i should have given my kids my last name

My daughter’s last name is the same as her father’s, but only because she came third. Had she been born first, she would have taken mine. That was the deal we struck in the interest of fairness. A boy: Tomkins. A girl: Apfel. I wanted a boy and my husband preferred a girl, so we offered each other the gift of lineage as compensation for mild gender disappointment. The first baby would be determinative: for practicality’s sake, all subsequent children were to bear its surname, whatever sex they turned out to be.

Baby number one was a son and so became a Tomkins, as did the rest of them in time. It is a moniker I never, not for a second, considered taking myself. The full name I had at 26, the age at which I got married, was already a profound part of who I was. It was the name that made the local papers when I won a race in high school. It was the name printed in dark, formal script on three academic degrees. It was the name on my passport, the document that allowed me to leave the country I grew up in and meet my future husband in the first place. Lauren Apfel was a person with whom I was intimately, contentedly familiar. Lauren Tomkins, on the other hand, who the hell was she? Not only didn’t I know: I didn’t care to find out.

Marriage is a new beginning, but, for a woman, it need not be an end. If my husband could say ‘I do’ without losing a piece of his identity, why couldn’t I? This is a question we have been asking since the dawn of feminism and it is one that might sound overly dramatic when posed in 2013. Women today are the flag-bearers, after all, of a ‘kinder, gentler, and more traditionally minded’ postfeminism, as Judith Warner has insightfully put it. We aren’t fighting the same fights our mothers did. Or, at any rate, we aren’t fighting them so hard.

What’s in a last name is not part and parcel anymore of burning bras or the struggle for wage equality, but it is still, I would argue, dramatic. Look at the whirlwind of anxiety right now surrounding the activity of naming a baby. If we show signs, as a generation, of believing that a child’s fortune hinges on her first name, surely we should take just as seriously the import of how we choose her last name. Men certainly take it seriously. This is why the vast majority of them continue to hold the surnames they were born with.

The reasons a woman might forgo the surname she was born with are well-rehearsed and some of them are more compelling than others (aesthetics, for instance, makes sense to me). The reasons she might not pass that surname, if retained, onto her own children are less so. The two, however, are not unrelated. How many female friends have wielded this justification at me for the initial decision: “But I want to have the same last name as my kids!”? It doesn’t take a master of logic to realize there exists another conceivable way to accomplish that goal. If the objective were simply a shared family identity, the men would be taking our names half the time.

Which, of course, they don’t. Such is the power of precedence. Female identity has been subsidiary to male identity from time immemorial. We are only now in the infancy of an effort to change that fact in a meaningful way. Not every woman wants to be a part of that effort. Not every woman thinks that replacing her last name with her husband’s is a contributing cause of its failure. I get that, I really do, even if I am not terribly sympathetic to it.

But what I don’t get is how even the women who choose to keep their last name on principle still give the children their husband’s last name automatically. It’s like feminism can stretch only so far before it snaps. We dig in our heels for the beginning of the race, but we can’t quite cross the finish line with the next generation. And whose ego is winning out there, if we are being honest? Which of us in this subset wouldn’t prefer, on balance, for our kids to have our own surname? The pride I felt during those first days in hospital with my newborns was undeniable, the days when their wristbands and bassinet labels still meant they were, in the eyes of the world, ‘Baby Apfel.’

My regret with my children’s last name is precisely this. It is that I let the claims of fairness in one house override the larger cultural significance of reversing a long-term pattern of inequality. That’s the problem in a nutshell, though, isn’t it: the particular trumping the general? Each husband who supports women’s rights in theory, but feels a little too uncomfortable with his wife bucking the trend. Each wife who might want to pass her name onto the kids, but feels a little too reluctant to press the point. It all adds up to a whole lot of double standards. And a whole host of women whose maiden names are stuck in the middle, like fossils, so that old friends can find them on Facebook. And a whole bunch of kids who have last names that are different from their mothers, without a corresponding amount of kids who have last names that are different from their fathers.

If I harbor any hopes for my daughter in this respect, it is not only that she keep her name. It is that she believe her children should keep it too and that she finds someone to have those children with who is enlightened enough to agree with her. My hope for my sons is that they grow up to be so enlightened.

