On a snowy morning in college, I sat up on my futon, stared out the dorm window, and nudged my boyfriend Chris. “What would you think about our children having my last name?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, still half-asleep, “Why wouldn’t they have your last name?”
I was probably too shy then to show my relief.
Time passed. We split up for a year, got married ten years later and then, in our mid-30’s, found ourselves with a babe on the way. We didn’t know girl or boy, but we had already re-decided that our babe’s last name would be my last name. Mixing up convention had always mattered to me. Chris also liked the sound of it better, with his last name as a middle name.
It didn’t feel revolutionary to us. It felt normal.
At four months pregnant, when people asked if we’d chosen a first name, we shared our last name choice instead. Neither of us expected any drama. Our far flung and nearby communities had always been open-minded. That’s why the shockwave shocked us.
My younger brother started it off by asking me how Chris felt about being emasculated. He was joking, and he did apologize about it later, but I couldn’t help wonder if he somehow represented all the men who might feel emasculated by our choice. My mother, always a supporter, just sighed. “Well,” she said, “Just be ready for the responses. Your child might have some trouble on the playground.”
“Trouble on the playground?” I laughed.
She started to explain, backing right back into the conservative Catholic upbringing she’d spent years amending, that the others might tease her/him for being different. I lobbed back that if that’s the worst thing my child gets teased for then we’re doing okay, and then she asked how Chris’s parents felt about this choice, as if we needed permission from them. But, after twenty minutes of back and forth, she had launched herself over to my side, huffing and puffing her best you-go-girl speech. “You’re right! Why shouldn’t your child have your name? You’re the one who actually has to give birth.”
As my belly grew, the comments got even stranger. I had secretly hoped for no reaction, for our choice to be as common as saying, “I went with the mustard instead of the ketchup.” No reaction would mean something good, right? That women in this country are, for example, no longer considered the property of men, even in name. That archaic systems are truly collapsing. That we can reclaim language that was formerly used to control us.
But it seemed, at least to me, that using a woman’s last name for a child threatened everyone. An older woman asked me if I was doing this to make a point. Why was all this doing perceived as mine, not my husband’s as well? At a party, a peer told me she was “diehard Obama” and then argued that her only real concern about using a woman’s last name is that you risk the ease of preserving lineage and historical records.
“Really?” I kept responding.
I always tried to be kind. But my outrage began to blossom.
Everyone has some sort of charge around this issue—including me. Everyone has to defend the decision they make about it. Over and over again, I watched women acquaintances hear me mention it and then, almost immediately, the mask of self-protection would slide over their faces. They probably saw me as a better-than-thou type. I tried hard not to be that. I didn’t want to shame anyone. I only told people when I was asked and purposely acted casual about it. Some of my married women friends said nothing; some smiled big smiles; my single friends told me either they were taking notes or they could never possibly. Men often looked unsure but pretended to be hip to it. One guy friend teased, “Of course you would.”
Then, I took my pregnant, vomiting, exhausted self to New York to visit my cousin—a remarkable and fierce woman whose Facebook “political views” description reads I’m for doing drugs during an abortion while marrying a gay illegal immigrant. We drove around her neighborhood and she showed me the street art she photographs. At some point, I told her about my baby’s last name. She lifted her hands off the steering wheel and yelled, “What?!” as if in prayer, as if the earth had shuddered.
One short pause and then: “I want that. I really want that. But my man would never let that shit fly.”
That moment confirmed for me that the patriarchy is still deeply ingrained—in all of us. Surnames are one of the unseen limbs of the old world. Giving a child the father’s last name is still a given. And that given preserves the man’s place of power, from the Supreme Court on down to the everyday Joe. How can that still be the case? Why, I wonder, are we so slow on this one? It seems lazy of us.
