We were not trying to be Difficult. We were not trying to be Edgy. We were not making a Statement. Yet sometimes, when people hear that our two children have two different last names, they look at us like we have a really large booger hanging out our noses.
Josie has my last name; Maxine has my husband’s. Why? Well, we’re feminists, but the fun kind. Not the type who sing dirge-y folk songs and talk about our personhood; the type who really do try to be fair to each other while maintaining a sense of humor and respect for difference.
Josie has my last name because Jonathan offered. To provide more information than the average Forward reader (or my grandmother) needs, the very first thing Jonathan said to me, after our intense yearlong flirtation finally exploded in romance-novel-esque fireworks, was, “If you want the children to be named Ingall, that’s fine with me.” Given that we had been romantically involved for only oh, 79 minutes, I found that pretty endearing.
I was attached to my name. I’d had it for 28 years. I had bylines under it. It never occurred to me to change it, and not just because I found my surname more euphonious than Jonathan’s — which happens to involve an endless and generally mispronounced parade of consecutive vowels. (For a long time, the name Steuer reminded me of the harshly barked “Frau Blücher!” in “Blazing Saddles.” It made me want to whinny.)
And it never occurred to Jonathan to ask me to take his name. He’d always been attracted to strong women; unlike some strong men, he’d never sought a simpering girly-girl who’d laugh at his jokes and make him feel smart. I’m not suggesting that a woman who eagerly takes her husband’s name is weak, or a bad feminist. (But I am suggesting that a man who insists his wife take his name is.) Whatever other ladies choose to do is just fine by me; American Demographics magazine reported in 1994 that only 2% of married women keep their names. I understand the impulse to “create a new family unit together” or “become a new team.” It just would be cool if now and then, the man took the woman’s name. (Jonathan actually mused aloud about this, too, but quickly decided that because he too had published — in his case, academically — under his birth name, he wanted to keep it. Fair enough.)
But at the time of that initial boots-knockin’, I was not thinking of naming any hypothetical kids. (I was thinking of refractory periods and how soon we could have a do-over.) In many ways, Jonathan is more traditional than I am. I was in the moment; he was choosing china patterns. Right there, before we’d met each other’s parents or done laundry together or learned what the other person took in his or her coffee in the mornings, he just knew. He knew he wanted kids. And he knew me better than I knew myself: I’d never told him I wanted kids, and, indeed, had published an article saying that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a parent. I even believed it to be true. But he knew it wasn’t. And he knew I’d be happy for these undreamed-of children to have my last name, even though I didn’t know until later that it was indeed what I wanted.
Time passed. We dated, we shacked up, we got engaged, we got married. And I got pregnant. Jonathan hadn’t forgotten his blurted-out statement on what was, essentially, our first date. And I’d started thinking more about why I did, indeed, want a little Ingall. I adored my parents and liked the idea of passing on their name. (Yes, their name. Truly, “Ingall” is the only name with which I associate my mother; if she’d kept her maiden name, I might have had a more conflicted name-choosing experience myself. I can’t know.) My brother, who is gay, didn’t seem to be in a rush to settle down. My father’s sisters had taken their husbands’ names. I wanted there to be more Ingalls. It wasn’t a thought-out rejection of patriarchal culture. It was a visceral, primal, inchoate thing. It was what I wanted.
My dad was dismayed when I told him our plan. “Don’t do it! Jonathan won’t feel a sense of ownership if the baby doesn’t have his name!” he protested. Jonathan looked at me blankly when I repeated this to him. “Do I have a reason to doubt it’s mine?” he asked, his gray-green eyes twinkling.
We already had a friend in Berkeley (of course) whose children alternated names. The first had her last name; the second had his name. For the third, they went back to her name. Another friend had an agreement with her husband: Boys would get his name; girls would get hers. (They had two girls.) Right then, we weren’t thinking about having more than one. We had the one and named her Josephine Olive Steuer Ingall. Steuer, like Olive, is a middle name. She goes by Josie Ingall.
Not every country gives mameles this option: France only changed its laws New Year’s Day 2005; before then, parents were obligated to give babies the father’s name. Now they can opt for either name, or, hey, both names. But siblings still have to have the same last name, and a husband cannot take his wife’s surname. And should the parents argue about which name to choose, French law states that the dad gets to pick. Bien sur . Pass the freedom fries.
When I got pregnant with Maxine, we hadn’t revisited the last-name question. Jonathan had made a promise, and he was sticking to it. But I asked, spontaneously, “Do you want this one to be a Steuer?” And perhaps because his relationship with his own father was stronger than it was when we had Josie; because he realized that this was, indeed, something he secretly wanted, perhaps because it really was the fairest option and Jonathan is all about fairness, Jonathan said, “Well, if you don’t mind, it would be nice.”
I didn’t mind; his name had grown on me. I fantasized about giving a child an uber-German name: Lola Steuer! She’d sound like a Weimar stripper! Or Sadie Steuer, a fetching pinafore-wearing moppet from the Old Country.
But then my dad died, and we went with the “M” name, Maxine. We’re now a motley crew of Ingalls and Steuers, and that’s fine by me. And Josie points out that our first names pair off, as well. “We have two Js and two Ms!” she likes to crow.
In our East Village community, people don’t blink at our unconventional naming practices. Here we have gay couples, single
parents, divorced couples, stepsiblings. Lots of kids have different names from their parents. But it’s not just in my nabe.
An admittedly unscientific (because respondents are self-selecting) poll on Babycenter.com found that 56% of respondents said their entire family had the patronymic name; 10% said the mother kept her maiden name but the kids had the father’s name; 7% gave the kids the father’s last name even though the mother was a single mom; 6% gave the child the mom’s last name because the mom was a single mother; 4% used the mom’s last name as a middle name; 3% hyphenated everybody’s name; 2% gave the children the mother’s name even though she was partnered with the father; 1% gave the children the mother’s last name even though she was married to the children’s father, and another 1% did some unspecified other thing like alternating last names or having the whole family adopt a combined surname. Let the wild rumpus start!
Our parents’ friends have been very civilized and polite about the whole matter, though I’m sure they’ve done their share of muttering. One cousin’s girlfriend did express her horror: “But how will they know they’re sisters?!” I smiled coolly and told her, “If our kids don’t know they’re sisters, having different last names will be the least of our problems.” Last week a stranger cornered me at a party, yammering she’d heard that my kids had different last names and surely that couldn’t be true. I assured her it was. “You’re not serious!” she said. “Why would you do that to them?” I couldn’t give her an answer. She didn’t expect one. She steamrolled on, “How will they know they’re sisters?” (What is it with that question? The person who holds you down and drools on you and cuts your Barbie’s hair and gives you wet, adoring toothless kisses and protects you in the playground is your sister! How does any of us know that?) Finally I said, “This way works for us.” What else can you say?
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.