A Generational Blip?: The Last Name Question

14355_176717805821_592730821_2748490_7989462_nThe fact that my youngest child is about to leave home and go off to college, and that my oldest child will shortly turn the magical age of 21, is making me weirdly reflective.  It’s amazing to realize that this huge part of my life, this stage that has so greatly occupied me for twenty-one years, is about to be over.  Done.  Believe me, I know that parenting doesn’t stop when they leave home, but still, all that thinking, all that angst, all that decision making about child-raising, it’s over.  No more agonizing over those tough questions around nursing on demand or gender-based toys or how much allowance at what age or when they can walk home alone from school….  The list goes on but I’ll stop there.

That part of my life is firmly behind me.  My kids got through babyhood, and toddlerhood, and tweenhood, and even most of adolescence, relatively unscathed.  They weren’t ruined by the toy soldiers given by a babysitter who didn’t know our no-war-toys rule, or the Barbie given by the well-meaning aunt who didn’t know our no-Barbie rule, or by the comic books or sugared cereals or inconsistent naptimes that all happened despite our best efforts.  They’ve come out pretty okay.

But there is one question from those angsty early days that still feels fresh to me: The Last Name Question.

To change one’s name or not when getting married? To hyphenate or not? And that’s only Part A of the question.  Part B is, what to do with the kids and their last names?  These were questions that occupied a good deal of my thoughts years back, but they’re not questions I’ve dealt with much in recent years.  And yet, the questions, and the implications of the decision, still feel quite alive and relevant.

I did not change my name when I got married.  I was who I was.  It was both a feminist choice and a practical choice.  Besides which, I have a cool last name.   (If you’ve seen the recent fun time-wasting game about creating your public radio name, I’m the one whose name is already odd enough that I could go on NPR as is).

And yes, I admit, keeping my name made my father extremely happy.  When my husband and I got engaged, my father actually told my husband that it was okay with him if I didn’t change my name.  Seriously, with a straight face.

And then there was my mother, who of course changed her name when she got married in 1960. Later, she regretted the choice and took her original last name as her middle name, to be used on book covers and business cards.

But what about the kids, people asked.  Well, what about them?  Young and childless, we were sure we’d figure it out.  In 1990, when I got married, most women I knew were doing the same thing at the time, so really, this was not a big deal.  And what if you hyphenate, people would ask, and then they marry people with hyphenated names?  What then?  Horrors.  Whatever.  They’d figure it out.

At dinner a while ago with the parents of two of my son’s close friends, I looked around and noted that all three of us moms had names different than our husbands.  We are typical of our generation and demographic.  The list of names in my son’s high school graduation program showed that more than half of the mothers of his classmates had different names than their spouses.  The list of parents at his religious school confirmation two years ago showed only one mother who had the same last name as her spouse.  At a reunion dinner of his preschool class right before graduation we realized that every mom there had a different last name than her spouse.  This is the norm in the world in which he has been raised.

So, what about the kids? Well, among my kids’ peers a certain percentage were given hyphenated last names.  For the unhyphenated crowd, in straight families most kids have their father’s last name, and many (like my son) have their mother’s as their middle name – in the gay families with no gendered fall-back position, it’s often a toss up which name is in the middle and which is last, but most kids have both one way or another.  Other parents have come up with all kinds of combinations, including in some cases a brand new family name.  In other words, lots of solutions to the last name dilemma have been found, beyond the traditional solution of “one family, one name.” And never mind what divorces and remarriages and nontraditional family configurations have done to last names in families.  When my kids were born, there were all kinds of solutions to the last name question.

For my parents and my grandmother, who were cheerleaders of my decision not to change my name, women keeping their names was a move in a new and good direction.  They saw it as a sign of progress.  So it’s quite interesting, and yes, surprising, that my cohort of mothers may turn out to be just a generational blip. From a completely unscientific and ancedotal point of view, it seems that keeping one’s last name at marriage is not longer the norm.  Most young women seem to be  changing their names.

I realize there are many good reasons to do so.  Perhaps they want the fresh start represented by a new name.  Perhaps they didn’t have a good relationship with their father and don’t want to keep his name. One friend of my sister’s grew up with a hyphenated name and couldn’t wait to get rid of it when she got married.   That all makes sense and I understand.  But one idea I often hear cited is that they want their family to unified with one name.  I nod respectfully, but honestly, having a mother with a different last name never made any of my cohort feel that we were any less of a unified family.  And if you must choose one unified name, why must it be the man’s?  But I digress.  If feminism is about women having the agency to make a full range of choices, then choosing to change your name is as much of a feminist choice as choosing not to change your name.  I get it.

