Friday, April 19, 2013

The Great Surname Debate

Whenever I think of the American custom for a woman to change her surname to her husband's, I always think of anthropology.

While marriage is a universal practice, the terms of such practice are varied around the world. The answer to the question of who is marrying into whose family changes. If the society is matrilineal, the link to the mother is most important, thereby rendering the husband the adopted one (and everything that means). If it is patrilineal, then the opposite is true.

It should come as no surprise that America is a nation of men.

I'm a strange bird. When I found out the history of my surname, I found held no affinity for it. My father's name was changed through adoption by his step-father as a baby. He didn't even know his biological family was different until much later. When I was in high school, and discovering myself, I went through a period where I wanted to reject the name. Of course, this adopted name is very rare in the U.S. and makes my name combo even more so. So I didn't change it.

My mother's maiden name is fairly unusual except for a small area of the country where my extended family is tucked away. Despite this rarity, I didn't change my name to my mother's last, as it seemed a mute point. I figured I would get married and change my name then.

As I got older my relationship to my name changed. I liked the rarity of my name (though there is a woman with the same last/first combo in Australia - but we don't talk about her.). I like even more what it means - the history of rejection and adoption that it brings. I also like the sound of my full name. I decided if and when I got married I would only consider a last name that was weightier than mine... But this decision was quickly replaced by the idea that I would never change my name.

The fact that I still get some confusion over my name being different caused me to make changes in social media, though professionally, my name is just my own. I don't mind socially being called by Christian's last name, although it does bother me when close friends make the mistake (which happens though rarely).

I would have let the whole thing rest, but we have come to a difficult juncture. What last name should our child have?

I've thought a lot about this. While the meaning of my last name and the associated clan is way cooler (it just is...the motto is "Learn to Suffer" which makes me do my evil laugh every time I even think it) there are other considerations. Christian is the only boy. His family gave him 2 middle names, both of which are family surnames ( pressure). Needless to say, he has always felt the need to "carry on the family name" even though his last name isn't exactly rare.

Of course, if we have girls, it doesn't matter. They will come to a point where I am and may or may not decide to pass on their name. I even suggested that if we have a daughter she should take my name. Christian wasn't opposed, except if we only had girls then his name would be left out/not passed on. I still like the idea of daughters having the name of their mother, but I'm not married to the idea (badum cha!). I also like the idea of all the children having the same last name, but for different reasons.

For boys, I am not attached to my name. I understand Christian's need (despite my awesome meaning surname) as a very American man. I'm fine with sons having his name. The first name we picked out for a boy sounds great with his surname. I like the meaning of the full name and how the middle name references me (P.S. You won't find out what it is unless we're having a boy!).

But if the boys have his name, it brings me back to that question of giving all the children the same name. While I like the idea of daughters standing firm and strong, representing their mother's line, I don't feel the need to pass on my surname. It was adopted - not biological. Names, while important, are also something that change through life (both legally and socially). Even if I gave a daughter (or a son, for that matter) my name, there is no guarantee she would keep it. People do all kinds of weird things with names these days that can result in breaking family links. Some people make up names they give themselves when they marry, completely different than the names they were given at birth. Who is to say my child wouldn't do this or something similar?

The question gets me thinking why this is happening.

The reason this is even a debate has nothing to do with names, but with changes in gender roles. This is all about women and men. The question of who is more important - who is marrying whom into the family - is what causes the confusion of names. In some places in the U.S. different names are not an issue because gender roles are loose and fast (I mean think of the Castro! Helloooo! Not to mention Berkeley!). The Bay Area probably has every iteration of family name choice that can be. The assumptions about family names being the same one way or another are just not made... with one exception.

I think married white people are assumed to have one family name. This is weird and nonsensical, but brings me great amusement at the grocery store when I enter my rewards card and Christian gets called "Mr. Donkin" (which happens way more often than you might think).

In other places in America (I'm thinking Oklahoma or Idaho), I would expect, it is rare for women to have different names or to deviate from the married family's name. This has to do with ties to family and more traditional cultural expectations. All married couples are assumed to have the same last name, and it is the husband's. In these places, a difference in name implies a divorce or illegitimacy somewhere in the family history. This would be a mark and would likely be avoided (thus the need to keep up the husband's name tradition to protect family honor).

Of course my (and Christian's) family are traditional in MANY ways. There is nothing wrong with this. And even though they are traditional, my cousin (the closest in age and also female) kept her name. I don't think anyone questioned this because she had built her career with this name. I guess this is an accepted excuse, if grudgingly, for more traditional families. Even as I write this, I don't think my mother's family would ever question what a woman would choose to do. This is wise, as all the women from that line are spitfires and would tear you a new one if you did. My father's family is more traditional in this way, but they wouldn't say anything out of politeness, bless them.

Christian's family was less certain about my choice to keep my name. I think this had to do mostly with the fact that Christian is the only boy (remember those 2 middle names?). However, we came to an understanding. Socially I will (and often do) go by his name. I might even add his name legally at some point (though not hyphenated and I will not get rid of my name). Any boys we have will have Christian's last name without question. The patrilineal connection is protected.

And as I sit here, typing this, I mourn the fact that is how it has to be. It is not because I feel my name absolutely must be passed down, or even that I feel strange about the whole naming convention of tracing one line versus the other. It's not even about the family ties necessarily severed with made up names. Rather, the whole thing - that it is a question, that it is confusing, that it is a debate at all - gives me grief. What's more, I have no idea how to make it better, and that is even worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment