Parental Naming Practices in Same‐Sex Adoptive Families

AuthorAbbie E. Goldberg,Melissa H. Manley,Emma L. Frank
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
E L. F, M H. M ,  A E. G Clark University
Parental Naming Practices in Same-Sex
Adoptive Families
Objective: To explore the ways in which
same-sex adoptive parents navigate the pro-
cess of determining what terms their children
will use to address them (i.e., parent names).
Background: Parent names are markers of
familial relationships and identity. Different-sex
parents are linguistically privilegedin that their
parent names are widely recognizable, easily
distinguishable between each parent, and usu-
ally assigned by default as opposed to chosen,
whereas parents in same-sex couples must go
through a deliberate process of choosing parent
names. Little is known about the naming process
for same-sex parents.
Method: This qualitative analysis was designed
to explore 40 same-sex adoptive parentcouples’
approaches to parent naming (20 gay couples,
20 lesbian couples).
Results: Most couples collaboratively selected
parallel names (e.g., “Daddy” and “Papa”).
Participants drew on traditional mother and
father derivatives, as well as their cultural back-
grounds and naming trends within queer family
communities. Families who adopted older chil-
dren navigated unique issues.
Conclusion: This study adds to the literatures
on same-sex parenting, adoptive parenting, and
naming. Families highlighted the perceived
importance of parallel names and collaborative
naming processes; the consideration of cultural
Department of Psychology, Clark University, 950 Main
Street, Worcester,MA 01610 (
Key Words: adoptive parents, kinship, language, parental
identity, parent naming,same-sex families.
backgrounds and other same-sex parentfamilies
in naming; and naming challenges related to
child age, the gender binary, and stigma.
Implications: Results shed light on various
sources and considerations that may shape
parent naming, which can inform the work of
therapists and other providers who work with
same-sex parent families, particularly during
the transition to parenthood.
As social beings, people build a sense of self
through relationships, which are often con-
structed via symbolic terms such as parent
names (Finch, 2008). These names are often
more than just labels and tools of organization;
they are symbols that mark and display core
relationships (Finch, 2008). One hallmark of
becoming a parent is choosing a name for
one’s child(ren); although there are exceptions,
including when parents adopt older children,
who have already been named (cf. Firmin, Pugh,
Markham, Sohn, & Gentry, 2017). Whereas the
child naming process is understood as uni-
versal, the intentional and deliberate process
of parent naming, also referred to as parental
designation (Petit, Julien, & Chamberland,
2017) or parental referent or term selection
(Bergen, Suter, & Daas, 2006; Colonna, 2013),
that occurs in same-sex families (Bergen et al.,
2006) is understudied.
Families with different-sex parents are lin-
guistically privileged in that their parent names
are recognizable, easily distinguishable between
parents, and typically assigned by default as
opposed to chosen. The most exciting moment
580 Family Relations 68 (December 2019): 580–595
Parental Naming Practices 581
in linguistic development, as told by sitcoms,
movies, and dominant constructions of family,
is a child’s rst utterance of Mama or Dada,
which is often encouraged by the eager parents.
Although the terms Mom and Dad are ingrained
in our cultural understanding of family, such
language—and the heterosexual, two-parent
family structure that it implies—has long been
insufcient for encompassing diverse family
forms, such as families with two mothers or
two fathers and parents who do not identify
within the connes of the mother–father binary
(Padavic & Buttereld, 2011; Petit et al., 2017).
For parents with more than one mother or father,
choosing parent names is an intentional and col-
laborative process with implications for parental
and familial identity,yet little research has exam-
ined this topic (cf. Colonna, 2013). The present
study was designed to partially address that gap
in the literature by examining parent naming
experiences in 40 same-sex adoptive families.
T P
The present study is guided by social construc-
tionist and queer theories. Social constructionist
theory asserts that families are constructed
socially and become familial entities through
actions and language (Holstein & Gubrium,
1999; Oswald, Blume, & Marks, 2005). Through
this lens, families can be understood as inter-
pretive, moving parts, rather than as static
objects (Holstein & Gubrium, 1999). This view
challenges dominant assumptions of family as
dened by biological and legal ties (Oswald
et al., 2005). A social constructionist view of
same-sex family parent naming asserts that this
process, which is informed largely by societal
discourses, is a way of creating meaningful
parental and familial identities. In turn, social
constructionist views of family allow for any
domestic or partnership reality to be viewed as
familial, regardless of biological or legal ties
or of parent names used (Holstein & Gubrium,
Queer theory calls for the deconstruction of
exclusionary binary logic that has been responsi-
ble for systems of heteronormativity and gender
normativity (Oswald et al., 2005). Queer theory
posits that binaries such as male versus female
or real families versus so-called illegitimate
families are socially constructed and should be
deconstructed to allow for recognition of com-
plex and diverse families (Oswald, Kuvalanka,
Blume, & Berkowitz, 2009). Through the lens
of queer theory, families can be viewed as
structures that are brought into being via social
interactions, relationships, and family roles
and identities (e.g., that of parent or family),
regardless of gender identity.
Who Is a “Real” Family? Language, Roles,
and Identity
Family is arguably the most central of all
organizing institutions in society (Holstein &
Gubrium, 1999). The language used to describe
family, kinship linguistics, provides tools to
order and organize familial relationships, as
well as language to discuss families (Finch,
2008). Such language most often doubles as
both a name and a social category. For instance,
the term Mom is a social category—a parent
role typically operated by a female-identifying
parent—and it is also a personal and intimate
kinship term used to address mothers directly.
One often refers to kin using names (e.g., Mom)
or terms (e.g., brother) that carry shared meaning
and are thus recognizable and readily understood
by outsiders who have no connection to the fam-
ily members being described. When individuals
refer to their parent by a name that deviates from
Mom or Dad, and thus departs from traditional
understandings of family, others may not recog-
nize their familial relationships via these kinship
terms, which may contribute to confusion and
invalidation of key family relationships.
Easily recognizable kinship terms are
intertwined with ideologies regarding what
constitutes family. Hegemonic ideals of the
standard North American family (SNAF; Smith,
1993) state that the model family occurs within
a marriage between a man and a woman in
which the mother is the primary caregiver,
the father is a breadwinner, and the children
are biologically conceived (Smith, 1993). The
SNAF ideology, although a social construct
rather than a lived reality for many families,
guides family discourse as well as policy, and,
despite an increase in the prevalence of research
on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,and queer
families, largely guides the eld of family
research as well.
Because of the pervasiveness of SNAF,
same-sex parent families may not be recognized
as families in public—a tendency that may be
especially pronounced for adoptive families,
whose members are often dissimilar physically

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