And yet I admit that I don’t entirely understand.  I’ve been told that it’s too cumbersome to have a different last name than a spouse. After 23 years of having a spouse with a different last name, and children with a different last name, I can safely say, no, it’s not cumbersome.  Not at all.  All these moms in my cohort are used to the occasional minor inconvenience.  We’re used to calling pediatricians offices and explaining that we’re so-so, mother of this-one or that-one.  It’s not really a big deal. People can deal with it.  Sometimes they need some education, but they can learn. (Okay, there was that one time at passport control, but it got quickly resolved).

When my then-to-be-husband and I discussed last names early on, we were in agreement about having different last names.  Though we did briefly discuss finding a new, original, name, our ultimate decision was an expression of core values of egalitarianism and family history.  It was about the importance of partnership between parents, and about preserving women’s identities and history and aspirations alongside those of men.  I chose to do that by keeping my own name and giving my children my family name as a middle name.  An imperfect solution, but it’s worked.  And in all fairness, I know that some other families who share those values find other ways to transmit them.

So then back to the question of what will our children do, those poor children burdened with all those extra names. My children are not yet at the life partner stage, so it  remains to be seen what they’ll do then.  For a while in high school, my daughter took on my name and hyphenated it with my husband’s last name, which I admit I loved, but it didn’t last too far into college.  As for my son’s hyphenated friends, by this stage, the end of high school, most (though not all) of the boys have dropped their mothers’ names and go only by their fathers’.  That’s a little sad, given the intention behind the choice at the time, but it’s their choice to make.  I look forward to seeing the creative solution my kids and their peers will choose when the time comes, and I’ll do my best to be respectful.

Amherst-College-Campus2It’s strange to think that after all the deliberation and intentionality that went into the decisions about our own last names and those of our children, we may well just be a generational blip.  As I looked around the table at our dinner that night, I realized that of course all of this is about much more than whatever name one chooses to go by, or what names we give our children. Whatever last names they carry, the fact is that all three of the boys at dinner that night are going to be attending their mother’s colleges this fall.  That’s an interesting generational change of a different sort.

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to A Generational Blip?: The Last Name Question

  1. Thought-provoking. My wife wanted to keep her name. So she did. I offered to make her last name my middle and vice versa. No dice. So she and I have different last names. All the kids have her last name as their middle names.

    Choice, the feminist goal. We made it (mostly, in many ways, in some places).

  2. Mona Alfi

    Loved this article. It resonated with me. We “compromised,” legally I have my husband’s name, but I go by “my” name professionally, which really is the name that everyone knows me as, and the name I know myself as. Here’s another wrinkle on the name dilemma…my husband and I were recently talking about what we will do for our headstones (a long, long time from now), and I realized I wanted MY name on it, not my married name, because otherwise, no one would know that was me buried there! But I also realized that I want people to know that we were married, and not just two strangers who happened to be buried side by side. Thank goodness for double headstones.

  3. Stephanie Fink

    I always planned to take my husband’s last name when I married. New family unit, new team, team name. It made sense to me. Since then, I’ve heard a couple of reasons behind others’ choices to change their last names that really resonated with me. The one I often go to is this: if I’m going to have some other person’s last name, I choose the last name of the man I chose over the last name of the man my mother chose. Not because I don’t love and respect my father, but rather because this union affirms my choice.

    I did have a little freak out, though, when I was registering for a conference that was to take place soon after our wedding. I was asked what name I wanted to appear on my name tag. I had been sure that it would be just my first name and my new last name. As soon as I hung up the phone, I started having an anxiety attack. In that moment I decided to take my maiden name as my middle name. It helped me through the transition.

  4. Gary Bretton-Granatoor

    While I could write (and have written) lengthy pieces on this issue — as a man who hyphenated his last name and our entire family with three adult children who have that same hyphenated last name — my beloved spouse and I made a decision almost 36 years ago when we embarked upon this journey: when we were getting married, we were mature enough to figure out what we wanted to do with our names. When our children become adults, we will give them the same latitude we gave ourselves. In sum, it ain’t our problem — and the solution will be theirs and theirs alone.

