Keys thrown away: The secrets in our birth names

When I first reunited with my (biological) mother, I took her a scrap of paper with a Sri Lankan name written on it and asked her what it was. My parents were originally told it was probably my middle name, though it did not appear on my birth certificate. At a later date, when my (adoptive) mother met a Sri Lankan person, she asked them and they told her that it was probably my original surname. I don’t know why, but none of us ever checked to see whether the name matched any of the names that my mother had provided for herself on my original birth certificate. That said, even we had, we didn’t understand Sri Lankan naming conventions and did not know that they were more complicated than English conventions.


Those of us who are parents know that when we choose the names for our children, there is thought behind it. It could be simply that you love the way a name sounds or looks, but in my experience there can be more to it – the passing of a family name, an association to a key event, time or place in one of the parent’s past, a lucky name, a name that has a meaning that the parents want to bestow on their child. I have often known mothers of multiple children to want to give all their children names that seem to match. A name represents to the world an identity or an idea of a person. My own son’s name has meaning. It links him to his families as well as his cultures. I also liked the meaning of his given names: ‘exalted’ and ‘ascending’.


People put a lot of thought into, not only children’s names, but into pets’ names, sometimes even into the names of houses or cars. Our cats’ names represent our family’s languages. We had a cat we named Peppa. When our second cat came to live with us, my husband thought it would funny to call her ‘Salt’. I couldn’t consciously agree with calling our cats Peppa and Salt! (Plus, I’m a vegetarian, so it kind of weirded me out to name our fur babies after condiments). We compromised and went with ‘Sally’ as ‘sal’ is the Spanish word for salt (for anyome who isnt aware: my husband is from a Spanish-speaking family).


So, when I first met my amma (my biological mother), I showed her a piece of paper with a name written on it and I wanted to know what the name was. I expected her to say, ‘This is your middle name’. It was. However what she said next affected me the most. What she said was: ‘This part is my name – that part is your father’s name’.


Although I had many times trawled through my adoption records and raked over my original birth certificate in hopes of gleaning any extra clue that might help me to connect with where I come from or help me in my search for my mother, and had, many times, seen my mother’s name and my father’s first name in print, I had never put two and two together to realise the name that I wondered about – my possible birth middle name – was simply a combination of their two names. It seems obvious now. I know that it is completely understandable why I didn’t pick it up. Back then, I had little familiarity with, or understanding of, Sinhala names. Still, it was not that well-hidden and I feel like it is a clue that I missed all these years.


My mother’s revelation got me thinking…How many secrets are hidden in adoptees’ biological names? How many links to our first families and our original identities are locked up inside those names, but we just do not know it? Probably two years ago now, I read this article here about intercountry adoption. It was written by an adoptive mother. In it, this mum realises that her daughter’s birth name is also her daughter’s birth mother’s name. (Side note – I think this is one of the most courageous articles by an adoptive parent that I have read and truly applaud this mother for her insight and her realisation about the dark sides of adoption most choose to ignore).


There are other examples. A post on Adoptee Confessions truly touched me – about a girl who was given a name by her birthmother that she later found out was a name passed down to all firstborn female babies in her family for generations. (You can read the confession here).


I expect there are secrets in many of our birth names. Links to our first families and to who we were going to be (who we are?) that may have helped us feel an increased sense of belonging, or made our true path clearer, had we known about them all along. Like many other non-adopted people, I believe that adoptees original given names tell us about our parents’ identities, about their likes and dislikes and about popular names in a certain time and place that once belonged to us (and maybe still does). It is not only the actual name that is significant. The reason why that name was chosen has, in my mind, equal value.


Now that I understand my middle name, I wish I had had it as a second middle name throughout my life. Yes, it would have made my legal name long (this second middle name is 13 letters long when written in Roman/English letters). But I would have been happy with the inconvenience just so I could have carried around my Amma’s name my whole life. One might wonder, how much meaning could I glean from a name? Yet I feel it would have given me a sense of grounding, a reminder that she was in me, this person whom I had never met or seen. Although I grew up knowing my birth name, my second middle name carries equivalent weight to me. Perhaps because the name gives me an opportunity to inherit a name that belongs to both of my parents in a roundabout way, even though I didn’t inherit either of their surnames and am not recognised as linked to either of them. 


* I do not consider adoption ‘lucky’, but I do consider growing up with access to my original birth certificate and knowing my original name to be lucky as compared to other adoptees who do not have access to that information. I struggled with lack of information despite having my original birth certificate. I think about adoptees who do not have, or who are outright denied  access to their birth certificate and it is so wrong and so unfair and it needs to change.

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