Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I am Adopted, Reunited, and I Changed my Name: What does that Mean to the Adoption Community?

Everyone who came with a lawyer was called first.  I sat alone on my wooden bench in the court room.  The room was smaller than I had imagined and full of people.  One by one I watched as various lawyers and court petitioners approached the podium pleading closure to important issues.  The judge was kind; the corners of his eyes crinkled with his sense of humor.  He called my name and I stepped forward.  He asked me why I was here.  I requested a name change.  He asked me to state in my own words why I wanted this name change. "I want to add two family surnames to my middle name and hyphenate my last name with my maiden and married names," I replied.  He looked pleasantly surprised and expressed fondness for my names.  He stated my new name for the court without one mispronunciation or skipping a beat.   The very name that I have identified with for the past three years was official.

I finally did it.  It seems like forever ago that I arrived to the decision to change my legal name, and now it is done.  After coming to the decision myself, I sought the blessing of my original mother, paternal aunt, and adoptive parents.  A name change is a very personal decision; it helped me to ask for and receive support from my family members.  So many of my friends and family have expressed a heartwarming excitement for me and I could not be more thankful.

How I did it
Name changes are different in every state.  In Pennsylvania where I live, you must petition the court of the county in which you live to change your name.  Most people do this by hiring a lawyer.  The process itself costs well over $300 so I self-petitioned, which is arduous but entirely possible.  It requires filing for a court date, paying for name searches in three different county departments, and publishing your name change in two different county publications.  After this three month process, you must stand before a judge and state in your own words why you wish your name to be changed.  The rest is history.

Why I did it
One of the most common assumptions about adoptee name changes is that the adoptee does not wish to respect or honor their adoptive parents.  I saw this in a recent "Dear Abby" question where an adoptive father wrote in concerned about his adult adopted son's name change and Abby concluded that the son was ungrateful to his father.

I offer a person-first, strengths-first alternative to this view.  My name describes me and who I am.  When I read or hear my name, I want it to reflect how I identify.  My name is about honoring my identity--it is not about establishing a hierarchy of people and families in my life.  I have no relationship with my biological father and would not want to.  Yet I have been accepted by his sister and am still a part of her lineage.  I changed my name to reflect my membership within the four family systems that I identify myself with.  My paternal and maternal biological families, my adoptive family, and my family by marriage are all a part of my identity.

What people need to understand is that my adoptee family tree is not about who I "belong to" but who belongs to me.

You must also remember that despite having it, my original birth certificate is no longer a legal document.  My original birth certificate and adoption files are not readily accessible records at this point in history.  These name change court papers will be the only publicly accessible documents that officially record all of my family names.  When my descendants look back in their genealogical searches, they may have no other way of knowing that their great-grandmother was adopted and that they have more ancestors in addition to my adoptive parents who are listed as my biological parents on my only accessible birth record.  My descendants have a right to know.

What you should do
On the occasion, people who hear about my name change process assume that I believe that every adopted person should do this.  This is not the case.  I changed my name to how I identify--it does not mean that how my name looks is how every adoptee's name must look.  Changing one's name in adulthood is not the right decision for every adoptee.  What my name now looks like is not necessarily what is right for original parents or adoptive parents to choose when giving a surname (or surnames) to an adopted child.

I was privy to an adoptee name change where the adoptee did the opposite of what I did.  A teenage adoptee, also adopted as an infant, already had her biological and adoptive surnames as a part of her legal name.  She wished for her biological surname to be removed.  We have two different sets of circumstances, and are at two different stages of psychosocial development.  What is right for me clearly was not what is right for her.  It is up to the individual.

So I am now one of many adult adoptees who have changed their names post-reunion.  I am among the women who have hyphenates and more than one last name.  Already the "your name is too long" comments have started.  There's this dual experience of people being so proud of your name and people feeling inconvenienced by saying your name if it is long.  Look at it this way: every time you utter a person's name, exactly as they want it said, you've honored them.  You have honored their identity.  You have honored the things that are important to them.  What a privilege to be able to do that.

My name isn't too long; it is just long enough.