Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Say My Name

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Tashonda A.

In the eyes of the law, this is my daughter Peyton's name until our adoption finalization hearing this month. I imagine Angela*, her birth mother, whispering "Tashonda" in her ear before releasing her to foster care at four days old. Aside from this, by the time we go to court, she will have been "Peyton" for the nine months of her life.

Well, that's not exactly true.

Most of the time she is "Peyton." Occasionally, she is "the baby" or "your sister" -- as in a hissed, "Shh! The baby is sleeping!" or "Watch out! You almost kicked your sister in the face!" (also hissed). In lighter moments, she is the inexplicable Bun-Bun, which both big sister Taylor and I seem to favor these days. But where is it written that you can have only one nickname at a time? Recently, I traded the admittedly cloying and uninspired "Sweet P" for the verve of "Peytie Peyt Peyt."

My husband Mike would never deign to the likes of "Peytie Peyt Peyt." He has his own moniker for Peyton. And for me. A die-hard "Lord of the Rings" fan, he croaks "My Precious" at me and calls Peyton "Gollum" upon witnessing her absolutely melt down when she is farther than arms' length from me, at those times when only I will suffice.

Peyton's newest nickname is "Miss Diva." Coined by teenaged friends of the family, "Miss Diva" captures the unflinching stare which says, "I'll not reward your baby talk with a smile, and, for goodness sake, most certainly not a coo!" "Miss Diva" personifies Peyton's insistence on being supported while "walking," leaving that whole crawling on the floor thing to less self-respecting babies. Count on Miss Diva to register her displeasure with what's on the menu ("Bottle, applesauce, banana . . . again?!"): wailing to wake the dead, back arched, arms waving, feet rubbing together as if furiously kicking off invisible shoes. I heard the Supremes broke up because Diana Ross used to carry on the exact same way.

But clever nicknames aside, I always come back to "Tashonda." I have thought the name groggily in the wee hours of those rare-but-draining mornings when Peyton refused to go back to sleep, screaming inconsolably, the Diana Ross footwork in full effect. During those seemingly interminable moments, I belonged to that hapless sisterhood of mothers who, in the face of such histrionics (usually in public), weigh the pros and cons of contacting an exorcist. Who is this child? Where on earth did she come from? Delirious with sleep-deprivation, I considered the literal answers to these questions.

Tashonda. Another woman, Chicago. Fast-forward a few months and many good nights' sleep: in the face of Peyton's wide two-toothed grin, these are guilt-inducing answers, shameful thoughts. Peyton is mine, I affirm -- even when her head is spinning 360 degrees.

I whisper it to myself sometimes -- Tashonda -- as I stare at the two of us in the mirror. I note our differences and search out similarities -- similarities in which Peyton may one day seek comfort. Taylor bears a strong resemblance to Mike and to me, but of course Peyton does not. People say she resembles Mike's mother, but how much solace will that be if some day she questions her place in our family, feels that she is not one of us, that I am not "really" her mother? Perhaps I worry too much about appearances, literally, but if this might be a concern for Peyton, it must be a concern for me. I brace myself for such possibilities, inevitabilities, as if expectation will buffer the pain. Question is: mine or Peyton's?

I grew up being referred to as my mother's twin, as being a dead-ringer for my father's aunt, as having inherited my own aunt's big eyes and that Milton bottom lip. I looked like these people, but given my bookishness and sensitive nature in a family of, well, decidedly non-bookish, thick-skinned people, I felt for all the world as if I'd been adopted. Can I convince Peyton of this, love her into understanding that belonging runs deeper than genetics?

I have questions about Peyton's biological roots, about the likely origins of her temperament and quirks, the kinds of information the adoption agency's social-medical history intake form fails to capture, the kinds of information her reticent birth parents did not provide during our single conversation. What is already hard-wired into her little psyche? And on the nurture side of the equation, how will my parenting -- the good, the bad, and the "these are your children until further notice moments -- change Tashonda into Peyton?

I wish I could say "Peyton" was a family name, or that we named her after a literary or historical heroine. Truth is, Mike searched the social security administration's database of baby girl names for recent years, saw "Peyton," and suggested we go with it. Not exactly a story one writes in the baby book. Even less auspicious is the fact that we had first planned to give the name to another baby whose birth mother ultimately decided not to place her for adoption. A second-hand name.

While our list of potential baby girl names did not include "Tashonda," "Peyton" was not our commentary on Angela's taste in names. We'd chosen the name before we even knew there was a woman in Chicago who'd read our profile and believed her unborn child would be loved, taken places, and read to as part of our family. Mike and I never discussed the possibility of keeping the child's given name. We wanted to name our adoptive child just as we had named Taylor, our biological child; it was a natural and obvious thing to do. Which is why I can respect Angela's decision to name her baby in the hospital fully aware of our intention to rename her "Peyton." But if she had insisted on "Tashonda" as a condition of placement, we would have agreed, understanding naming as a powerful conduit of connection and love.

A dear friend, Elaine, renamed her middle child but retained his birth's mother's last name as his middle name. In overriding Tashonda altogether, we have not preserved this kind of connection to Peyton's birth family. But we honor this connection in other ways. We have photos and videotape of Peyton with Angela and Peyton's biological brother, Devon, at our placement ceremony. We've requested photos of Peyton's birth father and of her five half-siblings. The pink newborn snowsuit and blanket Angela gave us for her are packed away until a rudimentary understanding of "birth mother" and "adoption" convey some significance upon them in Peyton's mind. I regularly send photos, videos, and detailed letters to Peyton's birth family in care of the adoption agency, part of the agency's first-year requirements. By our own choosing, we will continue sending updates at least annually after the first year. Our semi-open adoption arrangement limits contact to these updates until Peyton reaches age 18.

And at some point prior to age 18, when the time is right, we will tell Peyton about "Tashonda." Even as I cherish her as my daughter, I recognize her biological ties to others. I also recognize my limitations in understanding what these ties and being renamed may mean to her. By sharing her birth name and sending the updates, my hope is that Peyton will see an open door between her biological and adoptive families, one that leads to her own musings and wranglings over identity and family.

* Name changed for reasons of privacy

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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