The Power Of An Adoptee’s Name, Part II

This month’s Grown In My Heart blog carnival is about names. I’ve blogged about names before. It’s said that to know someone’s true name is to have power over them. That is never more true when an adoptee’s birth name is hidden from them.
Growing up, I hated the name my adoptive parents chose for me. It wasn’t ME. It was the person they wanted me to be, the child they never had. When I got married I changed it to one I preferred. I might have changed it to my birth name, had I known it at the time. Apparently I don’t have an official name on my original birth certificate, not even “Baby Girl”, but in our brief anonymous correspondence my birth mother told me what she called me in her mind. But that name, also, is not mine. It’s the person I might have been if I had been raised in my original family. So I’m glad I picked a third name that is neither adoptive nor birth but uniquely my own.
Still, the re-naming of adoptees bothers me. A while back I posted about a couple who is effectively replacing their deceased child with an adoptee. They gave this Chinese girl an Irish name, when she is old enough to know her Chinese one. Being adopted causes enough identity confusion without having your name taken from you.
It seems like a lot of adoptees change their names, either to take back their birth names or to do what I did and re-name themselves entirely. I see this as a reclaiming of our destinies, a way to have a choice in something that, for us, was choiceless. I respect adoptive parents who make their adoptees’ original names part of their adoptive names. It’s a nice way to synthesize both. But, I think we as adoptees have to forge our own destinies, and for some of us re-naming ourselves is part of that. The first time I tried to re-name myself, I was in third grade and tried to get everyone to call me a nickname based on my initials. The second time, I was in high school. The third time was when I took on the name by which people know me today. Names, for many adoptees, seem fluid. Perhaps it’s because there is often this assumption, sometimes true, sometimes not, that we must reshape our identities for the benefit of the people around us lest we be “rejected” once more. Adoptees are very, very good at putting on the masks of expectations, and our names are part of that.
There is also this notion that if we adoptees know the names of our birth parents, that somehow armageddon will insue. This is another way in which names are used as power over others. The adoption industry uses our birth names and the names of our biological relatives to maintain control over us, even after we become adults.
When it came to naming my own children, I had a hard time. I wanted to give them names that would reflect their heritage from both me and their father, but I had nothing to offer from my side. So I picked first names that were vaguely Irish, that being the only heritage I was aware of at the time, and middle names from my husband’s family. I wish I knew some names on my birth family’s side so I could have considered those. Some people might think that’s wrong. I don’t see why. People name children after family members all the time, but if you’re adopted it’s like you’re suddenly a crazed stalker merely for suggesting it.
One thing that greatly annoys me is that I cannot get rid of my maiden name, my adoptive parents’ surname. It appears on my children’s birth certificates, for crying out loud. Having been disowned by that family, I think I should have the right to change it. But there is no ability in the U.S. to change one’s maiden name; it’s considered something that never changes which is why it’s used for identity verification. If they are allowed to disown me, I should be able to rid myself of their name, yet I’m stuck with it.
Names do, indeed, have power, and it’s that power that the adoption industry wants to deny to adoptees like me, whose records are sealed. I want the power of my name returned to me in the form of access to my original birth certificate. Until then, I will remain less than those for whom the power of their names has always been their own.


  1. True…all of it so true…great post Triona 🙂

  2. Yep. All true.

  3. Wonderful post! And on the great-minds-think-alike point, our posts are kind of similar in striking the themes of the power of naming and naming as claiming and reclaiming!

  4. Great post. Thank you.

  5. Tonngu Momma ( made some remarks that got me thinking outside my own box (she is really good at that!).

    She mentions how sometimes in Chinese society children are given names like “ward of the state” or “deformed girl in society” (!). In cases like that changing the name makes sense. What bugs me is when adoptees’ names are changed when they already know their names of origin, or when their names of origin are hidden from them. I think everyone deserves to know their original name.

  6. Thankyou for this, it says,far more eloquently than I could, a lot of the things I think about naming

  7. Ever since I have been involved in adoption reform work, I’ve noticed how some adoptees change their names from this to that to this…Triona, you articulated what I understood.

    Personally, I have never been sure that I like my name but it was mine and so I stuck with it. lorraine


  8. As an adoptive parent, the one thing that I can do is to accept my child’s wish to reclaim her first name (which she knows) or to choose another name when she becomes an adult. Choosing to change one’s name does not necessarily mean that one is rejecting a relationship with the person who named you.

    As for the Chinese names I mentioned (my daughter’s and another child’s)… to be fair, the “ward of the state” connotation came from just two people, but the very fact that even one person thought it had me freaking out. As to the little girl who received the name meaning “a deformed girl within society” – yes, that was her legal name, but thankfully her nannies gave her a different nickname. This young lady was blind and, as with most countries – including my own, China still has a ways to go in terms of its treatment of people with special needs.

  9. Tonggu Momma–I wish all adoptive parents had your attitude. Mine felt like my name change was a direct attack upon them. In some ways, maybe it was. I spent my childhood cringing when someone called me by my adoptive name so it was a relief to change it.

    Thanks for your post on Chinese names on your blog. I’m writing a story about a Chinese adoptee and names are just one aspect (among many!) of Chinese culture I know little about. I may have to ask you more questions to make sure my facts are straight!

  10. Absolutely! Feel free! I’ll help with what I can or point you toward a resource if I don’t know the answer.

  11. Tonggu Momma, can you email me private? me at 73adoptee dot com. I’d love to get your insight.

  12. Thanks for sharing Triona. As TM pointed out- sometimes the given names by China are quite horrific. As you know- my kids both carried the surname that translates to Orphanage/Institution. That stigma would have carried with them through life in China as the woman does not take the man’s surname in marriage. However- life as an trans-cultural adoptee carries its own set of challenges. And I am so sorry about disappointing you with the Bastian thing! I think your version is more moving- and would be more powerful than Moon Child! Back to names- I can only imagine how splitting it would be to have multiple names used by multiple people and some names be hidden completely.

  13. Hi Diane-Don’t worry about disappointing me. 🙂 It was interesting to realize I’d substituted Mother for Moon Child and made me realize that my need to know my origins was more concrete than I’d thought, even back then.

    As for splitting, I have talked with other adoptees about whether or not we have more of a tendency to split personalities than others, regardless of whether that develops into full-blown split personality. To me it seems like we are automatically split by the process of adoption: birth identity, adoptive identity, the people we might have been if the coin of fate had flipped a different way. As I said elsewhere, identity seems more fluid for us, like we have to don the masks of other peoples’ expectations. The worst part is for those of us whose birth identities were hidden. It’s like we’re being told that our lives before adoption were unacceptable, like we were unacceptable until society purified us through adoption.