What’s My Name?
Our names: our school pegs, our register entries, an ID badge, a passport, a bank account, a driving licence, how we introduce ourselves. Of course, all of our names are given to us, some a gift, others a curse, some that don’t quite sit right with the face in front of us, or for the body that the person inhabits, but it’s something we all have.
For people who have been adopted we often have two, or perhaps more depending on the nature of our transitions.
Multiple surname changes are common throughout life, through marriage, partnership, divorce, re-marriage, maybe divorce again, but adoption brings something different, another first name, maybe it’s known through a life-story book, maybe, more likely, the birth name has been kept to foster a consistent sense of identity for the child, but, if like me you were born before the language of ‘forever families’ and ‘therapeutic parenting’ it is likely that you had one name before adoption and another after.
What does this mean for a sense of identity?
I hated my name, it was so stuffy, formal, most definitely not me – but thankfully my adoptive parents gave me a name long enough to play with, so for my formative years I was known by at least 4 different versions of my name, some of which I had encouraged and one of which was a piss-take-but-in-a gentle-way kind of version (funnily enough, the one I am really fond of now). I wasn’t at all surprised when, aged 5, my adoptive mum told me whilst cooking tea, that I was adopted. I knew that I wasn’t biologically theirs (it was fairly physically obvious) but more than that I just knew at some primal level that something was amiss.
One of the only reactions I clearly remember having to this news was wanting to change my name – finally, I thought (at the grand age of 5) I can be who I want to be and that person was Debbie (!) so I rolled into school the next day and announced that henceforth I would like to be known as Debbie – much to the amusement of my classmates, who of course ignored me and carried on using my given name.
But this feeling has never really gone, this sense of just not feeling at home in my own name, because – it isn’t my own name.
I got hold of my birth certificate aged 18 and there in black was my name. This was the name I had been given at birth, I didn’t know by who.
A Dutch first name and an English last name, I practised my new signature, to perfection.
Intrigued, I continued (on and off) my searching process until finally, 9 years later I found my birth mother. She confirmed it was my biological grandmother who named me, after her own adoptive mother – believing it was a fitting way to memorialise her.
At last I felt I had some roots. Some grounding in a name that takes me from the lowlands of the Netherlands, to the post-industrial towns of the North of England, to the middle of nowhere where I was raised. I had something that signified my journey and marked me out as ‘other’ (which is how I felt anyway).
And I use it now, not all the time – I have never plucked up the courage to go the whole way and change my name ‘back’… maybe one day, but for now, I use it for my writing, for my poetry – for the things that I do that feel like they come from me, the authentic bit, the part that’s emerging, because everything else is just layers.
(A version of this piece originally appeared on ‘The Adoption Social’ in June 2015)