My birth parents named me Joy. They always said it was because they were so happy and excited about becoming parents for the first time. That excitement apparently wasn’t enough. At seven years old I was in my first foster home, unable to sleep in a strange bed, wishing that my parents had named me “Crystal” because I heard them talk about her a lot. I cried for hours because I figured they loved her more than they loved me.
I didn’t talk much in that first home. I missed my family and my stuffed animals and my friend next door. The second home was about the same. The third foster home insisted on calling me Sharon: “Because we’re Sharon our home with you.” They must have thought that Joy was an ironic name for a little girl who didn’t smile much. Of course, nobody other than them called me Sharon, which led to groan-inducing explanations of my nickname if anyone overheard. Luckily, the fourth foster mom let me go by my middle name, Alicia, and she even notified the school that this was my preferred name.
Now I’m seventeen, and I’m on my fifth foster home. I know adoption is neither an option nor a necessity at this point; I’m aging out of the system in a few months. Ninety-three days, to be exact. It used to bother me that nobody decided to adopt me, but I’ve made my peace with it, I think. I’ve been saving up money from my afterschool job, and my foster parents will let me live with them until I graduate. I know I’m not unlovable or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Things just never worked out the way I thought they would. The only part that really disappoints me is that my name won’t be legally changed. For years I’ve filled notebooks with ideas of all the different names I could’ve chosen. I know it’s silly, but it’s always felt like if my name changed, I would be empowered to take on a whole new identity, one that was truly mine.
I’m pondering this today during history class. We have our laptops out and are supposed to be working on our research papers, but I finished mine last week. So instead, I’m listening to my favorite playlist and scrolling through fashion websites. I’m not a fashionista or anything, but the different outfits remind me of different names. I see a fringe vest and think, There’s Kylie, whom I envision as a trendy brunette who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Or I’ll see a sweet dress and think of timid, kind-hearted Beth, who loves anything feminine and floral-patterned. Bright colors remind me of Poppy, a preppy over-achiever. Anything edgy inspire my idea of Quinn, a witty poet who wears leather jackets and tall boots. I love all of these ideas, but none of the names seem to fit me or who I want to become.
The name I really want for myself is Maureen. I heard the name in a musical and instantly fell in love with it, even though the character kind of sucked. But I imagine Maureen as a wonderful person. I love wearing maroon dresses and black leggings, and that just feels like something a Maureen would do. A Maureen is someone who is beautiful and confident, uninterested in what others think about her. She’s strong and enjoys life. She’s exactly who I want to be. I’ve even started secretly calling myself Maureen—I just have to get everyone else on board. I glance up at the clock. Only a few minutes left before we have to put our computers up. If I don’t do it now, I’ll lose my nerve.
I open my school e-mail and start typing a message.
“To all my teachers and administrators,
“Growing up in foster care, I feel I have never gotten to participate in my own life’s events. Many of you are aware that I will be aging out of the system soon. I have decided that I will be adopting a new name to commemorate this event. I will now be going by Maureen and will be turning in assignments under this name. Please update your roll call to reflect this change.
“Thank you, and have a nice day.
“Maureen Jensen (dead name Alicia).”
I quickly hit the send button before I can change my mind, and I feel a rush of relief. I’ve finally taken control of something in my life. I send a similar text to my friends. It seems more appropriate to tell my foster parents in person, so I can do that after work tonight. I wonder when I should change my name on social media. Geez, I can feel myself grinning.
When the bell rings, I start rushing out the door and bump into someone. I go to say sorry but am immediately interrupted.
“Watch where you’re going, Joy-Alicia-Sharon-Dumbass,” a voice says. Ugh. It’s Craig, wearing a stupid little smirk on his face. Craig was my neighbor when I lived in foster home number three, and he’s always been annoying.
“Actually, it’s Maureen now. You can either call me that or nothing at all,” I say as I brush past him.
“I grew up with you. Your name isn’t Maureen. You’re so freaking unstable. All the normal people have one name their whole life and you have to have twenty.”
“That’s wrong, since a lot of women have more than one name during their lifetime. If you haven’t noticed, it’s socially acceptable for women to change their names when they get married. Occasionally men change their names when they get married, too. But whatever you say.” I shrug and continue to walk.
“I can call you Maureen-dumbass, then?” he shouts back. I turn back to glance at him. The smirk is still there, but it’s less enthusiastic than before. I ignore him and keep walking. He isn’t getting under my skin today. Not today, not ever again. I’m Maureen now, above the petty immaturity of high school, focused on the possibilities of the future. And I’ve never been more excited for them.