Have you changed your name with joy as part of a marriage or gender transition? Have you changed it with determination to separate from an abusive family? Has it been changed by force as part of adoption or immigration to a new country? Have you had the stability of the same name your whole life?
We have a myth that names can be changed and family histories left behind without ongoing cost. We are expected to move forward as if nothing happened with a new adopted family or a “chosen family” of friends. Even a joyful change creates a rift between past and present selves. A forced change creates a larger rupture, dividing us from our history.
An adopted infant has a bodily experience of shock and terror from being separated from their birth mother, even as they bond with their new parents because their life depends on it. They might not yet recognize their name, but they will know later that it was changed, and wonder who else they might have been. A child old enough to walk knows their own name.
Parents might change a child’s last name to include them more fully in their new family, although it still obscures their birth history and perhaps their cultural heritage. Changing a child’s first name during adoption displays the new parents’ absolute power over their life. Anything can be torn from them, even their identity.
The inner experience of abandonment is so intolerably painful that it gets covered over by feeling shame instead. Adopted children endlessly wonder what they did wrong to be relinquished, given up, rejected, abandoned. They might ask why consciously, or wordlessly assume their own badness, even though the answer is probably that their birth parents lacked resources and support. Even living with a loving family, adopted children wonder when the foundation will crack under them again.
Adoption creates ongoing complexity for the child, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Rather than a one-time event, it is a living web of active and missing relationships. No matter how uncomfortable it makes the adoptive parents, the child never stops having birth parents, and the birth parents never stop having a child somewhere out in the world.
Julian Washio-Collette was adopted twice, with his first name changed each time. He describes his untethered feeling as The Nothing Place, “a sense of lack of traction in life, as if with every step, every accomplishment, I somehow keep returning to zero.”
In her memoir You Don’t Look Adopted, Anne Heffron shows that while her parents and everyone around her expected her adoption to be a minor detail of her past history, she experiences it as an overarching narrative of instability and chaos. She suggests the response, “And what has that experience been like for you?” when someone shares that they were adopted.
Like many adoptees, Anne Heffron wishes her mother could have held her close rather than flinching away from her struggles. Adoption is a primal attachment wound, and someone with secure attachment can provide a warm space for healing. Sadly, there are many people with attachment wounds and not enough securely attached people to go around.
The deep, non-verbal attachment system of our brain clings tightly to our familiar safe people. It lets us relax into resonance with another nervous system when we need soothing and care. It wails in panic when our safe people are lost to us. Trauma is not so much about the presence of danger, but about the absence of our safe people during and after difficult events. Secure attachment comes from enough consistent access to our safe people to internalize their care.
Fortunately, open adoptions that acknowledge the full web of relationships are becoming more common, and there is more support available for everyone involved. Adoptive parents who understand attachment wounds are holding space for their adopted children’s struggles in the slow process of forming new secure attachments.
Imagine if we collectively made it a high priority to help children and adults heal from attachment wounds, rather than blaming people for their relationship struggles and leaving each person to find their own way through agony to healing. Year by year there would be more connection and ease in the world.
We each deserve enough time and care to internalize secure attachment. Some of us receive that from parents, or partners, or practitioners, or pets. We can patch together the bits of care we receive, and turn toward our own hurting child selves with kindness.
If you had to leave a part of yourself behind from
- Adoption, abuse, death of a parent, estrangement from your family of origin, or some other attachment trauma
- Changing your name for any reason, from joyful to forced
- Separation from the rituals and rhythms of your home culture
Then consider reaching across that rupture to your past self.
Create a welcoming space inside. If you know the past name, add it to your gentle invitation, or call for “the one who was here before [the adoption].” If you have the time and privacy, speak out loud.
A note for trans people: It is offensive and invalidating for anyone else to use your dead name. You can choose to reach back to the self you were then while still affirming your current name and gender.
Listen with care
Then listen. Be curious and interested. The younger self might be wary, suspicious, angry, or meltingly grateful for contact. They might pour out the grief and pain of abandonment, or woodenly claim to be “fine,” or unexpectedly overflow with delight. Receive them just as they are. Fiercely claim them as part of you, no longer disowned or discarded, forever good enough.
Where in your body does this part of you live? You might find that a constant tension has eased now that you have an open channel of communication. A bottomless well of tears and longing might finally run dry. It might be easier to take a full breath and let it out again.
Whether you notice a big change, a tiny one, or none at all, keep listening. Invite this part to ride along with you in your current life with your current name. Keep weaving strands of connection across the rupture, gradually building a secure attachment for yourself.
You might always grieve your place at the edges instead of the center of belonging. At the same time, people on the edges can see and greet each other, weaving fresh connections between families and cultures, never fully belonging in one place, knowing many places.
My thanks to the clients who have shared about their experiences with adoption, especially the adopted client who shared the resources below.
- Anne Heffron’s book You Don’t Look Adopted shines a light on the seams adoption leaves behind.
- Julian Washio-Collette shares the relief of naming “The Nothing Place”, his experience of what was missing after being adopted.
- Recommended Resources for Adult Adoptees from the Adoptees Connect website.