“Should We Keep or Change Our Child’s Name?”

We carefully choose our children's names. But wait—our children will soon have their own ideas about who they are and what they should be called.

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A blank birth certificate as parents contemplate an adoption name change

A name is one of the first gifts parents give to their children. It is rarely bestowed lightly. Most of our children, though, come to us already named.

Do we keep the name they’ve been given? Do we include the original name as part of their given name? Do we choose a name that is completely new?

Sarah and David Dotson knew what they would name their daughter: Catherine, for her maternal grandmother who died three weeks before they were married; Isabella, for a friend’s biracial daughter who changed David’s mind about biracial adoption; and Lindele, the Xhosa word for “awaited,” to honor her African heritage. They planned to call her Cat, “but we changed her name from Cat to Bella after the first week,” says Sarah. “It suits her better.”

Colette Plum, herself an adoptee, and her husband, Jason Patent, are both graduate students in Chinese studies. They chose both American and Chinese names for their daughter adopted from China.

Mariette, meaning “Little Mary,” incorporates both Colette’s French heritage and a family tradition of giving daughters the name Mary. Colette and Jason chose not to keep their daughter’s orphanage name; it was odd for a Chinese name, and inauspicious.

Aware of the great importance the Chinese place on naming a child, they replaced it with Mei, meaning “plum blossom.” Because her surname is Plum, Colette says, “It was like giving her a little piece of myself.”

Next they chose Xiao Fei, but were uncertain which Chinese characters to use. They selected characters meaning “dawn” and “first light of the crescent moon,” a strong, balanced name. They knew it was a perfect choice when, driving at dawn to the airport to meet their daughter, they noticed a crescent moon in the sky!

In accordance with Jewish tradition, Michelle Oxman and her husband, Bob Drake, named their son for an “unconventional, politically active” relative. “It is helpful,” Michelle states, “to have a name that is included in the family, especially if a child is of a different race.”

Because their son was only six weeks old when they adopted him domestically, Michelle and Bob felt free to change their son’s name from DeMonte to Benjamin. It’s a name he shares with an esteemed figure in African-American history, Benjamin Banneker—and a link to his African-American heritage.

Laura Flynn and Jackson Tanner’s children were adopted from Kazakhstan at ages 11 and eight. Following traditions in both the Flynn and Tanner families, each child has a first name that is his or hers alone and a second name derived from a common family name.

Their country-of-origin names are retained as additional middle names. Back in Kazakhstan, their son, now called Nick, told an orphanage official, “When I get adopted, I’m going to have a good American boy’s name.”

Their daughter’s name, Kira, was selected for her to grow into, a name that felt strong, confident, and beautiful. As soon as she heard it, Kira refused to answer to her Russian name. Now she says simply, “When I hear the name Kira, I think of me.”

“Many people feel that changing a child’s given name is taking something away from them,” says Laura. “What we gave our kids is a welcome mat. They are free to choose to return to their original names in the future, but this is who they are now.”

Adoptees’ Perspectives

“Who they are.” That is the essence of a name. Yet, no matter how much thought we put into the names we choose, our children must live with these choices. They may come to view their names differently than we intended.

One adoptee relates that the name given her by her birth mother in Korea was Yoon Young Moon, meaning “truth and beauty.” Her adoptive parents named her Jennifer Michelle. “It’s a common, lumping name,” says Jenny, who grew up surrounded by Jennifers.

But it never occurred to her to use her birth name: “There are enough preconceived notions that I’m not American; using my birth name would only increase those.” Jenny maintains that, to fit into America, most parents need to change their internationally adopted children’s names. But she believes they should also retain at least part of the original name to keep a connection to the child’s heritage: “To be completely Americanized is not the best way.”

Chris Soentpiet, adopted with his sister from Korea when he was eight years old, agrees. “Choose a name you will be comfortable using every day, one with special meaning to you that you would like to pass on. A name shapes and changes a child’s life.”

Born Kun Sup Han, he was named Christopher by his adoptive mother, and he retained his Korean name as his middle name. Because the Soentpiet family lived in Kauai, the children were also given Hawaiian names. Christopher’s parents never demanded that the children use their American and Hawaiian names, but that’s what he and his sister do. “I chose this new name for this new life; I’m proud of it!”

Deb Wasserbach, adopted domestically as an infant, is less enthusiastic about her name. “You can’t swing a dead cat in a room of women born in the 50s without hitting a Deb variant!” she says.

While in the process of adopting her own daughter, she learned that the name her adoptive parents gave her was the same one her birth mother chose. After that, “there was no escaping that my name was destined for me.” When it came time to choose her daughter’s name, “I tore my hair out knowing I had one shot,” Deb admits. “From the get-go I’ve told her I don’t mind if she changes her name later.”

Growing into an Identity

Jill SBK Morneau, an adult adoptee born in Korea, says, “Most Asian people, or at least Korean and Chinese people, cannot pronounce [my first name]. When my boyfriend introduces me to people, they think he’s saying ‘Jo.’ Plus, my name in Korean—by the way they pronounce it, ‘Jeel’—means ‘vagina’.”

She continues, “I don’t like my middle name, Elizabeth, at all. It’s so boring, so ‘girl child of the 80s’.” In addition, because of her surname, everyone thinks she is French. “I’m definitely not French.”

The name she was given in Korea, Sae Bom Kim, means “new spring.” “It’s a uniquely Korean name because most Korean names have Chinese characters, and mine has none.”

After great thought on the matter, “I finally decided on using the name Jill SBK Morneau when I write. That incorporates my Korean name into the identity I have now and have had most of my life. I thought about changing my name to Sae Bom Kim because [it] is such a beautiful name, and it has so much meaning. But Americans can’t really say it right.”

Jill believes that by incorporating some of the child’s country-of-origin name into the new name, parents allow their children a certain degree of self-determination: “It’s the name that will connect them back to their culture, should they choose that, when they get older.” She adds, “And if they are from a different culture, why should they be slapped with an American-sounding name anyway? It wasn’t their choice to be adopted in the first place.”

Musician Jared Rehberg didn’t like his name while growing up, either. But now he has a different feeling about it, expressed in his CD “Waking Up American.”

Born in Viet Nam and adopted as part of Operation Babylift, Jared had a hard time pronouncing his new name. Growing up, he wanted to have a name like Bruce Lee, something that people he knew could relate to. He feels he has grown into his name, and he took ownership of it last year when he returned to Saigon.

When the customs official asked his name, he said, “Jared Rehberg.” He was stunned when the official, knowing he had been born in Viet Nam, refused to accept him as “Jared.” Reflecting on that experience, he says, “I’ve spent my whole life creating the person with that name. English is what I speak; this American name is who I am.”

Ultimately, as in so many parenting decisions, in naming we must follow our hearts—and acknowledge that whatever decision we make now, in the long term, it is our children who know best. Jared advises, “Give children the chance to be whatever they want to be. The child can think and see the world in a different way—in his or her own way.”

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Naming Your Child: How it Works Legally, Domestic

According to Denise Seidelman, an adoption attorney in Westchester, New York, when it comes to naming, there are two common situations in domestic adoptions:

  • The birth mother names the child, and that name appears on the birth certificate. In some cases, the birth mother and adoptive parents-to-be agree on the child's name at the time of birth.
  • The birth mother does not choose to name the child, in which case the birth certificate says "Baby Girl" or "Baby Boy," and the adoption petition refers to the child as such. When the adoption is finalized, the judge's adoption decree includes a name change to the name chosen by the adoptive parents ("and the child shall hence-forth 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 include the child's new legal name.
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