Birth Plan Angst the Second: Naming

So, as I said in my last post, BMA filled out a worksheet to indicate what she wanted with regards to her birthing experience, and part of it that gave (and still gives) me pause is that she wants to name the child I will be adopting. In the email to the agency asking for clarification about circumcision decisions, I also asked if this is a name that BMA is OK with me changing, or if it’s a name she wants to stick. (In adoption parlance, this would probably be referred to as a “forever name”, like a “forever family”, but that language always seems a bit fairy-tale to me.) The reply I got made it clear that this was something I was going to have to negotiate directly with BMA, which I know I’m going to have to psych myself up for bigtime, since I’m not good at confrontation in the slightest and I won’t be seeing her very often.

I called my mother (not just because of this issue, but because I owed her a call) to ask for help processing and making decisions about all this. Some context: both my eldest siblings are adopted. My eldest brother, Bill, came with his name, while my sister, Evora, was named by my parents. I talked with my mom about the thought processes going into the decisions she made as an adoptive parent. BIll was 13 months old when he came to our family, and was already responding to the name Billy, so my parents didn’t think it was right to re-name him. They did give him my mother’s maiden name as a middle name and our family last name, and my mother talked about this as partly making his name as much ours as possible. I wasn’t sure if Evora had a name before she came to our family, as she was adopted much younger, but according to my mom, she had a name her foster parents had given her. But they fostered a large number of infants and were not particularly possessive of or attached to the name, and were fine with my parents changing it. So neither situation was anything like mine, which is what I expected, but I still appreciate having my mom’s perspective on this. One of the things that I am incredibly grateful for is that my family of origin is a model for me in this process, and I can look to my parents for advice, even though my process is profoundly different to theirs almost forty years ago.

A piece of context specific to this adoption, and I think part of what’s giving me agita: the names that BMA has chosen for her children are very specific markers of race and socioeconomic class, and while the race will be consistent, any child I adopt will have a very different class background to BMA and her children. I’ve got nothing against made up, re-purposed, or strange names (in fact, most of the names I’d like to give a child are just that). And that sentence sounds like an “I’m not racist, but…” clause. I want to own my prejudice here, that if BMA were more inclined to traditional naming practices (regardless of the tradition), I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this.

But I think I would still have a problem. One of the biggest fantasies for me in imagining future children was in imagining names. I’m one of those crazies who has been keeping a secret list since college of names he’d like to give his children one day. I joke with friends that one of the benefits of choosing an everyday name that is different from a ritual name is that you get to give four names to a child. I don’t want my child to have to be identified by an initial because there are three people with zer name in zer class. I was frustrated when I realized that the election of Barack Obama meant I couldn’t really name a child Baraka anymore, and even more frustrated when my brother called dibs on my favorite girl’s name, since it was a family name for his wife’s family as well. I grew up with and antique name, and I loved it, even though I don’t go by it anymore, and I love the idea of reviving a name from history. This is a big part of the dream of children for me, and something I’m not willing to give up, but I don’t want to alienate BMA or have my future child use this as a weapon against me in adolescence.

I re-read The Kid over Shabbat (as well as The Commitment; I love being a fast reader), and Dan Savage came up against this very thing. He and his boyfriend had picked out a name for their son that they were firm about, and the birth mother they worked with wanted another name for him. Ultimately, the ended up honoring the name he was given through a gift to the birth mother, but going with their chosen first and middle names and giving their son his birth mother’s last name. For many reasons, this isn’t a path I want to take, but that they chose to simply give him the names they preferred is one path I could follow. There are other solutions that adoptive families work out with birth mothers, like letting the birth mother choose the middle name, or the initials. BMA’s brother was recently killed, and while I don’t know his name, incorporating that could be a way forward to honor this child’s birth family (and, judging by BMA and the brother that I met, her parents were much more conservative in their naming choices than BMA is). It’s not something I can work out in a vacuum, I need to talk to BMA about this, but that won’t happen until I figure out what September looks like and when I’ll be able to visit Philadelphia again.

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3 thoughts on “Birth Plan Angst the Second: Naming

  1. there’s so much in this post. names are very deep. but I think I’m actually most drawn to the conversation with your mother and your own connection to your origin family– do you think you find adoption easier to conceptualize because of the make-up of your origin family? is your mother “proud” of you for taking this path that she also took or is it less remarkable specifically because it’s so not-news in your family?

  2. Wow, that’s some heavy stuff. Emfish is right – names are very deep and, in my opinion, deserve a lot of forethought. (My dad is still a little pissed off that his teetotalling parents named him Dennis, which is derived from Dionysus. Nothing wrong with the name itself, but it suggests a certain lack of consideration.)

    If I were in your position, I would definitely want to choose my child’s name – first and last anyway – regardless of what names the birth mother would choose. Of course, it’s far from unknown for people to go by their middle name rather than their first name, although that’s a decision they usually make themselves and might unduly antagonize BMA. I hope you and she can find a compromise.

  3. I wouldn’t assume there will be conflict – It might prove to be a really positive conversation about how you can help the child fit into your social/religious milieu and how you can honor her heritage and her birth mother’s wishes. Can you talk to BMA about why that name’s important to her, whether she’d be okay with it being a middle name instead of a first name, and let her know about Jewish naming traditions? You have a lot of options. You can name the child what BMA wants, and then call them by their Hebrew name. You can tell her you’re okay with the name and then “change your mind” after the adoption is final, but that may create tension and bad blood in what you hope will be a positive, open relationship. You can choose your own first name and use BMA’s chosen name as a middle name. You can use BMA’s chosen name as the first name but call the child by their middle name which is of your choosing. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the name won’t be in keeping with the child’s socioeconomic class. Many Black middle class people still name their kids very uniquely Black names. My best friend is from a middle class background, is in law school, and has about as “Black” a name as it gets (to a point where [ignorant] white people have laughed when I’ve told them my best friend is named X). Though I understand why you might feel like certain names don’t fit in your socioeconomic bracket, I think the discomfort is not solely class-based because names are not solely class-based, especially in the Black community. Ultimately, as a Jew, your child will have a Jewish name they are likely to be called by – So it may matter little what’s on their birth certificate.

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