What does your name mean to you? How does it define who you are?
I was always interested in the story of where my own name came from. And what might have been if it was something different. I could have been an Isabel Katrina, but my Dad lost that battle. I always thought that ‘Kat’ or ‘Izzy’ would have been so much cooler than ‘J’ ever was.
I was named after my grandfather. He had died in an accident the year before I was born. As a kid, I decided I disliked the legacy of it. I was named after a boring old man, whom I’d never met. It was a BOYS name, but the longer, girls’ version was equally awful, and no-one seemed to remember how to spell it. And why did people keep saying ‘Not tonight Josephine’ to me? What made it worse is that my mum admitted that I was never meant to have the full name – she was talked in to it by the clerk when she went to register me. “She told me it was a boys name, and she couldn’t register a girl under that name, so I had to pick another one quickly.” A young mum who didn’t know she could call me whatever she pleased. No-one ever calls me by my full name. I am known by the same name as my grandfather. It was only as I got older that I started to take pride in the history of my name. And it lent itself to a few variations that resulted in some interesting nicknames: Jacey. Yo-Yo. Pheena, Jinnie and thanks to Dallas, throughout most of primary school, I was JR. One day, I’ll correct history and get round to changing it by Deed Poll.
My sister, on the other hand, had a glamorous name with an unusual spelling, inspired by an actress that was popular in a TV show at the time. I admit to an evil giggle when that actress later came out as as gay! (It’s OK. I’m gay myself. I’m allowed to giggle, right?)
I first saw a picture of my son in Children Who Wait. Eleven months old, he had a wide smile and a cheeky tuft of hair. When we spoke to the Social Worker later that week, she revealed his first name: ‘M’. A short, solid name, if a little dated, but it was unremarkable. We tested it out. Said it out loud. Tried it with our surnames. It fitted. It sounded perfect. Then she revealed his middle names. They were beyond unusual. A reflection of the culture and lifestyle of the birth parents. The words were unfamiliar to me, and it took an explanation from the Social Worker before it became clear – both names were inspired by a slang term for a recreational drug. I winced. The middle names were a little harder to swallow.
He was 17 months when he finally moved into our home. During that time we started to learn about his multi-ethnic heritage (I’m being deliberately vague, but: African. South American with a smidgeon of Welsh thrown in for good measure). His names were discussed – his birth mother had recently changed her own name, which led to confusion, with one set of SW’s using one name and another set using her previous names. Birth father had also recently changed his family name, to reflect the name of his own father, rather than his mother’s husband. Which led to some confusion over what ‘M’s’ current surname was – the one on the birth certificate no longer matched with the surname either of his birth parents used. And we discovered that our adopted child shared his first name with his biological father. Names were an intricate weave of complex family history.
We were clear from the start that it would be unethical to change it. The name had been given to him by his biological parents, and we didn’t feel we had a right to change it. He was also old enough now to know and respond to his name. We recognised that it was important to keep it and to change it would contribute to erasing his identity. His name was part of who he was. But the middle names bothered us. They marked him out as different, unusual and they were downright…. odd. I was uncomfortable with the fact that he was named after a drug that had likely contributed to his neglect and subsequent arrival in care at four days old. In addition, on a practical level, I couldn’t pronounce them.
So we compromised and sought to change his middle names, seeking advice from social workers. They agreed with our decision. His name would reflect his dual-heritage with something from his birth parents, and something from his adoptive parents. I hadn’t anticipated being able to choose a name for our child, so there was a sense of excitement and responsibility at being able to discuss names, consider meanings and think about how they fit with his first name and our family name.
I still have the spreadsheet that sets out a list of possible names, with their meanings, inspiration, and potential nicknames. We considered names that were in keeping with his heritage. Names that drew us in with their meanings, signifying hope, personality and joy. Brodie was rejected because I had a hamster with that name as a child, and looking at the list now, I’m not sure whether Shangobunni was ever really a serious contender, but it’s there on the list with Idris, Jumoke, Kayin, Tore and and Cai. I was drawn to names beginning with J and T. Narrowing it down to four names and 12 different combinations, we finally settled two middle names, inspired by politics, art, nature, poetry, Wales and Africa.
It was a long name, to be sure, but we felt he could carry it off. We briefly considered the insanity of so many letters and syllables when, as a toddler he adopted his full and proper name when introducing himself, causing much confusion for random members of the public, or the policemen he introduced himself to. Learning to write, he suddenly decided writing out him full name was far too much effort and went back to using his short first name. We loved his name. We built up family stories around it, created playful sounds with it, added a ‘y’ to the end to soften it, so we could sing out his name across the playground. I joked that it was never a name I would have chosen as it highlights my broad regional accent in a way I’m uncomfortable with, but the name suited him. He was ‘M the Lion’ or ‘Moo Mops’ and we incorporated his name into rhymes and songs that celebrated his place in our family.
Over the past 7 years, we’ve done ‘life story’ work both with social workers and therapists. He knows as much as is appropriate about his birth parents, and he knew he shared a name with his birth father. He receives a letter and photo each year from his birth father, and each year, the arrival of the letter prompted another discussion about his name. He never suggested that this bothered him, but he expressed surprise each time he was reminded.
This year, when the letter arrived, he asked if we could reply with a Christmas card. It prompted a query from him. ‘What do I call him? Who do I write the card to?’ We considered the possibilities and he was firm in his decision ‘I know he’s my Dad, but I don’t know who he is, and he’s not my parent. I’m not calling him Dad. It’s too weird’. So we used his name. He looked at the card.
