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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

It's just a name, isn't it?

I love people’s names and how they sound when they are said out loud. I love it when people say “oh, she doesn’t look like a so and so… She is more like a…!”. We, as a society, assign so much to these personal labels that they almost become descriptions of personality traits. When I was teaching, we would all dread certain names in our classes (sorry, Ryan!) and hoped for others (welcome, Charlotte!). If you have a think now about certain names in society that are present or disappearing – Jack and Grace, Ethel and Barry – I am certain you’ll have a good vision in your mind of what you would expect them to be like.

One of the most interesting things about names is that someone else gives them to us. When we are born, there is not option to decide which gender we would like or what we want to be known as for the rest of our lives. We stayed on Cleopatra Beach for our honeymoon and decided then, before we had even conceived our daughter, that she would be Cleo. It was the same with Gabriel – I knew that is what he would be called for the 9 months that I carried him. And now, those names are like my breath, my heart beat, they belong to me as much as they do to them.

But what if your name doesn’t belong to you or you don’t like it or it doesn’t feel right? I recently went to a book launch for an LGBTQ+ anthology, Twenty Eight. The book highlights the impact of Section 28, a law which inhibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in local authorities and schools. A law that basically said that homosexuality was a bad thing. The stories shared by the writers in the book are moving and scary and upsetting as each person has been negatively affected in their formative years by this archaic ruling. Instead of childhood and adolescence being a time for freedom and exploration, it was often a difficult and traumatic time leading to feelings of shame, guilt and anger for being a human with needs. Many of the writers had changed their pronouns and names, perhaps as a way to bring back control in response to these huge feelings. Perhaps also to be truly seen and heard by those around them. The pride they used to speak about their chosen identit,y about so much struggle, was tangible. To be accepted by the community as they want to be seen. As I said earlier, we place a major significance on our personal labels and if you didn’t find acceptance for being ‘you’ were when you were younger, then why wouldn’t you search your soul to find a name that is truly you?

Every day we all put on masks and capes to hide or emphasise ourselves. Our name is part of that. Giving ourselves a personal label to say to the world ‘this is what I want you to see’ is a wonderful part of our human defences. Here in the UK, we are encouraged to add our pronouns to email signatures and we can introduce ourselves as who we want but are we really being seen by everyone? Is there really respect for all when we do this? I have often heard people being dismissive about the use of pronouns or after not quite getting someone’s name right, saying ‘it doesn’t matter really’. But it does. It matters to that person who has shared something so personal and important with us. Having respect for the individuality of each person begins with this personal label they are sharing with us.

As with all of my musings, I connect these thoughts with family and my work in adoption. Honestly, I am not sure how I would feel if my children decided to change their names after I have carefully chosen and loaded those names with meaning. Of course, as a parent I have expectations about who I would like them to become in the world – and that is normal and right. And of course, I hope they have the strength and courage to be whoever they need to be… but those names. Lovingly chosen and held in mind for months and years, used to attune to my children and begin their lives, spoken about with pride and worry to friends and family, shouted out in frustration and joy. And yet, it will be another thing that as a parent I can’t control.

The choices are different when thinking about adoption and names. Adoptive parents may not have had the luxury/time/energy/’something’ to ponder over a name as their child will be brought into their family with someone else’s choice of name. Sometimes, adoptive families will choose another name, or switch middle with first, maybe to give their child a new start or place in the family. I worked with a child where the middle name was now their first name and the whole of therapy centred on her birth name being the good girl and her adoptive name being the bad. During adolescence, when the search for an identity becomes imperative, adoptive teens are more likely to change their names or revert back to their birth names as a way of exploring different aspects of their personalities. Some adoptive children deeply explore their identity and gender, criss-crossing between the reality of their adoptive family and their fantasy of their birth family (this can also happen in divorced or separated families), where names can become a weapon or olive branch in the family environment.

And I haven’t even mentioned surnames yet! I do wonder which name (your first or last) has the most meaning. In the UK, surnames originated as a way to identify a trade or a skill or social class. Your surname may be rooted in history, with generations of you being rooted in a particular landscape. It may be a reminder of a skill long since forgetton or you might even have no connection with it. But there will be some characteristics that you and your family associate with your name and you may remember times as a child when a parent would exclaim, “You are such a Smith!’, or maybe, “A Jones would not do that!”. With surnames seemingly coming from a wider system of belonging, your surname may represent a family you have a created for yourself as a safe place. You may have chosen to take your partners name after marriage or created your own through the deed poll as a way of building a new sense of self. Whatever your name is though, it is yours. You can show or hide or define yourself with it. It is only yours and when your loved ones say it in their careful and loving way, you know you belong. You are uniquely you, whatever the label.

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