Friday, July 12, 2013

On names, and being a snob

This is in response to a Guardian article and also part of Adoption Social's Weekly Adoption Shout Out.

When we were being prepared for adoption, we did talk about names with our social worker. It seems to be pretty much taken as given in international adoption within the UK that parents will change their newly adopted child's name. I'm not quite sure why this is accepted and changing a UK-born child's name isn't. You'd think it would be the other way round if it were a case of retaining a child's culture.

Most UK families who adopt from China have changed their child's name for the reason that it's just not possible to pronounce them properly if you are a native English speaker.

The family we know who adopted from Guatemala kept their child's original first name as a middle name (I can't remember if they anglicised it or not) but gave him an English first name, which I think was a family name. But given their son's appearance, and the ease of pronunciation of Spanish names for English speakers (their son's original name was a very easy, culturally ok name - not Jesus or anything like that), I was a bit surprised at this. At the time we'd been reading around adoption but hadn't done our home study, so we didn't really know what our social worker's attitude would be.

Baby Spouse's two older birth siblings were named by Nella. The older one would, if she lived in the UK, be marked out as, at least, the child of someone who liked weird names, and there is a strong cultural undertone to her name. She would, at her age, have to explain her name a lot here. The second sibling might also meet the same when older (and we would do too with a young child with his name) though funnily I've met a child here with the same name but a different spelling, so it doesn't scream "not British" as much.

We thought it was a bit mean to carry on calling Baby Spouse "Baby Boy" though, so gave him a name as soon as we met him - as Nella hadn't yet. We suspect she was leaving it to us, rather than that she just hadn't decided, but we also think she liked our choice. His first name is old-fashioned but unusual, his second name old-fashioned and common (they are both our fathers' names) and she liked that his first name is unusual, plus his middle name is her dad's middle name (also a family name), so there is that nice coincidence.

Our social worker asked us if we'd thought about names, and on hearing the other two siblings' names sighed. She just assumed we'd name him, and thought the other two siblings' names were odd or even unwise names - she put them firmly in the same class as a lot of UK adopted children's names.

I am not sure if the author of the Guardian article would feel the same as our or other social workers involved in international adoption, but for me, changing a child's name is not just about their security but about their privacy. Children shouldn't have to tell everyone they meet that they are adopted, and when they are too small to answer for themselves, their parents shouldn't have to either. None of the internationally adopted children I've mentioned are at any risk from their birth parents. But all of them (including the child with the easy Spanish name) would spend a lot of time answering questions about their name.

I think this is true of UK-born children too. I certainly answer a lot of questions about Baby Spouse's name, even though it's English in origin and quite middle class. I can see if we foster a baby in the future we'll get those questions too, even if the name is more common, and some names almost constitute a breach of a child's privacy in their own right.

I know to some adopters we are not typical and will not face some of the difficulties other families do. Our child has not been traumatised and won't suffer attachment difficulties, unless something goes badly wrong with us in the future. No members of his birth family are searching for him, that we know of. But his birth parents did put him at risk, and we did remove him from his birth culture, which to be honest, though it's technically my family culture, it's probably as dissimilar to our culture (even with my family background) as a North of England working class council estate family is to a professional family from Surrey.

But culture is a lot more than names - as international adopters know, as do those of us brought up between cultures (even if these are two different British cultures). It's visits to your birth area - whether or not anyone you can see still lives there. It's the food you, or your parents or grandparents, grew up with: you may eat pasta with pesto, but your grandparents can remind you about the chippy tea. It's places your family visited as children, and stories they can tell you if they are still around. It's famous people who came from your birth area, and its history. And if you don't have a direct link through birth family, it's up to your adoptive family to provide that. All adopted children are going to need and want to know where they are from - geographically and culturally, as well as genetically.

If the only link an adopted child has to their birth culture is a name that they have to explain every time they meet someone, or spell constantly, probably fudging its origins ("it's a family name" is the usual suggestion, but for many names that's highly unlikely in a professional family in Surrey), that seems pretty sad to me.


Rachel said...

Interesting that his name is unique in the UK. In the US, while not a common name per se, no one would raise an eyebrow.

Twangypearl the Elastic Girl said...

So interesting, isn't it? All the associations that a name might have across countries and regions. I think the name you chose is lovely - it is recognisable and yet not over-used. Fashionable names are a bit worrying, on the other hand.

The Twangy test can be run on a name in the happy event one is needed. Merely shout it loudly from the front door in a Dublin accent: Mimi Trixie! (Or whatever). Come in for your dinner - your Mammy wants you!

Weakness in the name will become immediately apparent. ;)