Saturday, April 2, 2011

What's in a Name?

You will recall that when I introduced our children to you after we passed court, I introduced them as Seth Asrat and Lizzie Senait.

We've been asked a few times whether Asrat and Senait are their birth names, and why we would choose to add a new first name.  In the adoption world, opinions vary widely on the subject of whether or not to change a child's first name, particularly if the children are a bit older (as ours are), the concern understandably being that they have already lost so much in their young lives and that their names are part of their identity.

I thought I would bring the topic up here, and explain a little bit about what we're thinking at the moment.

First, yes, Asrat and Senait are their birth names.  Seth and Lizzie are names that we have chosen for them and, if possible, these are the names we would like to use.  I say if possible because we will not make that final decision until we get to know the children a little and see how receptive they are to a new name.  If the children really hate the idea of using a different first name, or if we bring them home and they simply seem to suit their birth names more than the ones we have chosen for them, we will absolutely reconsider.

However, here are a few reasons why we decided that, if possible, we would like to use different first names for them (and keep as middle names the first and surnames they were given at birth):

First, without fail, people see our boy's name in writing and pronounce it in a way that could not be less flattering...with an 's' sound that is like in the word 'brass.'  Every. single. time.  Even Geoff has a hard time pronouncing it properly.  Properly pronounced, one says his name "ahh-z-rahht" -  with soft 'a' sounds (like a sigh) and a slight rolling of the 'r.'  I don't find it difficult to pronounce but I can assure you that, sadly, most people read and say his name differently than it was intended.  I so don't want the name to cause him embarrassment or taunting later on. Incidentally, while I'm on the point of pronunciation, Senait's name is pronounced "Seh-nite" - with the second syllable containing a long 'i' sound and sounding like "night."

Second, if we change one child's name, we will change them both.

Third, when Matthew entered our family, though he did so biologically, we spent a lot of thought finalizing his name.  Though we knew that Matthew was a popular name, and that he would likely know a lot of other Matthews, this was the name we loved.  It was also important to me, given what a God-given miracle his conception and birth were, to provide him with a biblical name.  Matthew means 'gift of God.'  He totally is that.

It feels similar to me now, with two new children about to enter our family.  They have been so long-awaited and the result such a miracle that we want to give them names that are honouring of their entrance into our family as well as names that are biblical.  I know that this might seem old fashioned to some, and I get that, but it's important to me.  For years, I have 'discovered' names that I love, but they have never been exactly right in the end, because I kept wanting to return to the classic, biblical names.  I finally just recognized that it was important to me that our children have biblical names with meaning, and narrowed my scope of search.

The name 'Seth' is not terribly popular as yet, though that's not really relevant for me.  The name comes from the Old Testament of the Bible.  Remember the story of when Cain killed his brother Abel?  Well, their parents (Adam and Eve) had a third son, a replacement of sorts for Abel, and they named him 'Seth;' that Seth became part of the lineage of Jesus.  It means 'anointed one.'  I love that name, and its meaning.

Lizzie's name comes from the name Elizabeth, which will be her legal name, and 'Elizabeth' means 'consecrated one.'  Elizabeth, biblically, was the mother of John the Baptist, and I have always loved the reading of her story.  From the time I was a child, I have loved this name.  We will shorten it to call her Lizzie, for two reasons:  first, my sister's name is also 'Elizabeth' and we call her 'Lib' in the we needed a different short name; second (and here's the fluffy part of the reason), I have loved Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for twenty+ years (since my English lit days in university) and the main character's name in that movie was 'Lizzie.'  On all levels, 'Elizabeth' is a very special name to me.

Fourth, there is something of a claiming right (an adoption term) that we are choosing to exercise by providing the children new names...whether they end up as first or middle names. We want them to be (and feel) connected to their new family.  We know of several adoptive families who have brought home older children and who have provided their children with new first names, and it has gone well; I think it would be accurate to say that in at least a few of these cases, the children wanted new first names.

Finally, I know from our adoption agency that most people do change their children's names, which I asked out of curiosity.  This isn't a reason for changing their names, but perhaps a small comfort that many others choose similarly and their children are ok.

