Who Gets to Name an Adopted Child?

By Tara Noone, MSW

Naming a baby is so elemental and so often the first mark of parenthood—of course people have really big feelings about it.

At Adoption Connection’s Preparation for Adoption workshops, few topics set people wanting to be parents more on edge than the naming question…

Whose “right” is it to name this child?

Most prospective parents have imagined themselves choosing names, or may come into the adoptive process with boy and girl names already chosen that are dear for one reason or another.

Who gets to name an adopted baby?

The Adoptive Parent Perspective

When Adoption Connection has a birth parent speaker tell a story of how she participated in or negotiated naming, we see the adoptive parents in the room squirm, some looking tearful, some angry—we totally get why. Some adoptive parents come to us after infertility, and when so many aspects of parenthood have been closed to them, naming their child feels like the one thing that can be completely “theirs.”

Same sex couples, deprived of so much through discrimination, may also feel a weight to the naming process and a need to have it be their own.

Some adoptive parents have a family obligation to pass down a name of a loved one for family continuity, or feel that giving an adopted child a family name is an important symbol publically identifying this child as one of their own.

The Birth Parent Perspective

On the other side of this equation, we have a birth mother, one who understands that in relinquishing parental rights she is not relinquishing her status as first mother. As she takes this enormous leap of faith placing her vulnerable newborn into the arms of a family she has had so little time to get to know she may feel an equally elemental need to leave a mark of her love on her child with a name.

She may have been calling this baby by a cherished name throughout her pregnancy. She may even have decided this will be her only child and her only opportunity to name someone. Like the adoptive family, she may have similar and competing pressures to pass a family name down through the generations, especially because this child will be raised by another family.

What Next? Consider the Child

How could you imagine yourself negotiating this both with sensitivity to your child’s birth parents and with your child’s best interest in mind? When we imagine naming a baby, it is about our act of naming.

When we imagine telling a twelve year-old how we decided upon a name and discarded other names, it is about the twelve year-old and his or her experience about being named. Consider, what story would you like to be able to tell? And, what story would you like your child’s birth parents to be able to tell?

Approaching Both Sets of Needs with Tenderness

For many reasons, it is most common for birth mothers to defer to the adoptive parents entirely on the naming issue and most adoptive parents do choose their child’s name. However, when there are multiple attachments to different names, we have seen a few successful strategies that can often meet the needs of both families:

  • The birth certificate option: Sometimes birth parents put a name of their choice on the original birth certificate at the hospital, knowing the adoptive parents will call the child something else that will be inscribed later on the amended birth certificate that is issued when the adoption is finalized. This is typically a transparent solution and neither birth certificate is a surprise to anyone. In this way, both families have had the opportunity to name the child “officially” on state paperwork.
  • The multiple name option: Adoptive families may choose the first name while the birth family choose the middle name, or vice versa. Sometimes there is agreement on multiple middle names to ensure all of the child’s families are represented.
  • The choosing together option:  When big feelings are all around, some families have had meetings in which adoptive parents and birth parents come together, each with a list of favorite names. They are often easily able to land on one that everyone likes and— apart from a peaceable outcome—they have a lovely, inclusive and collaborative story to tell the child as she grows up.

In truth, it is not likely that there will be conflict about naming, but it is good to examine your own feelings about naming and get clear about on them. This will better prepare you for the conversation and help you know in advance where you can be flexible if needed and in what way. As always, your adoption social worker can be consulted if help is needed.

Contact Adoption Connection for further resources or questions.

Tara Noone is Adoption Connection’s Director of Adoptive Parent Services. You can find out more about Tara here.

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