Published on April 5th, 2022 | by Cathy Humikowski0
What’s in a Name?
We gathered again in the conference room, beige and windowless, at the end of a corridor in a hospital basement. Every Thursday night for months, the same crew arrived with homemade Chex mix and sticky lemon bars: two gay couples stymied by adoption, another couple quitting assisted fertility, two single mothers with kids at home whose motives I couldn’t discern beyond sheer magnanimity, and us. I’d had an emergency hysterectomy after our daughter was born five years earlier and convinced my husband we should sign up. So the lot of us assembled around a rough horseshoe of coffee-stained tables to learn how to become foster parents.
Some of what we learned washed over us. The night we watched videos about human trafficking, we coped by zoning out in the dark and considered leaving. I don’t recall any useful content from that lesson, only the pit of disgust it left and the nervous energy it imparted to my fingertips as I fumbled to extract a Diet Coke from the vending machine during break. But some lessons really stuck, like the epiphanic moment we learned it’s okay to serve ice cream for dinner (beyond okay, it’s actually necessary sometimes). Most indelibly, I remember the night we learned never to change a child’s given name.
Our wiry gray-haired instructor, mother of five adult children including three adopted through the foster system, told us she had seen plenty of kids over the years whose names had been whitewashed or changed altogether. “And these weren’t babies,” she said, “Not that age should matter.” She never understood why someone would take away the only shred of identity a child had left, the only thing they could carry from the homes they left behind. “You may think you’re separating them from a life of trauma and abuse. But they don’t see it that way. They just miss their families.”
The name lesson stuck because, unlike the ice cream thing, I wondered why it needed to be taught. To me it seemed obvious not to change a child’s name, but I hadn’t faced the temptation yet. “These kids have their own stories,” our instructor said at the end of that lesson. “You are part of their story, not the other way around.”
By the last class, the words A Family for the Child, Not a Child for the Family rolled through my head like a mantra. If I wanted another baby (did I want another baby?) this wasn’t what fostering was meant to bring. Fostering was meant to support children until they could return to their own families. All we had to do now was wait until somebody needed our care.
A week after classes ended, we got our first call. The child welfare agent on the line said there was a baby, newly born, at the hospital in our town. I sat and grabbed a pen, jotting phrases like “feeding tube” and “substance exposure” on the back of a used envelope. As a pediatrician I asked a lot of questions, but repressed the one I most ached to know. Finally, after utilitarian data gathering, I asked it.
“Does she have a name?”
Our daughter had lived without a name at first, when a ventilator still hummed at my bedside. One uterus and sixty units of blood seemed a small bounty for motherhood, but maybe only compared to death. My primary waking thought upon regaining consciousness—ahead of divining what had happened (they had said “cardiac arrest” but not “amniotic fluid embolism” yet)—sought a name for my newborn girl. A name would anchor her to the living world, make her real, so that everything else (whatever it was) could vanish like a dream.
No matter the years between then and now, I still remember every detail about how we chose it, the way one remembers features of the weather on certain unfading days. Urgency overcame me as I lifted the phone to call my husband, who had just left the intensive care unit to get some dinner. My swollen fingers fumbled on the keypad to dial the only number I know by heart. He saw the hospital extension and panicked. “Is everything okay?”
“Edith,” I said. “Her name will be Edith. It means spoils of war, and it feels like we went through war to get her.”
“Okay, then Edith it is,” he said. “I love you. Now get some rest.”
I said the name out loud a few times after we hung up, appreciating its strength coupled with the middle name we had already chosen, Margaret, in memory of my mother. But the whole thing just sounded so heavy, like a brick she would carry for life.
I called him back, fumbling less this time. “Ophelia,” I said. “Not Edith. Her name will be Ophelia. It means help, and she helped me survive. She’s the reason I’m still alive. It has to be Ophelia.”
“Ophelia,” he repeated in a cracked whisper. “TO OPHELIA!” he then shouted to our friends who accompanied him to dinner, and as he hung up the phone I imagined their glasses aloft.
I sat alone in half darkness as the monitor streamed vital signs in glowing waves above my head. Her name would be Ophelia and we would call her Phe. It was a beautiful name, but so desperately melancholy. I called him back again, this time barely fumbling.
“Not Ophelia,” I said with an edge of mania in my voice. “I don’t want her name to have anything to do with what happened to me.”
He waited. He understood.
“She is separate from this. She is not my spoils of war and she is not my helper. She is her own person.”
He waited some more.
“She is Eleanor,” I said at last. “Nora for short. It means awesome in Hebrew.”
“Awesome indeed,” he said. Then, to his dinner companions, “To Eleanor!” and they toasted again at last.
This time it was me who waited for a baby’s name on the other end of the line. I could hear the agent shuffling papers as she confirmed a name existed, but when she found the right page she didn’t read the name but spelled it out, one letter at a time. I felt like a kid with a decoder ring as the message assembled across the envelope’s crease.
When she finished, I repeated each letter back to confirm I had everything right. I asked the agent to read the first name out loud but she hesitated trying to say it. A simple transposition of letters, likely a transcription error at some point between the birth mother’s lips and the government’s forms, rendered a common name confusing and unpronounceable. It was the kind of name a child might customarily choose during dress-up to inhabit her womanly ideal—pretty and popular, slightly exotic but approachable—except misspelled. It was the Jacqueline of my childhood make-believe rendered Jacuqeline.
In the days that followed, we spent equal energy gathering infant gear and sorting out what to call the baby we would soon bring home. If I had worried Nora’s name might expose her to all I had endured after her birth—pain, harm, fear, risk, loss—I internalized the inverse for this baby. I wanted her to have a name conceived both by us and by the woman who bore her into life, even though the name as given was wrecked. So after a series of linguistic acrobatics, we settled on a sweet diminutive of the original, shorter and less ambiguous to pronounce.
When she came home from the hospital, I bore no fresh incision running up my middle, no bruises on my arms, no generalized engorgement. And so her dismantled name, the word we would coo when she studied our faces and shout when she strayed from our guide, singularly connected us to her birth. On some level I thought if we kept a part of her name, maybe we would get to keep her too.
Time passed and she became her name—easy and straightforward, unassuming, lovelier than imagined. She became sister, niece, cousin, and grandchild. The edges between us blurred so completely that we forgot what our family was like before she entered it: steady like a three-legged stool that never wobbles. If she left us now, we would surely topple.
We dare to imagine a day when we won’t have to worry about that anymore, when adoption will be final, when her last name matches Nora’s and her first name officially matches what we call her. When she asks how we chose it, we will tell her, just as we’ve told Nora about the fumbling phone calls from my hospital bed. We will stumble over parts (it’s hard to tell someone you love things that might hurt them) but we will do the best we can.
She will never find her name in red letters on a bike-sized license plate hanging in a souvenir shop on a revolving rack between Liam and Lucy. She will never fully understand the origins of her name, or the woman who gave it to her, or why she left. But she will have a piece of it, the only thing her birth mother gave her separate from herself.
And if she wants to change it—if she wants to give that piece back to the void where it first dangled, misunderstood, between two strangers—we will help her. If she needs more distance between her name and the moment she was born, just as I needed for Nora and me, we will cross that distance with her. We will be hers as she learns to know herself, as she decides who she is, whatever she asks us to call her.