What’s in a name?

Have you ever sat back and pondered if your name makes you part of who you are?  I once heard it said that the thing that people most like to hear is the sound of their own name. 

Growing up I would think about this.  I liked my name.  Ryan.  Even if others had the same first name, it branded me as an individual.  Although now it appears to have been gaining popularity when I received it in the 70’s, it still seemed unique enough to me growing up.  My middle name (I will only share my first, sorry) was more traditional, but it had meaning to me as a place in my family.  It was the same as my favorite uncle’s first name, and the middle name of both of his sons, my cousins.  For an adoptee, it tied me into a history of sorts.   Of course my last name created even more of an identity.  It officially made me part of a family, of a tradition.  Almost a reference point for my life.  It made me proud to share it with my family, as I am proud now that it is carried by my wife and children.

An interesting discovery for myself as an adoptee searching for my roots was the discovery of my name given to me by my biological parents.  In fact, learning my name was an impetus for making the search.  Originally I had petitioned the adoption agency for my medical and non-identifying information.  Part of the information that agencies give for non-identifying information is the adoptee’s original name (minus the last name, of course).  So, as I pored over the information, there it was in black and white.  My first name was Stephen.  Somehow, it felt like I always knew that.  I remember thinking back to grade school, when the teacher asked each of us if we were to give ourselves a name, what would it be, and why?  Stephen is the name that I picked out, but I don’t remember the rationale.  My Mom and Dad had also mentioned that they had considered calling me Stephen before settling on Ryan.  Was it preordained?  It turns out that I, like many that would go on to be placed for adoption, was named after relatives.  My father’s name is Steven.  A small difference that is philosophically interesting.  A small change that ties me to him, yet makes me different.  It is almost as if it acknowledges the “good” parts of his personality, while giving me a clean slate to wipe away the “bad”.  Although I don’t think this is what they had in mind.  I can think of three more likely reasons.  Being Catholic, it would have been more traditional, i.e. my patron saint would be St. Stephen.  It may have reflected the family heritage of my mother’s side of the family–it being a more traditional spelling given my ethnicity.  Finally, my mom also has a brother that is named Stephen.  Of course, it could be none of these things.  I also think about the possibility that if I hadn’t been placed, I may have gone by “Stevie” as a differentiation from my father, at least while I was young.  I like that too, even if it is total conjecture.

My middle name was so unique, I was almost certain that it was after someone else.  Actually, it was one of the puzzle pieces that led me to finding my mom.  It was my grandfather’s name–although he went by a nickname.  The first time that my mom wrote me back she confirmed this–I was named after my father and my grandfather. 

My last name was a mystery, though.  I had found my mother’s maiden name, and I was pretty sure what my father’s last name was (I was right).  Which would I have been given?  I tended to like my mom’s.  I tried them both on, saying them to myself in my head.  When we did meet, she placed a piece of paper in front of me and said “Here, look at this.” although I was sitting down and she was behind me, I could hear the smile on her face.  It wasn’t my official birth certificate, but one of the commemorative ones that the hospital gives to new parents.  I did have her name.  As I have gotten to know my siblings, I find it interesting that they all seem to strongly identify with her side of the family.  Perhaps, having two different dads, it is the thing that ties all four (now five) of them (us) together, in spirit and in genetics.  An unbreakable fraternal bond. 

I have always kicked around the idea of writing a book, and thought that if I did so I would write under a pseudonym.  I could never think of one that I liked.  It turns out that I have the perfect one, and it isn’t “pseudo” at all.

FRIDAY FUN: Photo Favorites

Sunset over a rural Iowa skyline.


Filed under adoption, family, names

6 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Ryan,
    I LOVE this entry!! Unlike you, I kept my “given” name (both first and middle) and only my last name changed because of my age at adoption. One of the first questions I asked my bio mom was why she had chosen my name and why I was just named “Abby” and not “Abigail”. It’s so cool to hear someone else’s journey and quest for information! I also love the idea of using your birth name as a pen name when you start writing!! Thanks, as always, for sharing!

  2. Thanks. It is so interesting to me. I forgot to add that I also had a first name alias for the few days that I was in foster care. Looking at that name, I feel no connection at all.

  3. Ryan, just reading through your blog.

    Of course I find the name given to me at birth by my bio mom interesting and always wondered why I was named what I was as well as that name having been the only resource that I had available to me to locate my biolgical people. The thing I found most profound though was something she said to me in email correspondence after we eventually started communicating in October.

    Of course I was signing my mail with my name name and I was very struck when she mentioned it was odd to call me by that name because when she’d thought of me from time to time over the years it had been by the name she’d given me. Duh @ me. Not sure why I hadn’t ever thought of that before, but I didn’t.

    I too enjoy reading other people’s posts about adoption so am looking forward to reading more here. Thanks for this one!

  4. On the flip side, I quickly transitioned to calling her “Mom”. It felt weird at first, but calling her by her first name felt even weirder. She hasn’t mentioned any difficulty about not calling me by the name she gave me, but I have read where other adoptees have birth parents that refer to them by their original names during reunion at first, particularly in writing.

  5. The pen name is a great idea! I always hated my name (Erin) growing up and tried, unsuccessfully, to go by my middle name. Oddly enough, now I hate my middle name and would never consider using it, not even for a pen name.

    Good stuff.

  6. I used to think about running for office with my middle name. I thought it sounded older or wiser or something. Although I am still interested in politics, I am more interested at the individual issue level. The politics as usual has turned me off from ever running for office. Well, maybe city council…

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