What’s in a (Last) Name?

I recently read a Big Think article by the controversial (pseudo) academic Satoshi Kanazawa, entitled Why Children Must Inherit Their Last Names from Their Father, Not Their Mother. I should have known better. Kanazawa’s reasoning was, of course, ridiculous (I mean, this is the guy who published an article supposedly explaining the “truth” about “why black women are considered less attractive than other women”. I’m paraphrasing but not much. Please. Gag me with a spoon). I should not have given that idiocy (and thinly veiled misogyny) another thought and, at first, I didn’t.

But seeing as how I’ll be a married woman in not so very long, I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. First and foremost, with my own name. My last name, Kresowaty, is long(ish). It’s Ukrainian. The only situation in which people meeting me for the first time have ever pronounced it correctly, or read it aloud without confusion or panic, was when I lived in Poland (and then uber correctly, pronouncing the “w” as a “v”, which in Canada I don’t bother to do). But despite suffering through years of mispronunciations (or having people address me simply as “Miss” rather than attempt my surname), I like my last name. I feel my last name very strongly to the core of my being. I want every good thing I do in my life to have the name “Kresowaty” appear on it. And I don’t think that will change.

Illustration by TC's little cousin, who was 9. I like my drop earrings.

Illustration by TC’s little cousin, who was 9. I like my drop earrings and double necklaces.

I remember reading a blog post several years ago by a woman who explained why she kept her maiden name, rather than take on the last name of her husband and children. I was very surprised by the vitriolic comments her post received. People called her a “feminist c–t”. People told her she was a terrible mother, psychologically damaging her children by sending the message that she does not love or respect their father, or truly consider herself to be part of their family.

Bullshit. My mother has used her own surname, Zilans, both personally and professionally all her life. Her marriage to my father nearly thirty years ago did not change that, and I never felt for a second that she didn’t love us or didn’t want to be part of our family. Still, when I was a kid I once asked my mom why she never changed her name. She said, “Why would I?” That’s all the reason I’ll ever need.

That’s not to say that I don’t respect the choice of women who want to go the “traditional” route and take their husband’s name after their wedding. Knowing how I feel about my own name (and my mother’s) I was surprised when some of my contemporaries changed, or told me they were planning to change, their names. But when I think about it, it’s a lovely choice to make. Some people feel true to themselves when they have the name they were born with. Some people will feel more true to themselves by marking this milestone in their life by changing their last name. And it’s a choice I respect.

But the choice of whether or not to change your surname should remain just that–a choice. This means that while I support a woman who wants to take on her husband’s name, I also equally support any man who wants to take on his wife’s. Why not? A choice is a choice. In contemporary Canadian society, a woman is not the property of, nor subservient to, her husband. So if he wants her name, why the heck not? Or if they both wanted to change their last name to “von Sparkleson”, why the heck not? The argument that such arrangements are “untraditional” holds no water when you consider that Canadian law now recognizes marriages between couples of the same gender. What heteronormative “tradition” is to be honoured in these marriages, marriages which are fully sanctioned and recognized by Canadian law? How about whatever they want? And if gay couples can do whatever they want with their names, why can’t I?

And now back to the question of children. While my mother broke from Western tradition by keeping her last name, my parents still went the traditional route by making my sisters and me “Kresowaty’s”. I don’t dispute their choice–as I said, I feel so much a Kresowaty I can’t imagine being anything else. It’s worth noting, however, that in the hospital the first name I ever bore was “Baby Girl Zilans”, marked on my bassinet because my parents took their time naming me and the hospital needed to call me SOMETHING. So if I could survive those days in the hospital with my mother’s name rather than my father’s and not suffer from some non-traditional naming identity crisis, it’s entirely plausible I could have been a Zilans (yet another formidable Eastern European name) all my life and been perfectly happy.

But it feels different, doesn’t it? Keeping one’s “maiden” name after marriage is generally considered acceptable nowadays but boy oh boy, tell a person you think that your future children should bear YOUR name (since you’re the one doing all the pushing and shoving to get that baby born after all) rather than their father’s, and watch their confusion. Watch the cogs of “That’s not normal!” and “That’s just not how we do things!” turn in their head. It’s an interesting experience. And it’s not just men that seem to feel this way, it’s, well, mostly everyone it seems. Even my own parents seem to have accepted that their line of “Kresowaty’s” ends with their daughters and don’t really see why a couple would bother with the hassle of going against the grain by using the mother’s name, or, as suggested by super genius Marilyn vos Savant (IQ of 228, people) giving maternal surnames to daughters and paternal surnames to sons.