There are undoubtedly things that I have missed in the above explanations, but this is a good starting point.  As I noted above, we are not 100% determined to use their new first names, if it just doesn't go well.  We will use both names, Seth Asrat and Lizzie Senait for quite a while before making that decision.  You will notice that I will refer to them by both of these names as I blog about them, and I will probably continue to do this until one of the names gradually drops off.  I think of the children by both names pretty much equally, and we increasingly use both names together (eg. Seth Asrat and Lizzie Senait) when we talk about them at home.  I hope we can end up using their new first names, because we love the names and because there was much love that went into their choosing...but we might end up not changing them - I simply don't know how it will go yet.

I will finish by noting that the naming of a child is a very personal issue... and a sensitive issue.  I know that others will disagree with our reasoning and I get that; I really get that there are two sides to this issue and that some would not even think about changing their child's name.  I was very deliberate about not announcing our children's names (their Ethiopian or Canadian names) here until we passed court, in part because I didn't really want opinions on whether people liked or disliked their names or on whether people approved or disapproved of our choice to possibly change them.

I don't mind for a single second adoptive (or prospective adoptive) parents telling me about their decisions about naming and why they chose to make that fact, I'd be very interested in why other adoptive (or prospective) families chose to either keep/change/modify their child(ren)'s first names and I welcome your comments.  I would simply ask that you try to refrain from telling us what we should or should not do in this regard - we've had that experience already!  Otherwise, comment away!!

P.S.  One thing I forgot to mention was that we were not particularly inspired by the meaning of the children's birth names:  Asrat means tithe; and Senait means good.


  1. I feel very similarly to you Ruth. In the country I am adopting from, there are two additional issues: (1) children are often named by orphanage staff and not always in names from their culture and (2) there is a tradition to name children with negative words during hard times (e.g. "ugly").

    There are so many things to think about when naming a child, I just hope to have an open mind and be flexible when my time comes. Most importantly, I want to love my child's name, whether it is her original name or not!

    I love the name Elizabeth, it is one of my favourites :)

  2. Great post, Ruth. I had wondered what we will do when the time comes. I have been torn with giving a new name to an older child, when she will have lost so much that is familiar. I think we are going to choose a few names we like and then see what her first name is. We have a very difficult to pronounce, long, convoluted greek last name. It is 14 letters long, with 5 o's. So to saddle a kid with that monstrosity, as well as a possibly difficult to pronounce first name they would be forever spelling out for people seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me!!! SO far, I am looking at simple first names, like Lily, Sophia, Zoe..short and sweet, and then keeping her given name as a middle name. But, we shall see...maybe she will have a very short, easy to pronounce name that will go well with our massive last name? There's always a chance!!!

    I think their names are lovely, by the way. Names with meaning behind them, chosen with love, are always a great fit!


  3. *wanders into your blog after something like a month of failing to read it*

    Well, haven't I missed an exciting time?! *MASSIVE HUGS OF HAPPINESS* :) :) :)

    Do you know, I totally knew Lizzie was a P&P reference as soon as I saw the name :-)

  4. Wow, Ruth, you are right, this is such a weighted issue!
    Our daughter is 5, and we personally have decided to keep her Ethiopian name and added a middle name that we chose, for many of the reasons that you mentioned; an identity wrapped around her name, the fact that she is 5, and also for the reason that her mother chose that name for one could totally make the argument that we (my hubby and I) have already been able to name our other 3 children, and so perhaps it is not so important to us as to others who have never had the opportunity, and they would be right.
    I used to feel rather strongly on this subject (but that's just normal!) and then I had a personal epiphany (who doesn't love that word?), that motherhood is already rife with judgments and opinions as to how we should raise our bio children, let alone throwing in the minefield of adoption related issues that go along with raising an adopted child. I believe that at the end of the day, this job is hard enough. We are all trying to do our best, and we will all do something the way that someone else would not have done, or done differently, etc. What we need to do is support each other in raising our children, bio or adopted, the best we know how.
    Ruth, I know that you LOVE those children, and will make a wonderful mother to them, so I say, those are beautiful names, with special meanings, and never let anyone make you feel like you should do otherwise. Contrary to what many believe, we don't all have this thing figured out!

