This originally appeared on HuffingtonPost.com. Republished here with permission.
So what’s your name now?
Life used to be so simple. Women didn’t worry too much about what they majored in at college because they expected Mrs. Degrees; to marry men who would support them for the rest of their lives. When a woman married, she was no longer Sandy Smith, she became Mrs. Howard Hughes and the drum rolled at the reception, and the DJ announced, “For the first time ever, let me introduce, Mr. and Mrs. Him.” But then my generation came along, and about a quarter of us chose to keep our own names and do something creative for our children: hyphenate, or string names together, or create new ones. And what did we think those children would do when they married? My response was always, that’s their problem. My generation has to create a feminist revolution, theirs can worry about the name problem.
That was then, this is now. And I’m watching that generation, my daughter and nieces and nephews and students struggle with this. Now, when people marry, the first question that everyone seems to ask is, “What name will you use, and if you have kids, what about them?” And the answer is never easy. What happens when a Fandango-Smith marries a Cohen-Risman. Why should women become part of their husband’s families, rejecting their own birth names so as to be identified with their husbands. What rules work for men who marry men? When I named my daughter, I was so focused on rejecting the patriarchal tradition of family names moving from father to son that I didn’t worry much about the consequences for the next generation.
It seems now is the time to start worrying, because the first generation of those hyphenated children are getting married. I had one colleague’s daughter, who had a hyphenated name that was 15 letters long gladly take her husband’s five letter name. Unfortunately, she only remained married to him a few years, and went back to her birth name. About to marry again, I’m waiting to see what she decides to do this time. I have a niece who kept her hyphenated name when she married someone with a nice simple name, no children yet, I’ll let you know if and when they have to figure out what to call junior. My daughter has a 10 letter name—her father’s and mine strung together without a hyphen—but with the capital “R” from Risman smack in the middle. I’ve no idea how she’s going to name a child someday, although I do know she’d like to be a mother. I know one young woman who jettisoned her father’s part of the hyphenated name and replaced it with her husband’s and gave that new hyphenated name shared with her husband to their baby. Of course, other young couple’s don’t marry at all, and still give the child the husband’s name. To me, that would be painful. I never wanted to be Mrs. Anybody, but I can’t imagine not sharing my family name with my own flesh and blood, my own baby. We have no new norms, we have yet to create new traditions to take the place of the old ones and so many perplexed couples simply look backwards to when times were more simple, when women simply followed men’s lead, and took their names. That leaves many women who keep their own names with names different then their children.
I’m waiting for someone smarter than me to find a solution. One nephew suggested that children should take the surname of their same-sex parent. Isn’t that a great idea? I thought so, until I realized that it doesn’t help same-sex couples in the family at all.
The time to tackle this problem is now! Share your ideas below and perhaps we’ll start a new tradition.
Barbara Risman is professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author of “Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition” (Yale, 1998) and editor of “Families as They Really Are” (Norton, 2010).