I actually don’t really care if any future sons don’t bear my name, maybe because in my mind I would identify them, by virtue of their gender, with their father. But if I have daughters, I want to have “Kresowaty girls”. I was a Kresowaty girl (now a Kresowaty woman, I suppose). My sisters were Kresowaty girls. And we were awesome girls, who grew up to be awesome people. So if it ain’t broke…..

But it’s not normal. It’s not traditional. It’s not done. And according to the aforementioned controversial Kanazawa, it would cause paternal uncertainty, and a father would be less likely to invest in his kids if they didn’t bear his name, hurting the children and society in general.

Bullshit. Kanazawa’s argument is based around the evils of cuckoldry, and it’s a bunch of bullshit. As he points out, like (good) human fathers, the fathers of many bird species invest heavily in the offspring of their mate, and unfortunately for those poor birds, they have no way of knowing if the eggs are really theirs or not, meaning they are potentially investing their energy in somebody else’s sperm. You know who doesn’t give a hoot? Me. You know who else doesn’t give a hoot? The birds. They take care of their mate and her eggs, they further the species (which was probably strengthened by the mother making some discerning choices between biological mate and social mate) and they all live to flap and crap another day. So much for the birds.

As far as humans go, if you think a name is any proof that a child is yours, you’re an idiot. Either you trust your partner or you don’t. And if you don’t, why ask a name to do what birth certificates, adoption certificates, and blood tests can do so much better? So much for names as proof of paternity (besides, this argument assumes a family to be a biological, nuclear one, completely ignoring the single parent, blended, and adoptive families that also contribute to our society’s fabric).

It’s not that I don’t like TC’s surname, or don’t think it could or should be bestowed upon our future children. It’s that I resent, with all my might, that no one thinks I should have a choice in the matter. One of the reasons I am marrying TC is because I have never in my life felt more that I am in a true partnership of equals. This equality will not end after the wedding, and it will not end when I give birth. If I thought it would, I wouldn’t be getting married (and quite frankly, if TC was not the man he is, I doubt a stubbornly independent soul like me would interest him much anyhow). And I know many equally intelligent people in many similarly equal partnerships. So why, after nine months of pukey swelly pregnancy, and hours of painful labour (or, conversely, after the months/years of bureaucratic hurdles that precede an adoption), does everyone think it’s completely normal for the agency of the female member of the partnership to be stripped in this situation?

I guess it’s normal because it’s done. But that doesn’t make it logical, or rational, or correct. It’s simply a preference. And if passing on the father’s name to the children is what the couple prefers, that’s great. But what if it’s not?

When I talk to people about my feelings on this issue, invariably I am asked, “Can’t you just use a hyphenated or double last name?”. The answer is no. I can’t. For one thing, when a person has a double or hyphenated last name, the first name (usually the mother’s) often gets treated as merely a second middle name and is dropped from normal use. So it’s not a satisfactory solution for me. Secondly, what if my hyphenated kid married another hyphenated kid, and they both wanted to keep their names, and their kid ended up with not one but FOUR last names? Ridiculous. And finally, my last name has four syllables. TC’s has three. Some people have seven-syllable last names, that’s the name they have to pass on to their kid, and it’s not their fault. But I really wouldn’t feel kind giving a seven-syllable surname to a child on purpose.

I’ve been told that giving sons one surname and daughters another would be very confusing for other people trying to identify my family. And that’s probably right. But names don’t make a family. Blood doesn’t even make a family. Love, and shared experiences, and sacrifices make a family.

Which is why, when the time comes, despite all this rantin’ and ravin’, I may sacrifice my last name after all (as far as the kids go). And I will love my family no matter what they’re called–I just wish the situation were different. I wish that TC and I could make this choice on our own, and that what society considers to be “traditional” and “expected” had nothing to do with it. Because with those huge pressures at play, how can we possibly make a choice that reflects how we really feel? How can we even identify how we really feel? We can’t. I’m not even sure if my feelings now reflect my real wishes, or are just a reaction to a structure I find outdated and unfair.