Many people are coming up with new brave options: blended last names, siblings with different last names, hyphens. But when a couple decides to use both names as a last name, usually the woman’s last name gets tucked between her child’s and husband’s, and usually that’s the one that falls away around school age. Very rarely is the man tucked away. How come? It makes me uncomfortable to even ask, because it sounds accusatory of anyone or, especially, the people I dearly love who lined it up like so. I don’t mean it like this. We all contend with this history together. I’m starting to think that queer couples with children will lead the way. They’ll demonstrate how non-gendered a last name choice can be.
When I told my most public feminist friend about our last name decision, she made a fair point.
“But that seems uneven,” she said, “to just have your name as the last name, and not include Chris’ name as part of that.”
It was uneven, but it had been uneven the other way for millennia (though matriarchal societies did exist once upon a time) and sometimes the pendulum has to swing wildly before it can even out. I would never advocate for all children having their mother’s last names. But imagine if 50% them did. Imagine the social impact on our collective unconscious. It would be a movement requiring no money, no lobbying, no elbow grease. It’s a choice anyone of any background can make—harder for some, I know. And our naming system would actually be diverse. No one gender would occupy it.
People might say these are small peanuts, but language is never small. Language shapes how we view things before we even know we are viewing them. How we name something determines how we value it. If women’s last names are consistently absent from history, never passed down, then where is their—our—value?
One windy April day, our daughter was born; or rather, I birthed her. Of course, Chris helped me. But my doula friend pointed out to me that we often say, “my child was born.” Birth deserves more than passive language because it is not a passive act. It deserves all the animal sounds that emerge from a woman when she has to open and push a baby into the world.
Four days later, we named her: Eula Kautz May.
Those who hadn’t heard about the last name started to comment. My sister-in-law emailed, “Wait, so Eula’s last name is your last name? Hmmm, I like that.” Even my tough-love uncle thought we’d knocked it out of the park. He wouldn’t tell me directly, but I heard it through the grapevine when he told his four daughters he hoped they’d consider the same thing one day.
Some people on our massive email list noticed the last name. Others didn’t. It’s the same today. Even if people know, they forget. More often than not, we get packages addressed to Eula May Kautz. I’m never offended, just reminded of how hard it is to pay attention to a shift.
Many months later, here’s the latest iteration on the theme. Strangers can’t stop commenting on how amazing Chris must be—to have, I guess, granted me the gift of using my last name for our daughter. I try to smile and say, “Yeah, he’s amazing, but not for that reason.” I want to say he’s amazing because his manhood is never threatened, because when he was a boy his family nicknamed him Sweeties, because he tests his own courage and failure in the mountains, because he is patient with me. He’s amazing because he holds his ground when he needs to, and I’m amazing too, and we can both be idiots to each other but never once was I worried that I would have to convince/beg/bypass him to give Eula my surname.
When friends whisper to me, “I’m a little jealous,” I realize that maybe it was never a conversation for them. Maybe they never got to ask their partner about it. Maybe they didn’t feel they could. Maybe he never thought to bring it up. Or maybe it never occurred to either of them.
My hope: I want a pro-choice situation for last names. 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 like to imagine a day when Eula is hanging upside down from a soccer goal with her friends. The air is crisp. The talk is spirited. Last names are varied. And each child can tell the story of why, but it also doesn’t matter as much because the pendulum has finally landed at center.
We aren’t sure if a second child is in our future. But she or he might be. When that time comes, we’ll sit back at the table, or on our futon, and start the conversation all over again. Because, if I am going to walk my talk, using my last name again won’t be a given.
Molly Caro May is a writer whose work explores body, place and the foreign. She teaches personal narrative writing workshops across the country, though once cut her teeth as a fruit-picker, artist's model and at a New York based publishing house. She has written for Orion Magazine, Salon, feministing, and Fourth Genre, among others. Her memoir The Map of Enough: One Woman's Search for Place (Counterpoint Press) was published in March and received the Elle Magazine Lettres Readers Prize. She lives near Bozeman, Montana with her husband and daughter.
Photo via JD Hancock/Flickr