Friday, June 24, 2011

What's In a Name?

By Kristina Wright

I wanted to go on the 6th grade trip to Mexico. That's how it started. In order to go to Mexico, I needed a passport-- which I didn't have. In order to get a passport, I needed a birth certificate-- which I did have. Problem was, the birth certificate I had did not bear the same name that I was using. If I got a passport under the name on the birth certificate, school officials would know I was using a different name. My friends would know. Their parents would know. It would have been scandalous, I guess.

This was back in the day when you didn't have to show documentation to enroll your kid in school. Or maybe that was just life in Florida in the 70s-- a nod to the migrant workers who weren't in the country legally. You also didn't have to have a Social Security card until you started working. I guess my mother assumed I wouldn't have to prove who I was until I was at least a teenager and she'd deal with it then-- but then I asked to go on the Mexico trip.

That was how I ended up in a courtroom at the age of 11, telling a judge about life with my parents so I could get my name changed. I ended up with a new birth certificate that bore the name I'd been using since I was 9 months old. Of course, to get there, I had to listen to my mother answer the judge's question about who my birth father was: "I don't know."

It was a lie.

She knew who my birth father was, but she wanted nothing to do with him and didn't want him to have anything to do with me, not even legally. She was so adamant about making sure I never had any contact with him that she never told me his name.

I had to listen to the judge ask my "father" (technically, my stepfather) why he hadn't pursued legal adoption before this: "I just never got around to it."

Another lie.

He would never have legally adopted me if my mother hadn't fought him on it. Why? Who knows. We were never close, ever. He didn't really want kids (so said my mother) and maybe saw me as part of a package deal-- an option he couldn't opt out of.

All I wanted was to go on the Mexico trip with my friends. I ended up with a birth certificate that was a lie. I had gone from having a legal document that negated the existence of a paternal figure, with the line for father left blank and my last name being listed as my mother's maiden name, to a legal document that bore the name of my stepfather as my father. I would stare at that piece of paper and wonder how it could be legal for a legal document to have my birthdate and my stepfather's name on it even though my mother hadn't even met him until after I was born and even though the adoption process had taken place in Florida, far from my state of birth. At the age of 11, I wondered how it could possibly be legal to fabricate the truth. I still wonder about it.

My birth certificate is a lie.

I had to give up my original birth certificate for the phony one, so I don't even have the real record of my birth to an unwed mother in a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. I wonder if that original document even exists? I'd like it back.

Despite my strong feminist beliefs, I took my husband's name when I got married. I had no connection to the name on my birth certificate or to the man I called Dad. But they don't change your birth certificate when you get married-- they give you a new document to reflect your new name without erasing the existence of your previous name. To this day, it bothers me that they didn't do the same thing when my stepfather legally adopted me. I wonder if the law has changed? It should.

There is a sense of shame attached to my birth certificate, both the original and the fake, I mean legal, one. It always felt strange writing a name that I knew wasn't really mine. I kept waiting to be found out, to be told I had to use my real name, the one on my original birth certificate. Even once I had a piece of paper to reflect the name I'd always used, it felt strange to make a poster of my family tree in 9th grade English when I knew that half of my tree was a lie. I pretended, as my mother had always pretended, that the man who wasn't there when I was born, who often forgot my birthday (and even misspelled my name), and who had little interest in claiming me as his daughter, was my father.

People have asked me why I have never used a pseudonym. My answer is always that I am proud of my work and want my real name on my stories, that I believe women writers were long forced to hide in the literary shadows and it's my tribute to them to use my real name on everything I write. The truth is also that I have always been uncomfortable using a name that wasn't really my own. I unwillingly lived under a pseudonym for 11 years of my life and then had the truth of my birth fabricated so I could continue using that pseudonym for another 12 years. No more. Ever.

This was supposed to be a post about fathers. I guess I should get back on topic. Despite my occasional attempts to find out (occasional because the fallout wasn't worth the effort), my mother never told me who my birth father was. Not when I turned 18, not when I got married at 23, not when I told her I wanted my entire family medical history in case I decided to have children, not when I swore to her I would never look for him. She took his name to her grave in 2007. It was my aunt who told me my biological father's name several months after my mother's death. She also helped clarify some of the details I'd been able to piece together over the years from eavesdropping on my mother's conversations with my father (stepfather) and other relatives. But I'll never know the whole story. Only my mother knew that.