And I guess what I truly, desperately want, more than a name, is the opportunity to make a private decision with my husband about our children’s last names. But in the structure we live in, still old-fashioned in so many ways, we will never, never have that.

12 thoughts on “What’s in a (Last) Name?

  1. In some cultures the parent’s given name (sometimes the mom’s), sometimes with a suffix, becomes the surname of the child. So it changes each generation, but there is a link from one generation to the next. I’m thinking of Icelandic and Tamil, that I know about. I’m sure I’ve heard of others.

    • You know, I’ve heard something similar with Mexican surnames as well. I kind of like the idea of that kind of name–sure it’s a fixed rule but it changes with each generation and you know your EXACT last name isn’t going to your kids, that it will change, so maybe you don’t mind as much. I’d almost rather a hard and fast rule that incorporates both parents’ names than what we have–the illusion of choice without really much choice at all.

      • It’s like that here in the middle east. The father’s given name becomes the middle name (and accepted last name) of the children…that way, you still know who’s in your family. Also, women in Islam are supposed to keep their last name/middle name even after marriage.

  2. Great article. My girl has my surname and my boy has my husbands surname. AND they each have our surnames as one of their middle names. The biggest complaint I had about it was that it would confuse people. I just don’t think people are that dumb.

    • Thanks for sharing! There’s hope yet for me! To me, your way of naming children makes perfect sense, but somehow people still think it’s “weird”.

  3. Our kids have both our surnames and my view was they could chose to use either one if and when they found having two surnames unwieldy. I was surprised by how strongly some people felt about that. I have friends who gave the girls mum’s name and the boys dad’s name and that rocked their traditional Italian and Jewish relatives quite a bit, but everyone survived. As for confusion, there are so many combinations of families with so many different last names at schools now that, at least in our community, confusion is the norm, asking if someone is your child/mother/partner is completely fine and no one expects ‘family’ to be defined by shared names. I do endorse your decision not to go the double barrelled 7 syllable last name, though – it is highly unlikely to fit on official forms…

  4. I’m also keeping my last name if I ever get married, no questions asked. I think it was a wise decision for our moms to keep their last name.

    • Absolutely. After so many years of spelling out my name for everybody and everything I do, there’s no way I’m letting that hard work go to waste.

  5. In Quebec it is against the law for a women to take on her husband’s last name. Only in extreme curcumstances can she. Many women use their husband’s last name casually but legally her maiden name has to be on all her legal documents.

  6. It’s not exactly “illegal” to change your name to your husband’s upon marriage in Quebec, but because Quebec has a dual legal system (French civil law for private matters, like property, marriage, etc. and English common law for federal matters, like criminal law), it’s different than in the rest of Canada, which uses English Common Law for everything. In Quebec civil law, women who want to change their names go through the same process if they were changing their name to something unrelated.

  7. Just to share my story: When my husband and I married, we were trying to figure it out. He loved me, and my names, already, and didn’t necessarily want to change them. I suggested a new combined name (though I didn’t really have any great ideas), but that wasn’t really going anywhere. We both thought it would be nice to share a name, so that we’d be “the So-and-Sos” (as in, “Did you get an RSVP from the _____s?”)

    But somewhere in the conversations, it slipped that there was actually no chance that he was even going to consider changing his name, so I closed the conversation immediately. He admitted to some real emotional attachment to seriously deep-seated cultural norms – at one point, he told me he found himself having a surprising visceral reaction to having children who didn’t have his father’s last name. (Cut right to the chase, why don’t cha? Sheesh!). But we acknowledged the feelings and moved on. And there’s the old issue of both of our last names coming from our dads – at some point, it’s sort of one man’s name or another man’s name.

    In the end, we have been “Team W” for 14 years going strong now (both last names starting with W). First born got my last name, second born got his last name. First born will often add his last name when stating his full first-middle-last name. Second born refuses to consider my name as part of her identity at all (though she is only 3 years old).

    So far, zero problems on the what-will-people-say/can-they-handle-it/general bureaucracy front. I think with so many blended families and so on, people are used to different last names even with people that belong to each other.

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