The Last Name Project

The Last Name Project* is a neat series of guest posts, hosted by The Feminist Mystique and from two to one, ”profiling an array of individuals and couples about their last name decisions upon marriage or what they expect to choose if they marry.” The Huffington Post ran a piece on the project–”Changing Names: Bloggers Dish On Picking A Married Name“–and included a nice slideshow of twenty quotations that give you a taste of the contributions.

I recently told our story there, too: please go check out the (brief) piece! And consider contributing your own.

* This link takes you to most of the posts, but mine doesn’t seem to pop up there … so it appears to be an imperfect way to get to the project’s whole scope. Anybody have a better link?

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  1. Posted 5 November 2012 at 4:58 PM | Permalink

    I loved your story! I am right in line with you on not being so cool with the idea of changing my name or with the idea that one person in the family gets “left out” name-wise. I know so many people who have found creative ways to deal with this. I love that you picked a new last name for your kids.

  2. Posted 5 November 2012 at 6:17 PM | Permalink

    Hi Molly!

    It wasn’t showing up because I forgot to tag it (oops). But it is now. I’m hoping to make a little button to make it easier to find all of the posts, so hopefully that happens soon.

    Thanks for posting about the project!

  3. Lara
    Posted 6 November 2012 at 8:04 AM | Permalink

    I came at this as an historian, and previously an anthropologist, and the result is that I don’t see any “right” feminist answer. One’s maiden name is (usually) one’s father’s name. Is that less patriarchal than one’s husband’s name? In China, traditionally, women kept their natal surnames, because they never were really considered part of their husbands’ families. Not exactly an enlightened feminist approach, in that context. In many African cultures, getting to change one’s name over the course of life is a privilege accorded to men, who are re-named as they gain status; women have one name their whole lives. (Though in some cultures women also change names as they gain status, usually related to childbearing.)

    In practical terms, I liked the idea of using whatever name made sense in a given situation, so I kept my maiden name professionally, and tried using my husband’s name in contexts where I thought of myself as the tagalong person (for example at church, where he is very active and I am more or less passive; this is turf I think of as “his”). In the end, I could never remember which was supposed to be what, so I just use my maiden name. With friends’ kids, I wanted to use my first name, and did, while we lived in CA. A few years ago, I moved to a more traditional place, where parents try to make their kids call you “Mrs. Husband’s-name,” which really threw me, since when I’m around town with my kids, that’s clearly my turf! A few of my younger son’s friends, when they were around ages 3-5, called me “O___’s Mom,” which I loved. I mean, that exactly specifies their relationship to me, and it just struck me as really cute.

    Now, when I go into school to volunteer, it’s messy again, since my older son’s friends (who are 8) have been trained to call friend’s moms “Mrs. Last-name-of-my-friend,” and do so with great care and adorable politeness, while the teachers are careful to check the directory and call me “Ms. F___.” Which is confusing all around. And I think I prefer “O____’s Mom” directly rather than “Mrs. O’s-last-name,” because then we don’t thread the indicated relationship through my husband, which kind of bugs me in that context.

    Molly, I’ll be curious to hear how you experience the various names that mean “Noah’s Mom” once you are more regularly in the social situations that introduce that possibility. I have found that my reaction is different when the kids themselves do it, rather than their parents.

  4. Lara
    Posted 6 November 2012 at 8:34 AM | Permalink

    And one more thought — I did, of course, consider the possibility of combining, hyphenating, or otherwise putting the names together. But in a cross-cultural marriage, it can be hard to do so gracefully. How do you put together a long Eastern European name with a short Chinese one? Our friends had fun creating a host of hilarious combinations, and certain close friends use them when they send us Christmas cards or post about us on Facebook. That’s fun and sweet, but not exactly something I’d adopt for professional use, or for my kids at school. If we did just pick a new name, would it try to refer to either of our names/families/cultures? If so, I suspect we’d continue to have the same problem.

    This, like the “dilemma” of which name to use after marriage, is a problem I am so grateful that I can have. When my parents got married, my marriage would have been illegal in California, where Asian-white couples were included in misegenation laws. Our names sound funny together because the pairing we’ve made is, historically speaking, only very recently a legal and legible possibility.

