Yesterday as I was driving the kids home from school, somehow the topic in the car shifted to names.
Mira: “Mommy, my teacher’s last name is the same as her husband’s last name.”
Mira (suddenly sounding upset): “A friend in my class said that a family is everyone with the same name.”
Me: “Well, that’s not quite true…”
Mira (now more upset): “She said that if you don’t have the same last name as us, you must not be our real mom, and you must be a stepmom.”
Mira: “That’s what she said. And it made me mad! But you’re our real mommy, right?”
Years ago when Aaron and I got married, there was a small discussion about changing names. I was in grad school at the time, expecting to make a name for myself in academia (hahaha), and I wasn’t all that keen about changing my name. Aaron was completely indifferent to the idea. He was OK if I took his last name, and he was OK with me keeping my name.
I wasn’t really trying to make a feminist statement with my last name. After all, it’s a paternal surname. But it’s the name I’ve had since birth, the name I graduated from high school and college with, and the name I had for the start of my career. I’ve had to spell it countless times, sound it out slowly when people mangled the pronunciation, and agree with hundreds of people that yes, it is an unusual last name. I’m acclimated to handling anything involving this difficult name now.
Aaron’s last name, while not as hard to spell as mine, is equally as unusual and often mispronounced. I didn’t feel like trading away one difficult name for another. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of giving up my public identity and changing every legal document to become a different identity that was still the same person underneath.
Besides, both of us felt strongly that a name wasn’t what tied a family together. A name is deep on a personal level but superficial when it comes to connecting with others. Your family are the people you love, including some who may share the same surname, but certainly not limited to that group. And names can easily be changed, while the person who carries that name remains the same.
We’ve had a few moments since having children where eyebrows were raised that I had a different last name. Most times a quick “we’re married, I didn’t change my name,” is enough to clear up any confusion. If needed, we have miniature, laminated copies of our marriage license. It’s not a big deal to most people.
I still answer socially to Mrs. hislastname and I don’t mind if I’m called that by others or receive letters addressed to that name. I’ve even said that if the name thing ever became an issue, I’d change my name if the situation required it. But for now my legal name is the same name I was born with, and there are no serious objections (from those who matter) to make any changes to that.
I never expected that a kindergartener would suddenly bring the issue to the forefront of our kids’ minds, especially in a school where there are so many families made up of different names, some married, some remarried, some not at all. Of all of the situations I imagined in my head, I never thought it would be the youngest generation making sweeping statements about what defines a family.
Mira was shaken by the declaration from her friend. She knows I have a different last name – which also happens to be her second middle name – and she’s never questioned it until now. I reassured her that we were just as much a family as any other family, and that having a different last name didn’t make me any less her mommy. My name may be different, but she still grew inside my belly.
She’s going back to school today certain that we are a family, and ready to tell her friend that whether you change your name or not doesn’t define how strong of a family you are. A woman changing her name or not is a personal decision that in no way reflects on the love she has for her family or her dedication to that family. Love bonds families together, not names.