At last, though, I had a name. It was anticlimactic. Knowing my biological father's name doesn't mean very much when I still know so little about him, his life, whether he had other children or is even still alive. I don't know if he ever wondered about me or wanted to meet me. I never saw a picture of him. I still don't have a complete family medical history and have gone through genetic counseling twice answering "I don't know" just as my mother did all those years ago in a courthouse in South Florida. The difference is, of course, I really don't know. Likely, I will never know.

After going through the adoption process and making my fake name legal, my parents decided they couldn't afford to send me to Mexico after all. That, like so many other things, was also a lie. My mother never intended to let me go to Mexico, she just wanted to push my stepfather to legally adopt me. She got what she wanted. I didn't go to Mexico and she kept my biological father's identity a secret for the rest of her life.

It took over 40 years to find out, but I finally know his name. Not that it matters-- it's not a name I would ever use and is as meaningless to me as my fake birth certificate. I have my name and my identity solidly established-- and on my own terms. It took awhile, but I know who I am and I have a passport to prove it. Maybe one day I'll even get to Mexico.


  1. It's amazing how many bad father relationships this crew has had. You didn't even get that. All you got was a big question mark. Sorry about that.

  2. Kristina;

    This a sad story also. As Kathleen said its amazing how many of us have had sad father relationships, in yoru case none at all. If I may ask, has it ever affected your relationship with men?

    As I read I thought of John Proctor in the Crucible yelling "I've given you my soul -leave me my name."

    On my way over here, I found a nice comment on our blog from a reader. Take a look when you get a chance - here is the link.

    Mike Finn if you're reading this a shout out "Hello!" to you. Thanks for reading our stuff.

    Thanks Kristina.


  3. Wow, Kristina. Thanks for sharing this. I find the love you have obviously managed to find in and for yourself even amongst the surroundings you described here inspiring—it is so heartening to know of the love, attention, care, and generosity that seems evident to me in the beautiful family you have now.

    Thank you again and all the best to you.

  4. Dear Kristina,

    If I read this story as part of a novel, I'm not sure I'd consider it plausible.

    I don't really understand why you had to have a new birth certificate in order to be adopted. In any case, both the old and the new ones are just pieces of paper. They don't really have anything to do with who you are - as you have discovered over the years.

    Still, it's sad to have grown up without a father's love - especially since your relationship with your mother seems to have been so difficult.

    I do hope you get to Mexico - or someplace even better!

  5. That's an amazing life-story, Kristina. I'm glad you now have a name and a legal identity that feel real to you.

  6. Kathleen ~ Since I grew up with my stepfather as my father figure, I did have a father/daughter relationship-- though, like so many of you, it wasn't a good one.

  7. Garce ~ I guess you'd have to ask the men in my life if my relationships have been affected. :) I have serious trust issues with anyone who gets close to me, both men and women, and I abhor liars, but otherwise I think I came through it okay. I'll be celebrating my 21 wedding anniversary in October and I sincerely believe my relationship with my husband is a huge reason I'm as well adjusted as I am. (Or perhaps I should say, MORE well adjusted than I would've been otherwise.)

  8. Thanks for your kind words, Em. As always, you make me smile. :)

  9. Lisabet ~ Believe me, I don't understand the birth certificate/adoption thing either. I was too young to really ask about it when it happened and when I was older my mother refused to discuss it. I thought it was the norm, but perhaps not? I do wonder if the fact that my biological father wasn't listed on my birth certificate at all if that had anything to do with it. I really don't know.

    Funny you should mention it-- London is my favorite city in the world and I'm not even sure I'd like Mexico (though my best friend is there now and sending me updates on how amazing the resort is where she's staying).

    Thanks for your words!

  10. Thanks, Jean. It's funny that I've never actually written it out before and, in retrospect, it is a crazy story!


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