When our kids change their names, they are deciding who they are, or trying to figure out who they are. When our kids change their names, it hurts. We chose the name they were given; it was a gift from us to them, usually carefully considered, agonized over, possibly even argued about.
We have traditions and rituals to bestow on our children the name we chose —christenings, baptisms, brit milot, naming ceremonies of all sorts. We invite friends and family, we might even cater a party. Children get named after important relatives, living or dead, depending on tradition and culture. Their names mean something to us.
After we name them, we spend the next ten years watching the tiny person grow into the name we chose. And somehow, they always seem to do just that — grow into the name. When I think about the other names that were on the table for me, according to my parents, it makes me laugh to think of myself as a Jennifer or an Angelica. These names simply do not, could not, fit me.
Maybe we spend a lot of time correcting people’s pronunciation of our kids’ names; maybe we tell people what it means in this language or that, or tell stories about the person for whom the kids were named. The child’s name is part of the family’s unique history and culture.
When kids change their names, they are rejecting all of those things. They are not saying they don’t want to be part of the family; they are saying that those traditions and history and culture are not as important as being true to themselves. They value all that came before them, maybe, but they did not choose the name they’ve been living with. And now they have grown and feel that it doesn’t fit them — the name has become a too-small hat, exerting all kinds of pressure on the brain.
When kids change their names, they are rejecting their parents or their upbringing or “family values” the same way they are doing so when they leave the religious/racial/ethnic fold in which we expected or hoped them to stay. That’s how it feels. But they aren’t doing that, not all of them, anyway; they are establishing their identity for themselves within the family but separate from the identity we defined for them.
Perhaps we did this for ourselves by buying entirely new brands of groceries when we first moved out of our parents’ home, eating sugary cereal or moving to another city. Maybe we accomplished it by taking what we consider to be a more critical and nuanced view of religion and politics. Our children feel a freedom to explore their identities in ways we never dreamed of, and maybe we have to let them do that even if it feels personal, feels like rejection, feels insulting and painful.
When some kids change their names, they consult their parents, discussing the name’s meaning, the person they were named for, including parents in the process and showing respect for all that went into the name given at birth. But some kids don’t consult family at all. It doesn’t occur to them until it’s too late. And that may hurt parents even more.
Some of us are convinced that this name change is temporary, that the kid is just exploring and will come out on the other side of this adolescent experience all the wiser. Some just hope that’s true. Some of us are wrong, and some are right. As long as we are allowed our own feelings about the change, we should be able to make room for our child to experiment. This is what I tell myself as I try, day after day, to call my child by a name I did not choose. I think about how I insisted on being called “Annie” for a small part of my youth, because I did not appreciate my first name as I do now. I remember that one of my brothers wanted to be called “Herman” because he loved The Munsters. I don’t think my parents felt a sting from these passing fancies. Because that’s what they were. We were still very much their children. It is the sense of impending separation and loss created by the change that is so hard to handle. It is the anxiety about what the child’s life will be, factoring in all the issues associated with the name change — gender identification, possibly sexuality, and stupidity, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of others.
I also tell myself to celebrate having raised a child who feels strong enough to explore their identity publicly, to be insistent about their name and what it means to them, to demand acceptance. These are wonderful qualities.
The truth is, none of this is about me. My sense of loss or resentment or sadness is just that — mine.