On Choosing My Own Last Name

At 18, I added my mother’s last name to my signature. Is it worth it to me to explain to strangers where my names come from, and to suffer through bureaucratic confusion in order to feel complete when I see my name? Yes.

In The Hairpin this week, Molly Caro May hopes for a “pro-choice situation for last names.” After choosing to give her daughter her last name instead of her husband’s, May wrote about the shocked, awed, admiring, and insulting responses she got from friends and strangers. She hopes for a future where the default isn’t to follow indiscriminately in the footsteps of a patriarchal tradition, but to consider the individual priorities of each family.

“Instead of a given, how about a conversation between parents? Maybe someone wants a cohesive family name; maybe someone wants to honor a great-grandmother or grandfather; maybe someone wants to shed a last name and join a new family; maybe someone wants to give their child four last names and let the child pick at 18 years old. I don’t know. Something. Anything. Just not a given.”

I was that kid who, at 18, picked something different.

When I first changed my name, people thought it was a joke, that “Heist” was some sort of badass moniker, like “Danger,” that I gave myself to look cool on the Internet. A few people wondered if I’d secretly gotten married and were disappointed that there was no juicy intrigue, only the boring evolution of my personal feminism.

My mother’s last name is Heist and she, like many in her cohort of second-wavers, kept it when she got married, even in the face of wedding day second-guessing from my traditionally-minded grandmother. My father’s last name is Moss, shortened from something long and Slavic back in the late 1800s. I don’t know if there was a conversation about hyphenation when I was born, but both my brother and I came out Mosses.

When I was in college, probably with the assistance of a heavy load of consciousness-raising gender studies classes, I realized that my signature felt incomplete. Particularly because my parents were divorced, I wanted the name I put on things I was proud of to reflect both sides of my history.

So, just like that, I started using my new name anywhere I could without needing the signature of a judge; email addresses, social media profiles, and finally, after a lengthy petition, my college diploma. My first employer used the name I gave them, and its been Heist Moss ever since.

But what if you get married?! Oh how the naysayers love the What Ifs. What if you marry a hyphenated dude?! You can’t hyphenate forever! You wouldn’t do that to your kids! That’s just cruel! 

Is it? Maybe, if you think burdening children with complicated answers to simple questions is cruel. But is it any crueler than explaining to my hypothetical daughter that Daddy’s last name was more important than Mommy’s because he’s a man? Is it crueler than telling her that someday, unlike her brother’s, her identity will probably be considered dismissable, negotiable, non-essential? Is it really any crazier than what we do now? Disappearing one parent’s past into the other parent’s because… chromosomes? Because…tradition? Because…convenience?

Is it harder to forge a new path when there’s a perfectly well-trodden one you could follow? Damn straight. Some people don’t like being the one with the machete out front, blazing away solo while the rest of the crew waits back to see what it looks like on the other side.

For many, this isn’t even a battle they care to fight. Neither May nor I are suggesting there is one right answer to this dilemma, only that the presumptive default is a relic that’s got to go.

As Pamela Clark wrote eloquently about beauty norms, there are “significant social sanctions for women who disobey beauty norms and they shouldn’t be expected to act as martyrs and accept these sanctions if they don’t want to.” That holds true for any norm that you choose not to adhere to, and the cost-benefit analysis of each decision—which sanctions are worth it?—is yours.

Is it worth it to me to explain to strangers where my names come from, to suffer through bureaucratic confusion, to wave off the hypotheticals in order to feel complete when I see my name? Yes.

I’m a product of the people who raised me, and the people who raised them, and if I had my way, I’d be Emily Meitzler Walker Holman…Heist Moss, with name after name that we don’t even remember anymore in place of ellipses. But I picked what I picked because it’s the best balance I could find between practicality and priorities, for me.

But what will I call my children?! Who knows, by then maybe we’ll have computer chips implanted in our forearms carrying centuries of historical data. Maybe the robots will call us all Nameless Human Worker. Maybe we’ll go by the Family Squashblossom; I’ve always like the sound of it. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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