has been honored and accepted by the adoptive family. It also gives the headstrong teen who decides, for example, to become 2000% Asian for six months, a chance to use an Asian name if she wishes.”

Usually, the birth name becomes the middle name, and the parents choose a new first name. “We wanted our daughter’s name to reflect my heritage, her heritage, and my husband’s heritage,” says Holly Massie of North Plainfield, New Jersey, who adopted her daughter from Ethiopia. “Maren, her first name, is a family name. We kept her given name from her birthmother, and her last name (her birthfather’s first name, following Ethiopian tradition) as her middle names. Her full name is a little long, but we felt it was important to keep all of them.”

Nora, Oliver, Olivia, Piper, Rachel, Raven, Rosalie, Shanti, Svetlana, Tatiana, Zoë...

When families decide to change a child’s first name, many choose one that ties to her birth culture. “I found Karina in Baby Names from Around the World,” says Joyce Bouchard of Frederick, Maryland. “It’s Russian, not unusual enough to be burdensome, and my husband and I like that it can be shortened to Kari.”

Some want a single name to symbolize both the birth heritage and their own. “Caeley is Gaelic for ‘brave warrior,’ and our daughter’s heritage is Kekchi Maya, who were never conquered by the Spaniards,” says Susan Ryan of McCall, Idaho.

Others opt to keep their children’s birth names, but with a twist. “We decided to Americanize his Russian name, Andrei, changing it to Andrew,” says Paula Riley, of Cumming, Georgia. “Then we chose a middle name that was a family name, thinking this would make him feel like a Riley and more attached to our family.”

But no matter how much effort goes into the decision, some parents turn in a different direction altogether once they have a face to go with the name. “My husband and I had agreed on a name, but when we saw our son’s referral picture, we decided the name just didn’t fit,” says Alexandra Lopez, a mom in Germantown, Maryland. “With my son’s photo in mind, I found the name Benjamin. He really looks like a Benjamin.” 

Comment on this article and tell us your family's naming story! Share your story.

Lisa Milbrand is a freelance writer and editor. She lives with her family in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Naming Your Child:
Legal Considerations

Denise Seidelman, an adoption attorney in Westchester, New York, sees two common situations in domestic adoptions:

1. A birthmother names the child, and that name appears on the birth certificate. In some cases, the birthmother and adoptive parents-to-be agree on the child’s name by the time of birth.

2. A birthmother does not name the child, in which case the birth certificate says “Baby Girl” or “Baby Boy.” The adoption petition refers to the child as such.

The judge’s adoption decree will include a change to the name chosen by the adoptive parents (“and the child shall henceforth be known as…”).

Until finalization, domestic adopters can’t get passports or Social Security numbers in their child’s name. After finalization, the original birth certificate is amended to reflect the child’s new legal name.

Peter Wiernicki, an adoption attorney in Washington, D.C., says that foreign adoption decrees usually include a legal name change. Two issues that may arise:

1. The child’s English name may be misspelled on the adoption decree and/or the alien registration card. Adopting parents should check the spelling of their child’s name on all documents.

2. In Latin-American countries, courts may identify the child with the adoptive mother’s, rather than the adoptive father’s, last name, in keeping with local custom.

In a case of incorrect or inconsistent spelling or incorrect last name, parents can petition the court in their state for a name change and may correct the child’s name as part of a U.S. readoption proceeding.


The Name Game
Last year, Jacob, Michael, Emily, and Emma headed the list of most popular baby names, but in the adoption community, top choices tend to be a little different. Here, AF readers discuss two trends they’ve noticed.

“Oh, my gosh, it seems that every other boy I meet who was adopted from Kazakhstan has Alexander either as a first or a middle name—my son included. It’s not a surprise, as Alexander (nickname: Sasha) is a common Russian name. I like that my son’s name reflects his birth culture, and I love the sound of ‘Alexander.’ I just wish so many other people hadn’t made the same choice!”
—Jenn Keohane, Oakland, California

“I first thought that I would name my Guatemalan daughter Maya, but I was hesitant because there are so many little Guatemalan girls in the U.S. named Maya. As it turned out, my daughter was not the infant I was expecting, but a toddler. Her birthmother named her Madeline Araceli, and I could not think of a more fitting or beautiful name.”
—Melissa Turi, Shorewood, Illinois


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I'm a single mom & adopted my daughter from Guatemala as an infant. But unlike most other adopted children from that country, the birth mother did NOT name my child at all, so my two female Guatemalan attorneys assigned their first names to my child's paperwork, to serve as first and middle names. Consequently, I felt no obligation to keep those names since this was not a case of "honoring" the birth mother. As I began thinking up names, I soon decided that I wanted her first name to reflect her Hispanic heritage, but one that would be easily pronounceable by non-Spanish speakers. One day the name of a Brazilian actress/singer from the 40s & 50s, that I liked as a child, popped into my head: CARMEN MIRANDA. So I chose only the last name "Miranda" for my daughter's first name. And since my last name can be either Spanish or Italian (in my case, Italian), her entire name appears to be Hispanic. For her middle name, I originally chose my sister's first name, which I put on the birth announcement in order to honor my sister, as well as to link my daughter to a close family member. But in the 3 full years since the adoption, my sister has shown no interest in getting close to this child at all, so I decided NOT to add the middle name to her official readoption papers. Thus, she will have only two names, just as I do. Later on, when she sees the middle name on the announcement, I will simply explain that since my sister's first name can be either female or male, that I ultimately decided not to include it, and that if she wishes to use it when she's older, she can do so. I will give her the example of my own name, whereby my parents thought they gave me "Ann" as a middle name, but when I turned 16 & applied for my driver's license, we discovered that no middle name had ever been entered on my birth certificate, so legally I had no middle name, yet I have continued to use it from time to time, such as on my high school and college diplomas.