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A different version of this piece appears at The Guardian.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “i should have given my kids my last name

  1. Richard Apfel

    You always get me thinking.

    Great piece wonderfully written as usual.

    Love,

    Dad Apfel

  2. I love this topic. I can’t believe how many women take their husband’s names. I don’t have a judgment exactly, but I am like: didn’t you want to keep your name. I mean, it’s YOUR NAME!

  3. I have to agree with your dad. Great piece — wonderfully written and thought provocative. I can’t believe I never even considered this.

  4. Erika

    As a woman that considered both options and ended up taking her husband’s last name because I liked it (who wouldn’t like the last name of Joy?!), I thought your piece was nicely written but didn’t consider this other option.

    • Yes, absolutely agree with that option. Changing a name for aesthetic reasons makes a lot of sense to me. That paragraph was edited out (there is a link in the piece to another article that discusses it, though)! Was more trying to touch upon the political aspects here. Thanks for writing in.

  5. megan

    I’m am writing OMG because I feel an OMG is needed here. I fought for a year and felt like a tortured soul because I took my husbands’ name. Like you, I felt comfortable and familiar and why on earth do we have to take theirs anyway? It’s stupid and the, “what will you do when your kids are in school?” debate is asinine.
    I think if I didn’t have so many friends who didn’t take their husbands last name – I might not think about it. I would just feel like I’m going with the norm. But I have a ton of friends who didn’t and I feel like the one left out who didn’t stand for what they believe in.
    I will say aesthetics can definitely be a big turn on/turn off to the whole change. Abernathy is an awesome Scottish name! Someone with red hair, like myself, should have till the end of time! Not Oldendorp – one in which EVERYONE and their mother mispronounces.
    My husband was very hurt that I wanted to change it – so guess he falls in “i love my feminist wife…but want her to have my name because it’s tradition” said the man who is an atheist.
    Ok…enough venting. SO glad you wrote this article. I will as well be whispering in my daughter’s ear not to take her whatever future’s last name – as well as my two sons.
    Great article to get the ball rolling.
    -Megan

  6. Adrienne Stone

    I’ve been waiting for this one Lauren and I love it. Our kids’ have Graeme’s last name and I feel much the way about it you do. The ‘trade-off’ was that I got to pick the other names and our first son has the first name of my father (Jonathan), as middle names my grandfather’s (Julius) and my name (Stone). So he’s Jonathan Julius Stone Hill. One surprisingly common reaction was “Why doesn’t he have a name from Graeme’s family?” As if the name “Hill” counted for nothing.

    • Thank you, Adrienne, for your comment and also because you encouraged me to write the post a while back! The responses among the women who kept their names have been interesting: a bunch who say it never even occurred to them. And then another group who have a story to tell about the reasons or trade-offs. The preponderance of deals that were struck for the father’s last name, though, didn’t have an option for the mother’s last name. It’s that ingrained. Which is why even though ours was down to luck, and *could* have gone in my favor, I now feel like I should have insisted for push-back purposes!

  7. Such a good perspective on names and made me think. I was married at 23 and didn’t think for two seconds about keeping my name. I wonder if I had already been writing back then if I would have felt differently. I have to admit that my reasons for taking on Badzin over Sackheim were mostly superficial . . . meaning, I found the name Sackheim sort of an eyesore and hard to say and spell. Badzin is slightly hard to spell and sometimes mispronounced, but overall I like the way it sounds. Yup, I’m totally serious that I didn’t think beyond those factors. You still like me though, right? 😉

  8. Becca

    I won that deal. First was a girl, so she and her subsequent sister got my name. The funny part is that in the hospital I started to cave and worry that people would think her father wasn’t her father, and he insisted that we stick with our plan. The funnier part is that no one ever doubted he was their father, but rather everyone who meets him through them assumes he is Mr. MyLastName. I have to say, 17 years later, I am so very happy that they have my name, politically and personally (first of all, it just makes me happy, and second, the name would have ended, given family history and the fact that my sister’s kids have her husband’s name).

    • Oh what a great story, thank you for sharing! I am envious. And it is funny because the couple who gave us the boy/girl idea in the first place is now a family with three daughters, where the husband if referred to constantly as Mr. Wife’sLastName.

  9. Michelle

    Such a lovely post! Thank you so much for your thoughts – they really resonated with me.

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