“To ‘M’. Merry Christmas from ‘M”’
“It’s like I’m writing to myself. I don’t like it.” It was clear from his behaviour afterwards he was upset. It was the first time he’d really considered where his name had come from. He was beginning to understand it had some importance. He scribbled over the card, blacking out his name and decided not to send it, and I assured him that it was OK.
Three weeks of absolute hellish behaviour began. It coincided with some other stressful events, and the lack of a routine as we fell in to school holidays, but blinded by the swearing, spitting, hitting, name-calling, wetting and sheer exhaustion of it all on top of the usual Christmas chaos, I failed to make the connection between the discussion and his behaviour. Until last week.
A school task to write an acrostic poem based on your name and what it means to you.
He refused to use his given name, and became vocally upset when this was gently challenged by the teacher. Was this another control game, designed to cause chaos in the classroom? The name he used wasn’t important, it was the exercise that counted, so he was allowed to use another name. He chose one of his middle names, ‘T’. When another teacher called him ‘M’, the tears started. ‘Please don’t use that name. I don’t like it. Call me ‘T’. The teachers were thoroughly confused. Not only had they never heard this name before, but they didn’t understand why he should suddenly be bothered by his ‘M’ name. A concerned teacher came to the door when I went to collect him from school that night and attempted to explain ‘He won’t answer to ‘M’.
My son isn’t known for exploring his inner world. A simple ‘What did you do at school today’ results in one of four answers: ‘I don’t know.’ ‘I can’t remember’. ‘I’ve forgotten’ or ‘I drew a picture of a lion.’ He’s been drawing a picture of a lion every day since nursery. If you believe it.
This time was different. We had over an hour on the bus home. I started off with the usual ‘Who did you sit next to at lunch?’ and various questions designed to weedle out some information about how his day had been without outright asking ‘How was your day?’. And then I became curious about his English class. ‘I heard you were using a different name for your poem today? Can you tell me about that?’ He looked at me, trying to establish whether he was in trouble. I let him know it was OK. I was just curious. And out it all came, words tumbling, tears flowing as he explained that he couldn’t use the name ‘M’ any more. “It’s a dirty name. It’s like a smear across the wall, it shouldn’t be there, it has to be wiped away.” He went on to explain that “‘M’ is a child that nobody loves. He had no family, nobody wanted him. ‘T’ is different. He’s got a family that loves him. He’s not going anywhere. He’s staying right here.”
He said it so clearly. So articulately. A little boy that often can’t tell me if he was too hot, or too cold, and usually only describes his day in a monosyllabic ‘fine’. I found myself working with Dan Hughes ‘Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy
model of response. All those hours of listening to the CDs suddenly paid off! We spoke about the name he’d chosen – how much did he know about it? What did he think the name meant? We talked about the inspiration for the name. I attempted to explore the positive meanings of his given ‘M’ name. It was the name of a God in mythology. It appeared in the Bible. It lent itself to the name of his favourite pop star. It was a link to his birth father. He looked at me like he had an idiot for a mum. He may well do. It didn’t matter what the name meant to anyone else. It was what the name represented to him. He didn’t want to be defined by a parent he’d never met. I asked whether he had considered his other middle name ‘B’. ‘B’ was instantly dismissed. What I thought would be popular, was considered boring. ‘T’ was unusual. It was gender-neutral. It’s a unique name for a unique child. I’ve never met another ‘T’, and certainly never considered that it might become the name that be would used.
The last week, I’ve been led by ‘T’, going at a pace that suits him, and allows him control. He made it clear that ‘T’ is now the name he is using, both at school and at home. For reasons we don’t understand, we had to put it in to writing before the school would accept it, but they’ve agreed to support it. ‘T’ has asked me to let friends and family know before he meets them so they get it right. We’ve had some interesting reactions from a dismissive “Whatever – I won’t remember” to curiosity. ‘T’ has made it clear he doesn’t want to explain his decision, and I’ve backed him up. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation. Inspired by Billie Piper
, (It’s a Dr Who thing) he’s simply replying ‘Because I want to’, and much to my delight, rather than becoming a source of control, he’s gently reminding people they’ve got it wrong with a Family Fortunes style buzzer. “Try again”, he says “‘M’ won’t answer. You need to talk to ‘T’ now”. Walking in to a therapy office, he took great delight at signing his name ‘T’ for the first time and confidently scrawls it across the paper. It’s his name. He owns it.
The change in his behaviour has been almost instant. T seems happy with his decision, and I’m really proud of him for identifying what was making him so unhappy. We’ve arranged for him to talk to someone independently about his decision, and we’re looking at potentially doing some more formal ‘life story work’ through the local adoption support agency. I’m also looking again at contact arrangements, to make sure we’ve got it right. Contact is tricky to manage, to get the balance right. It’s even harder when that letter arrives just before Christmas. I do think we need to be careful. It’s important for ‘T’ to accept his past – he can’t erase that by changing his name. He needs to be as OK with it as any of us could possibly be. But by using ‘T’ informally, and not changing it by Deed Poll, he still has a way back to ‘M’ without judgement from us, should he chose to. For now, it seems like he’s decided to challenge his fate and create his own future. I’m looking forward to discovering what kind of a person ‘T’ is going to be, and creating stories, songs and memories around his chosen name. He’s right about one thing though – he’s got a family that loves him. He’s staying right here. Whatever he chooses to call himself.
Oh. There’s one thing I know – the daughter-I-never had will be grateful, as the only name I wanted to use for her was… Zenobia! 🙂