Posted by: Vita at 4:29am Aug 7

I have two children who were adopted nearly three years apart from the foster care system and are not bio siblings. My oldest daughter was named Ronnet after her bio father Ron. At the age of 11, when she was adopted, it would have been difficult to give up her name though I felt it was too simple and would limit her later in life when seeking a job or other opportunities. Together with my biological daughter Mariah, an only child prior, and Ronnet we searched and prayed for a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. We decided on Memari (pronounced Memory), this was to honor her past, present and future, to encourage her to embrace her past memories both good and bad and acknowledge that her experiences have influenced the person she is and to anticipate creating future memories that would help guide who she will become. I added Memari as her first name but she is still known as Ronnet to family and close friends. Mariah and Memari are very similar in spelling and sound and the name change gave the girls and instant connection. My second adopted child had a beautiful name Nathias Shakur, I loved it but felt as if I had a right to give my adopted children the special gift of a new first name along with my last name. After serious soul searching I decided on Chance. My son was severely abused and neglected in his biological home. The name Chance represents to me the resilience and opportunity for excellence this child possess. Also he is a strong, smart, wonderful child and I will always be grateful to God and to him for the "Chance" to be his mother.

Posted by: Aesha Shabazz-Lake at 1:30pm Aug 30

My husband and I had tried to have children for almost ten years of our marriage with no success. We finally learned that there were no answers to our infertility. We started to pray and ask for guidance, asking God to give us discernment on having a family and one day God revealed ADOPTION! We started the process of adoption in China, then that door closed because of SARS, then another door opened in Brazil through our church Nazarene Missionaries and several other doors kept opening and closing until one day we got the call about our son........ Our son was born in Florida, October 2005. We had already chosen his name before we even knew about him, however; we felt very confident in his name when we first held him at 2 hours old....David Elijah. He was 5 weeks early and before he was born he was "BELOVED" because he was not supposed to be born. David meaning "Beloved" and Elijah meaning "The Lord is my God". We knew without doubt that his was a gift from God, and we both feel that the Lord has a special plan for Elijah's life...maybe one day it will be revealed to us. We have been blessed to adopt twice, actually twice in 1 year and 3 weeks. In August 2006, we recieved a call regarding our soon to be daughter. Our daughter was born in Georgia, October 2006. We had not planned on adopting again this soon, but God definitly had other plans for us. We at first couldn't agree on a name, but than we learned of her Messianic Judiasm hertiage and we definitly wanted to give her a strong hebrew name. We did have Nicole chosen already but we wanted a Hebrew name to go with it...little did we know that her birthmothers middle name was nicole. While I was sitting in church service before she was born, I felt an overwhelming need to add the name Hannah. When I looked up the meaning and learned it was hebrew, I knew I wanted to use that name, but when we learned that the name Grace was one of the chooses by her birthmother we knew 100% to use Hannah ( means GRACE ). Than I had heard the name Melina on tv, but started looking up meanings and spellings and decided to use is hebrew and meaning strength. We decided on Malina Hannah Nicole.....Malina means "From the tower---Strength", Hannah means "Grace", and Nicole means "Victorious among the people". And she has definitly lived up to the strong name that she has. We are very blessed to have two of the most perfect children in the world, but of course I am bias. Believe this or not, but Elijah looks like my husband and Malina looks like me...Definitly a God thing!!! Thank you for allowing me to share our story....truly a blessing to give hope and encouragement to others.

Posted by: Heather J at 4:12pm Aug 30

Well, this is always a funny topic to me simply because the 1st child I adopted was an infant (fostercare) and came to me at 3 days of age. I loved the name her birthmother gave her but felt she should at least have our last name. Since her birthmother had not given her a middle name, we did! We used her new great grandmother's name. This flowed beautifully with the her first name given by her birthmom. At that time I thought I had naming an adopted child all figured out and that the original given name should be kept because it was a part of the child's heritage and identity. I was actually angry at people that would "take away" an adopted child's history by changing the name. Boy did I have a lot to learn. I then adopted 4 more kids. Each of the next four adopted kids came to me at a much older age and with a significant amount of trauma. What I found instead was that 3 of them simply wanted a clean slate with a new name. They each selected their own names...dropping anything that had to do with their previous families and making it significantly harder for their birth families to ever find them. Then came my 4 year old. From the moment we met him he called himself Bobby. This was NOT his given name by any means! After awhile he called himself Ken. We threw up our hands and named him Kenneth Robert...only later realized that he had picked his name from Toy Story 3 and was actually saying Ken and Barbie. ROFL Regardless, his new name fits his personality and both Kenneth and Robert are family names (one name from each grandfather!) so it really does just work for us. I was truly surprised at how badly my children wanted new names. But once I truly understood their trauma history, it made a lot of sense to help my children form new identities and in the process make it harder for biological families to search them out.

Posted by: calmom1970 at 10:55am Jun 15

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