    BTW my oldest daughters middle name is Lieske, which is the Dutch version of Elizabeth, so I am a bit biased :)

  5. You are so right- there is no one 'correct' answer to it. We were convinced we were going to keep our daughter's Rwandan names and give her a 'family' middle name so that she had some connection to our lineage too. But then I have read several articles of adult adoptees who appreciated being given 'Western' names to fit in better. Then, there is the age consideration. To be called one thing for the first however years of your life, then something new all of a sudden could be confusing. But a baby really wouldn't know much different.
    We have also been told it is very common in many African cultures to be called different names depending on the relationship between two people, so they are used to being called a few different names anyways. I know this is certainly the case in the orphanage we are adopting from- parents have gone to meet their children to discover their given name is not what they are being called by caregivers anyways (they have a nickname). The long and short of it- we don't have a clue what we are going to do until we find out how old she is, what her name is, and what she looks like (I couldn't name my 2 bio children until I saw them)!

  6. Love all of the perspectives. Thanks...and keep them coming!


  7. BTW, Mim, thanks for the congrats!! I've been terrible at blog reading myself in past month or so.

    Love that you instantly knew of the P&P reference.

    Take care...and see you on YOUR blog soon.



  8. I have been thinking about this topic for years! lol

    I didn't know what we would do (and still don't really). Our son's name is Mekuria. He is 3. When I went to Ethiopia I learned 2things: 1. It is pronounced Merk-Kria with a rolling r. 2. His birth mother chose the name b/c she liked it and wasn't attached to it and it didn't have special meaning.

    Mekuria's friend from birth is now home in Canada. She calls him Mek or Mekki. So I guess these are his nicknames.

    We are going to call him Michael Mekuria. We chose to give him a new first name in case he would like a North Amercian name. I also thought about 18 years in the future when he was applying for jobs etc. (unfortunate reality)
    It was also my father's name, so it has meaning. And of course, no one can pronounce Mekuria correctly. We always refer to him as Mekuria but when he is home we will prob end up calling him Mek, which is short for Mekuria and Michael sort of. And I shorten everyone's name. lol

    Complicated hey? I will let you know how it works out and what he ends up using as his name! I think it could go a couple of differnt ways! In the end it will be whatever he wants! :)

  9. I loved this post..and it is JUST what we have been discussing 'round here. :) GReat post! :) darc

  10. Just one thought regarding the potentially problematic pronunciation of Asrat - it is also common for people to simply change the spelling of the name slightly in order to prompt a more correct pronunciation from English speakers. Eg Azrat instead of Asrat.

  11. Hey Ruth!

    I love that you opened up this dialogue! There definitely is no right or wrong parents we try to make the best decisions for our children...and the claiming piece is part of this process that manifests itself in many ways. Because many ETH names can be tricky to pronounce, I struggled with this myself as I really wanted to be able to keep the name of the child who would be referred to us. Luckily our daughter`s name is easy to pronounce so it instantly became a non issue although I have spent far too many hours trying to come up with a middle name that has meaning and a personal connection. What I hadn`t considered is what happens if our little patootie doesn`t want to go by her ETH name....thanks for the food for thought! Have you read Toddler Adoption: The Weaver`s has some good info on naming..i may have to re-read it to check on what it suggests if a child wants a different name..

    Take Care!

  12. Their given names are lovely, your chosen names are lovely, but aside from all that irrelevant loveliness, your family will LOVE them as human beings.

    Whether you change their names or not, growing up in a loving home means that, even if they decide they want to go back to their birth names or move to western names later on, they will know they are safe starting that conversation with you.

    And they will grow up knowing that a rose by any other name does indeed smell as sweet :)

  13. Ruth,

    Your blog is always very insightful. It has prompted me to write one of my own on this very topic because it's something we struggled with as well. If you are interested please have a look. You can find it at

    thesandaus at blogspot dot com

    By the way, I love the names you chose.

    Wishing you speedy timelines back to your kids.

  14. Thank you all so much for your comments...and keep leaving them. I'm so interested in what people have to say on this subject!

    And Flora, you are so right about how much easier it is sometimes to be judgmental rather than supportive in this journey that parenting is! I know I struggle with this at times, anyway.

