Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In a Name - Politics and Power of What We Call Our Children

"A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet". - Shakespeare

Juliet argued that the names of things are meaningless compared to what they are. It isn't the name that matters but the literal thing itself that is important. Terms are immaterial. It is the dense matter of a thing we must know. She explores the division between language and reality the way many adolescents do.

"Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?" - Sixth Patriarch Huineng

As a society we love the idea that there is depth to our world and experiences that language cannot touch. The base words we use to describe a thing cannot come close to encapsulating its totality. Equally important, however, is symbolism. We use symbols constantly. We use them so often that we forget they are symbols at all. That is what the teaching from the Sixth Patriarch Huineng is about. There is nothing wrong with symbolism so long as we remember what it is.

When discussing adoption it's common for people to talk about real things. Some talk about real birth certificates, real parents, or real names. Because so much changes for a child during adoption it makes sense there is a search for solid, unchangeable reality. From birth to adoption every facet of a child's reality may change. For many this includes permanently changing their name.

There are arguments to be made for both maintaining a child's given name from birth as well as changing it. Changing a child's name to resemble that of the family parenting him/her is an inclusive choice. The idea is the child will feel more a part of that family unit and having a similar name will reduce stigma the child may otherwise have encountered.

On the other hand, maintaining the child's name from birth is inclusive in a different sense. That choice invites difference into the family. It also highlights connection with the family of origin. Highlighting that connection has many costs as well as benefits. Stigma comes into the picture again. Highlighting difference to a child who already feels different can be used for healing, but it can also be damaging. Some times it is helpful to have something concrete to address when feeling different and alienated. The ability to say "this is the thing that makes me feel different, it's open for anyone to see, and it really isn't a big deal at all" can be comforting. At other times, however, the alienation needs a counterpoint. In these times it's necessary to highlight similarity and belonging rather than difference. Unfortunately that counterpoint often becomes an attempt to minimize or remove any trace of difference. When taken to extremes that tactic is usually counterproductive.

With the rat's nest of complications that arise when considering changing a child's name, a simple solution presents itself; adoptive parents and birth parents name the child together.

Many parents do exactly that. Unfortunately it isn't a practical solution for everyone. Some people don't make an adoption plan for their child before birth. Some people never make an adoption plan, but choice is not a luxury their circumstances allow. Many people don't  have the opportunity to ever meet the parents of their children. There are as many reasons for this solution not working as there are examples of its success.

In Festus' case, Athena and I chose to name him without input from Prof Plum and Ms Scarlet. I anticipated that they would later change his name, which they did. I bear no umbrage. I happily call my son by his given name. But it was very important to me that I had the opportunity to give him a name I chose. In the past I've heard people discuss the names birth parents give their children. A common question in those conversations is "did they every think about ______?" The blank changes, bu the basic idea is always there. "Did they even spend five minutes thinking about this?"

As a birthparent let me assure you the answer is unequivocally "yes". Athena and I spent a long time talking about what names to consider for our son. We also considered how to approach naming, whether to include Prof Plum and Ms Scarlet, even if we should abstain from naming our son at all to allow them the chance to give him his first and only name. Eventually we decided to give him a name we chose for him. There were many reasons for that decision.

In our case, as with most first families, we hoped for everything to go well but planned for the worst adoption experience we could imagine. That meant once he was out of our arms at the birthing center we may never see nor hear from our son again. His name, even if he never knew what it was, was our last chance to give him a legacy. We chose names with meaning. We chose names that symbolized all we wanted for our son through out his life. He had names that wished him intelligence, power, triumph, and connection to a family history nearly as old as recorded language. We knew he may not ever learn these names. He may never discover that he was the last person from this family to bear my surname.

I'm glad I could give my son the symbol of our history as well as the symbols of all the things I want for him. I'm glad Athena gave him a symbol of his Chinese heritage and her whole hearted wish for personal power and strength of character. I'm glad Ms Scarlet and Prof Plum gave him his new name. I'm glad to know my son and I'm glad I could give him something truly timeless.

Do birthparents give a second thought to what they name their children?