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Catholic Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton

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What’s In a Name?

This week Christopher and I have been working together on his latest class assignment: a personal timeline. Both his teacher and I recognize that this task might be the cause of some anxiety for him – and indeed he does seem to be stalling. What isn’t yet clear to me, however, is whether this is a garden variety don’t-wanna-do-it-cause-I’d-rather-be-playing-Leapster stall tactic, or something deeper. 

Finally, last week, I got my answer: Christopher announced that, as part of another class assignment, he wanted to write to his birth mother, and wanted to sign the letter with the name she gave him – first, middle, and last. “She won’t know it’s me if I don’t write it that way,” he explains tentatively. 

I tried to explain to him that this information was personal and private – not something to be shared with his classmates (who even at his tender age may be only too happy to leap on differences to separate the weak ones from the pack). I suggested he write two letters, one to read in class and another to send to his birthmother. 

He said OK. Then he went ahead and read it aloud exactly as he’d told me he wanted to. 

As it turns out, there IS something in a name. And he senses, deep within him, that when he lost his name, he lost something else equally valuable: Some connection, some sense of self. And he would not relinquish it willingly, not yet. 

So today as we were putting the finishing touches on the timeline, I said to him casually. “You know, Christopher, I haven’t always had this name. My name used to be “Heidi Susan Hess.” 

His eyes brightened a bit. “Really? Why did your name change?” 

“Well, it changed the day I became a part of a new family – your dad’s family. It happened at the church, just like it did with you. And it happened because God had a special plan for my life, to become a part of this new family.” 

Christopher eyed Craig tentatively. “Did your name change, too?” 

Craig coughed. “Well… no, not … I mean…” 

I jumped in. “Christopher, do you know that there are lots of places in the Bible where God gave people a new name? When He had a special job He wanted that person to do? Jacob (his birth middle name) became “Israel.” Abram became “Abraham.” Sarai became “Sarah.” Simon became “Peter.” Saul became “Paul.”  

Each time that person got a new name because he had become a new person, a special part of God’s family. By changing their name, God changed how they thought of themselves. And Christopher, your name was changed because we believe God wanted something special for you, too.” 

Time will tell if this explanation hits home for our son. He may never be fully reconciled – at least not for a long time – with a choice that (let’s face it) was made for him long before he was able to appreciate the implications of such a choice. 

But it is my prayer that when he finally does grasp the significance of this change of identity, he will recognize that it was not a matter of exchanging something bad or dirty or worthless for something good and exalted. After all, Saul was a devout Pharisee, and Simon a good-hearted fisherman before their identities were changed.  

Rather, we want our son to appreciate that, by changing his name and joining our family, we made a wish for him: That his life up to that point would be redirected, without obliterating all the gifts within him – his personality, intelligence, and gifts. These he had when he came to us; they are still a part of him, and by the grace of God, we will help him to use these things as fully as God intends. 

St. Jacob, who wrestled with the Angel of the Lord until the angel blessed him, pray for my son and for all adopted and foster children everywhere who wrestle with the blessing of a new family. Help them to find the peace they need, as painlessly as possible.

Heidi Hess Saxton and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children Christopher (6) and Sarah (4). is the editor of Canticle magazine, the “voice” of  "Women of Grace". A convert to the faith since 1994, Heidi is also a graduate student of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, and a frequent contributor to  Read more of Heidi’s writing through her website or visit Heidi's blog at

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