Although creating a brand new surname after marrying is a rare choice, it’s viewed by some as the most equal, romantic, and kid-friendly solution in an antiquated patriarchal system. But it’s also a very easy way to anger your loved ones.
Writing in to Philip Galanes’ Social Q’s column at the New York Times, an advice seeker laments the hurt their father experienced after the couple changed their last names. “Anonymous” writes:
My wife and I changed our surnames when we married two years ago. We didn’t like our own names (or each other’s), so we chose a new one. I had a Jewish-sounding name, but I changed it to start a new clan with my wife, not to escape my heritage. Sadly, my dad is still very upset. I love him and have told him that I’m not rejecting him, but he is taking it as a personal attack. I get little sympathy from friends; they think I’m rejecting my Jewishness. What to do?
ANONYMOUS, NEW YORK
There is no perfect solution to the surname question. If you take your partner’s last name out of convenience, you might still mourn the loss of your old identity (or if you’re a professional established with your old name, the loss of business, a byline, or recognition). If you keep your last name to hold on to that personal identity, things can get tangled if children come into the picture and you have to decide what their surname will be.
Oftentimes, in hetero couples where the woman keeps her name, the child’s surname still matches their father’s for a range of reasons—religion, social norms, the woman not caring for her maiden name for some reason. Giving a child their mother’s surname is still often met with confusion and chaos. You can hyphenate your last names and pass them down to children, but that works only one generation down, becoming needlessly complex if your children marry and have their own children.
But the brand new surname is its own unique boat-rocker. Over at Babble, Brynn Huntpalmer writes of herself (Hunt) and her husband’s (Palmer) decision to create a hybridized new surname after getting married. They considered themselves “progressive thinkers with rebellious tendencies,” and liked the idea of neither of them forfeiting a name unless both of them had to. Huntpalmer writes that they considered hyphens—too corporate looking. They considered combination names where you create an entirely new word—too bizarre. They wanted names that gave them a sense of shared unity, and loved the “new clan” idea. But that’s not how other people felt. She writes:
My mother-in-law was personally offended that my husband would no longer carry on his father’s name. “I get that Bryn might be a modern woman, but couldn’t she just keep her name instead?” she asked. It didn’t even occur to her that my husband wanted to change his name. And to this day when she sends mail, if it’s to both of us she will address it correctly, but if it is just for my husband, she uses his former name. My dad and stepmother, meanwhile, never actually voiced their disapproval, but I can tell they find it odd as well; they too refuse to address mail to me correctly. I don’t let it bother me, though: whenever I get another package addressed to Bryn Hunt, I just roll my eyes and move on.
While several of our single friends really liked the idea and even began playing around with different ways to combine their own names with their current partners’, others clearly thought we were weird. Some even made jabs at my husband for somehow “sacrificing his manhood” to our marriage.
Huntpalmer mentions that a common reason people are more than happy to change their surname from the one they grew up with, in spite of the confusion, is that the name came from a father who played no real role in their lives beyond the name they gave. She mentions that former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa merged his surname, Villar, with that of his wife’s, Corina Raigosa, when they married, in part because his father wasn’t around. The writer’s husband was grateful to be able to start a new chapter of his life without the bad memories of his father’s name.
I took my husband’s name for the same reason, in part because my surname was not the name of any man who had figured in my life. For this reason, I was happy to give my daughter my new name, because with it comes a sense of connectedness, not to mention a direct lineage, that mine did not.
Same-sex couples typically choose from the same four name-changing options as heterosexual couples: A) both keep their names, B) one person takes the other’s, C) hyphenating, or D) choosing a brand new name. In one case, Charlie Gurion and David Wilk of Chicago chose to change both names to the new surname Spinner after marrying, the maiden name of Mr. Gurion’s paternal grandmother. It’s considered an “heirloom surname,” and people were a bit confused by it. Over at Crain’s Chicago Business, Lisa Bertagnoli writes:
Friends and family were surprised. “They thought we were going to hyphenate,” Mr. Gurion says. His father, while supportive, “took the most time getting used to it,” because of the unusual history of the name Gurion. Mr. Gurion’s grandparents took that name, after Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, when they relocated to the U.S. in the mid-20th century. “My father hoped we would have Gurion in our name at least somewhere,” Mr. Gurion says.
This brings us back to the original issue brought up by the Social Q’s letter writer, “Anonymous,” in which the creation of a new name can feel like a kind of clan betrayal, particularly when legacy, religious or otherwise, comes into play.
In Galanes’ response, he writes:
I am trying to sympathize with you, Anonymous, but absent a more compelling explanation for the switch than middling dislike for your original name, it’s not easy. Your dad’s feelings are simpler to grasp: He feels abandoned by your unorthodox behavior. Why does your “new clan” require a new name?
Galanes doesn’t waste time asking the letter writer directly if there isn’t a bit of “white bread envy” going on here, reminding him of the “ethnic cleansing” that often took place to Anglicize any name that sounded remotely foreign. Names are arbitrary, he writes, but also powerful. He asks the letter writer to “dig deeper” as to why he felt the need to change his name.
Sure, dig deeper, but I think many of us have reached a point where the deeper digging we want to do is into the issue of a world that still insists on a certain kind of reflexive observation of tradition that may or may not suit us anymore.
We are already well into the hard work of fine-tuning the institution of marriage—what it looks like, how long it should last, who has the right. What we call our family, how we choose to identify it, is more important and individualized than ever. Yes, names are powerful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adapt them to the lives we want to live.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.