I never had the slightest question what I’d do with my last name. It was *mine*; as much a part of me as the nose I was born with, and I was no more going to be handing it off at my wedding as I would be giving my nose back to my mother and taking my husband’s nose. (Which I really, REALLY would not have wanted to do — my first husband had a schnozz which would’ve impressed Groucho. It didn’t actually look bad on him; he had a face which was strong enough to carry it. It would’ve been appalling on me. I’m so glad neither of my kids ended up with it. But I digress….)
But I had two important reasons for this, and they were my parents.
I came from an unusually feminist family… even when they married in 1968, my parents were deeply committed to absolute equality; my father no less than my mother. My mom tells a story about when she and my dad became engaged. She was twenty, just started law school, and she nervously but firmly told her beloved new fiance, “I hope you understand that I have a right to work, even though we’re getting married.”
My father has always had a visceral understanding of real equality which goes beyond anything people are taught in consciousness-raising. It’s part of the core of his nature. So he answered by instinct, “Whaddya mean a ‘right’? You have a RESPONSIBILITY to work, like everybody else! If we end up deciding, by mutual agreement sometime, to live off one of our incomes while the other contributes to the family in other ways, that’s one thing; but unless it’s been negotiated differently, you’re an adult human being and you have the obligation to support yourself like every other adult!”
My mom explains, in telling the story, “I started to get angry for about a half-second, and then I grasped what he was actually saying, started laughing, and hugged him.”
So my parents didn’t even seriously think about either of them taking the other’s names. They also didn’t see any reason why children’s names should necessarily follow the father’s line more than the mother’s. But there, they had to make a choice. So they flipped a coin, and I ended up with my mother’s last name.
All this meant that, when I was preparing for marriage, I had a history to protect. It was a brief little history; a mini-history compared with the lineages some men have, tracing their family name back for centuries; but there were three generations of Rivkis women already, counting my grandmother (who took the name on her marriage the way women almost always did in her time). I wasn’t going to give that up — it would be a betrayal of my ancestors. Not only in the maternal line, from which my name came, but in the paternal line as well. The father who encouraged my mother in reaching not just for the baby steps toward equality that most women felt they had to settle for in that time, but the whole thing, with all of its logical implications; the grandparents who, by their own example of sharing household tasks and employment of all kinds, and even the great-grandmother who turned her hand to everything she could do which would earn a penny to feed her family.
So I kept my name, proudly. And, when my husband and I planned for our own children, we briefly considered my parents’ coin-toss example. But our circumstances were somewhat different from what my parents’ had been. Where my mother was the first woman of her family to keep her born name on marriage, I had that lineage of Rivkis women behind me, and I wanted to carry on the tradition; just as my husband had a line of men with his family name behind him, and wanted to maintain that. And it was our intention to have more than one child.
We settled, for these reasons, on passing along both names to our children; our daughter has my name, and our son has his father’s. As we had hoped, we were able to divide the names by gender and therefore continue both traditions; but rather than leave one of us out, if we had only had children of the same gender, the second would have had the other parent’s last name anyway.
Occasionally people ask me about my decision to give my children last names which are different from one another. “Isn’t it too confusing?” they’ll say. I confess that I have never understood that particular question. “Confusing to whom?” I usually ask. “It’s not confusing to the children — they’ve grown up with it and it’s what they’re used to. And why should I really care whether or not it confuses anybody else?” I have never received a direct answer to that. And, given how many blended families we have these days, I’ve never actually seen anyone exhibit particular signs of confusion either. We’re far from the only family we know which contains multiple children who do not all share the same last name. Most importantly, both my children are happy with their names, and proud of them, and don’t mind that they are different in the least.
I hope someday my daughter will pass her name on to a daughter of her own, and extend the maternal line of Rivkis women to five.