  5. Molly
    Posted 6 November 2012 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    Thanks, all!

    Rebecca, we’re still the only family-with-a-mother-and-a-father I know personally who has named a child anything other than his or her father’s first name. I think it’s neat that you’re around more possibilities–but I also really just love that it seems to be okay, at least in my particular class-and-culture location, to have done something weird. Nobody’s agonizing over our children’s sense of family, implying that Eric’s henpecked, etc.

    Shannon, thanks for running the piece and this very interesting series!

    Lara, I think your comments raise these issues: What history/histories are relevant to a particular choice? and What culture’s/cultures’ assumptions and hierarchies are we reacting against? and The answers to those questions are not the same for every family. My little essay at the Last Name Project was already slightly over-length (brevity is not my special gift), but I do realize that the vast majority of families are not A privileged white woman of European heritage and a privileged white man of European heritage get married and have babies. Random side note: I once had a freaking fascinating conversation about names in a culturally-diverse undergraduate writing class; some of the students from outside the US were truly baffled by the American students’ near-universal insistence that obviously you’re not a ‘real family’ if you don’t all have the husband/father’s surname, and the latters’ minds were just blown by the news that that isn’t universal, even amongst quite patriarchal cultures. Anyhoo … the social meaning of Eric’s and my names will never be read in the context of what surnames mean/do in African or Asian cultures, or in the context of being a same-sex couple in a heteronormative world, or in a variety of other contexts in which the relevant historical/cultural meanings are different … in part because we look so much like a white middle-class Midwestern 1950s nuclear family that it’s scary.

    Perhaps the “‘right’ feminist answer” is just to think about it, to try to be aware of the implications, and not to automatically assume a family is really all about a father/husband?

    (Oh, and a p.s. regarding Lara’s comment: Noah was in school for two years before this year, and his schoolmates and teachers all called us Molly and Eric, as Noah himself does–there seems to be a big mix here of adults who do Mr. Lastname and adults who do first names with children, and everybody pretty much calls you what you want to be called. We hope not to move: we dig the local culture here for many reasons. I did once get a phone call for Molly Noahslastname from infant Noah’s pediatrician back in NC, which was confusing but funny and cute, as Noah was brand new and so was the surname. Cards from Eric’s family addressed to Molly Ericslastname feel rather pointed and therefore annoy me, but they are rare. I do know that Molly NoahandSimonslastname is less loaded for me than Molly Ericslastname, so in that sense, the new name thing prevents some possible annoyance on my part at innocent mistakes. On the other hand, I seriously doubt Noah would accept a friend calling me Mrs. Anything, given his own personality and what he knows about my feelings about my name–so we may never get to learn how I feel about children calling me various Inaccurate Things.)

  6. Christina
    Posted 6 November 2012 at 8:34 PM | Permalink

    My husband and I did not change our names when we got married, and now that I’m pregnant with our first kid, we’ve decided to alternate last names with our children. So this baby will have my last name, with his last name as a middle name. Our potential next child will have his last name, with my last name as a middle name. Hyphenating wouldn’t work, since my husband has a long Polish last name. I kind of like the idea of combining our last names, and we jokingly do that now with ourselves and the baby, but he balks at actually legally giving our kid that combined last name.

    As for the argument about my “maiden” name (god I hate that term) being my father’s last name — yes, that is factually true. It’s also true that my father abandoned my family when I was four years old, so I’ve never associated that name with him or his family. It has always been mine to define and own. Of course, other people’s mileage will vary.

    • Molly
      Posted 6 November 2012 at 9:02 PM | Permalink

      You know, I’m beginning to realize that a big part of this question is how individuals conceptualize our relationships with our original surnames. Like you, I don’t strongly associate my surname with my father or with the paternal side of my family of origin: we live far away from our families and don’t see them much (though we’re all on good terms and I’m very close with various family members), and no one around us knows our families of origin. So no one ever thinks of me as “a Westerman” or talks about “the Westermans” or asks “are you kin to so-and-so”? when they hear my name–ditto for Eric and his surname. Had we stayed in the city where both our families live, we would probably have chosen a new family name for all of us. As it is, my name just felt like my name, and of course it was familiar and comfortable, and Eric felt the same about his own name. In any event, it feels good to us that our children have this random name that they’re absolutely free to take or leave when they grow up, which has no emotional weight for us, and which isn’t their father’s name (or mine, for that matter): we’re curious to see what they do with that as adults.

      Ugh to “maiden name,” too. That ship sailed a looooong time ago, peeps.

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