  5. Andrew Pepperstone

    I told my fiancé Paula that I did not “insist” that she take my last name. We thought about keeping our own names, since we were both going to be professionals in our fields, we thought about hyphenation, two name each, turning then into Hebrew names, German names, and so on. But then what about our kids? We wanted to have a single family name. Thankfully, we each had short names. I was Pepper and she was Stone. We combined into Pepperstone, which now feels very natural to all of us. We always hope that when people hear our story, they will at least make the choice about last names with more thought.

  6. I lived in Germany for almost 20 years, where “one family, one name” is the law of the land and wives generally hyphenate while husbands do not. When it comes to kids, the parents have to decide on the last names at birth (and the whole name has to meet with the approval of the authorities, a legal nicety that shocked me). When I returned to the States at the age of 48, I was disheartened to learn that I was almost the only substitute teacher in my Cleveland suburban school district who went by “Ms.” Those other two “M” words, which I had been taught by feminists were essentially signals to men about whether a woman was the property of another man or not, were back in copious use.

    I taught eighth grade English at an all-girls school last spring, and watched a wonderful documentary called MISS REPRESENTATION that put forth an interesting theory: Reality TV and many other media outlets have been exploiting a patriarchal backlash against feminism for the past couple of decades. The film provided harrowing statistics about the rise in female teenage suicides, plunge in high school girls’ science and math grades, and the explosion of teenie and pre-teenie sexual references since about 2000. I hope the makers of this movie are right; if so, our generation’s choice ultimately won’t be a blip at all, but a precursor.

  7. dcc

    We had a long, long, long talk about last names. My last name was hyphenated but it was one name to me. Yet it was two names (and in reality actually is two names not one united one) to my wife. She didn’t want to take both my parents’ names if we couldn’t keep some of her family history. I wrote about it here and got in a lot of trouble with my mom (who was totally cool about us changing our names until she wasn’t). In short hyphenation, when I was young, was very new and wasn’t understood. It is also cumbersome and doesn’t really think about what comes next or how to transfer family tradition to the next generation after the revolutionary action.

    All that said, the idea that keeping your father’s name as opposed to the man you are marrying is somehow a feminist choice is false. The feminism comes in a balanced and open relationship. It comes from a husband cleaning and cooking. It comes from a wife working. It also comes from a wife cleaning and cooking and the husband working if that makes more sense for that family. Or even both parents sharing both sides of the home work/ financial work balance.

    The entire point, in my white male perspective, of feminism is to level the playing field. Changing names may have been revolutionary a generation ago but if you look at the numbers, hyphens and two-last-name-families have done nothing to break the glass ceiling, even out earnings rates, or provide for real substantive family benefits coming from the work place. Even in the progressive world of Reform Judaism, all you have to do is look at the top and see all those hyphens are attached to men’s names on the doors of leadership. Sure it is normalized in most parts of the world for women to work but a review of the “opt out” conversation or even the need to “lean in” is enough to know that we aren’t there yet.

    In the end I dropped my hyphen and took my father’s last name as our family name.

  8. Neil from Ohio

    Essentially, the issue is free choice. People can choose to do anything they want to with their names. That includes the “traditional” practice of a wife taking her husband’s surname. Though it may not jibe with your politically correct sensibilities, it works for them, and that is a good enough reason for them to do it.

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  10. Yigal

    So I decided to go to the authority on names: wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Married_and_maiden_names) and interestingly, the U.S. is kind of alone in the married-women-takes-husband’s name policy. What you mostly see is a range between keeping one’s name (Japan) or combining one’s name with the spouse (Portuguese speaking countries).

    Digging a bit further in Wiki-know-it-all it turns out that 80% of married women change their name to their husband’s name. The practice appears to be mostly a British custom (which explains why India follows it, but China does not), and that in the middle ages (as well as today in Japan) a lower-rank man would take on a wealthier’s family last name when he marries into it.

    So what do I make of this all? Names carry with them values. The U.S. based name convention is basically feudal in origin under which, the Lord owns the vassal, the servant owns his wife. I support the reversal of this value system by having women keep their name, incorporating their mother’s name if this is appropriate and giving their children a long first-middle-middle-last name, so that the children can make a choice of values.

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