    Hmm, so much food for thought in what you've all written. Keep it coming!


  15. This is so totally a personal thing, and there shouldn't be any judgement from any corner!

    We adopted an older child & had chosen a name for her - but when I saw her picture, God whispered a name into my heart - a totally different name for her from the ones we had chosen. Her African name starts with an X, and is pronounced with a click of the tongue. Plus the meaning is "I'm sorry". She told us that she doesn't like her name, and we've talked about it some - I told her that if I had been her mom, I'd hope she'd see that as a message of love - as well as an expression of sorrow & regret. She really lit up about that!
    We explained the names we had chosen, what it means (beautiful), and why we chose it (God chose it, really)! And why we thought it would be a good idea to use it (nobody in Canada clicks when they talk!) Plus, the sound is very close to her African nickname, minus the click! :) And told her to think about it. Which she did - for about 5 seconds. She prefers the name we chose - but I plan to revisit the issue in the future, just to check up. You never know.

  16. Do you have an e-mail address you can be reached at?

  17. When we received our referral for the boys, we chose names for them. Our intention was to keep their given names as second and third names, and to call them by the names we chose. When we met our son (3 at the time) we realized he "was" Selamu and if just felt funny calling him anything else. We did, at that time, begin to call our younger son (9 months) both his given name and the name we chose. We used both names for quite awhile (my husband ONLY used his given name), but now he goes only by his given (Ethiopian) name. We did change the spelling from Sisay - which visually looks a bit like sissy and is usually pronounced incorrectly when people are reading it - to Sisaye. That has helped people with the pronounciation. Our son Selamu's name is often mispronounced by adults, but, interestingly, kids have no problem with his name. He often just goes by "Sel" to make it easier, but he also does not have a problem speaking up and correcting people when they mispronounce his name.
    I think what solidified our decision, was the knowledge that we will continue to visit Ethiopia (and people who knew the boys there) and I wouldn't be comfortable using the names we chose when we are in Ethiopia. At the end of the day, I realized that I was changing Sisaye's name for me, for my reasons, and because I wanted to name my son, just as I had named my daughter - but deep down, I felt that I was taking his name away.

    It took over a year for us to make a clear decision about Sisaye's name. I think it is wise of you to be going into this keeping your options open!

  18. I think that you did the right thing. As a korean adoptee, my orphanage name was taken away. At 40+ years old, I went back to Court and reclaimed it. I believe that it is fine to ADD, but not take away - we've already had enough taken away.

  19. So many wonderful comments - thank you for so much food for thought!!

    Eun Mi - thank you especially for your comment; as an adoptee yourself, and one whose name was changed, your perspective is invaluable. I'm so glad that you were able to reclaim your name, and I appreciate your comment about ADDing, versus taking away. Thank you so much.



  20. Thanks for posting this topic. I've been curious too about other perspectives on this subject, so it was good to read all the comments. I appreciate your decision. You put a lot of thought into it, which is really great.

    We chose to keep our son's Ethiopian name. We didn't even give it a lot of thought. To me it just felt like the natural thing to do. He had a name. That's who he was. So we kept it. It just felt wrong to change it. It never even crossed our minds to change it. And he was only 2 months old at referral. However, we did give him a middle name, which is a common, easy to pronounce name. So, he has the option of using that name anytime as he gets older. And we thought about this when we chose the name, that he may one day want to be called by his middle name rather, which would be ok by us. Some kids do this. We have a nephew (not adopted) who's been called by his middle name since birth. When he became a teenager, he decided he wanted to be called by his first name.

    In the last few years, I've learned a lot more about parent's decisions regarding name choices, and I've come to respect those opinions and decisions. I realize that having a North American name can make things a lot easier for the child. If we knew then what we know now, we may have put a little more thought into it, but I would still have a really hard time changing a child's name.

  21. Hi Ruth,
    When I was a child, I decided I wanted to be called by my middle name rather than my first name, as I suddenly decided I liked it better. When I didn't respond to my "new" name, I just went back to the first one after all. Looking back, how funny. Kids just seem to work it out for themselves sometimes.