I Don't Have My Husband’s Last Name, But Our Son Will

A boy? It never occurred to me that I’d have a boy.
For nearly my entire 12-year career, as a fashion journalist and former Cosmo editor, I have existed happily in Girl Land. I haven’t been around a large group of men since I surprise-visited my then-future husband in grad school years ago, and he had a horde of them over to watch some kind of sport on TV. I looked on in perplexed silence as one of these men performed an endless routine about the vodka-spiked Slurpee he drank out of a Styrofoam cup, which, I gathered, I was supposed to find hilarious.
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Earlier this year, when someone from my obstetrician’s office called and said "it’s a boy," I was stunned. I wasn’t upset – I’m thrilled to be pregnant and on the verge of parenthood – but I was dismayed. I had spent the last two months imagining that I was having a girl. There was no logic to this vision. I could just as soon assume that all the world’s dolphins will turn into mermaids tomorrow.
My friends, however, were excited for me. Many framed creating another man as an opportunity: "You’ll raise a real male feminist! I know you can do it!"
As feminists spending the prime of our lives in a post-Trump values apocalypse, punctuated by other powerful men being felled by the #MeToo movement, the general horribleness of men is more apparent to us than ever. We miraculously managed to find our unicorn husbands and life partners in the age of "Cat Person," when most men in the dating pool are that special breed of awful. The world is obviously in urgent need of more feminists and more good feminist men.
And yet I’ve made a decision about my son that feels like an affront to my feminist values. He will have only my husband’s last name.
I didn’t change my name when we got married four years ago for a few reasons, feminism being an obvious one — why should I have to change my name just because I’m a woman? The second was practicality. I was already established as a writer, and would have to continue using my maiden name professionally anyway. And the third was all the paperwork. I learned that some women contract name changing services to take care of it all for them. This sounded worse than a day of using TurboTax. Why should I subject myself to filling out reams of government forms after marriage, just because of my sex, when my husband wouldn’t have to do a thing? Some things just aren’t right.
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When I ask my husband – during a conversation we have every so often – if he wants me to change my name, he says yes. When I ask him if he wants to change his name to mine, he says no. Perhaps this is why he never challenged my decision to keep my last name. Either that or he knows that I’m stubborn and I’m as likely to give up my last name as I am the cat (a beautiful black Siberian named Maddie) I’ve had since before we met.
Women have historically changed their names after marriage to denote that they became property of their husbands. Of course, this probably happened along with the exchange of things like an acre of land and five heads of cattle. My marriage came with no exchange of fields or bales of hay, and I can assure you no cattle graze in my backyard. Plus, I am most certainly not the property of anyone.
But while we came to agreement on a lot of significant questions before we got married — no TV in the bedroom, we would buy a house in the suburbs, he would adopt and co-parent the cat, etc. — one consensus we didn’t reach on was our future children’s last names.
Then I got pregnant, and we had to decide. My husband was adamant about our kids bearing his name because, he argued, people wouldn’t know they’re his kids otherwise. Historically, this is why the kids inherit their father’s name – because paternity is thought not to be as certain as maternity. A man isn’t pushing the kids out of his penis, so how will everyone know they’re his? Or so went the logic of hundreds of years ago.
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Now, with reproductive technology, surrogacy, and feminism, ye olde naming conventions feel irrelevant, but, unsurprisingly, society has failed to progress much past the days of dying from dysentery on the Oregon Trail. Studies show that men whose wives keep their maiden names are perceived as more feminine and less powerful in the marriage. Before he read a draft of this essay, my husband may have sensed this instinctively, hence his uncharacteristic stubbornness about naming our children.
My desire to raise a feminist son made it difficult to relent to my husband’s wishes. By giving our baby my husband’s last name, we’d be exposing him to long-held, anti-feminist gender norms, the fight against which has dictated the course of much of my life and my entire career. It’s why I spent four and a half years working at Cosmo.
But, as my son will learn, there is no perfect way to be a feminist, and there is no perfect expression of feminism. Everyone’s feminism consists of a series of choices and actions that will hopefully contribute to one’s overall happiness and sense of life satisfaction. We might march on Washington and order a “skinny” margarita when we’re done, knowing the latter does not diminish the social impact of the former. We might read a political essay on Refinery29, and then click over to the fashion section to buy a sexy date night dress. This doesn’t make us bad people or poor proponents of a movement that, right now, needs as many members as possible.
A huge part of what makes my life happy and satisfying is my marriage — to a straight, cisgendered man I’d unquestioningly describe as a feminist — and a marriage isn’t very happy if the people in it aren’t willing to compromise. Either we’d give our son a hyphenated last name, which forces our child to compromise over our disagreement, or he’d just take one of our names. I ultimately chose to compromise on this and give him my husband’s name for two simple reasons: One, I don’t need to use my child to make a political statement. If we raise him to the best of our feminist abilities, he’ll make plenty of political statements of his own. He'll go to the Women's March, donate to Planned Parenthood, and always treat women as well as his dad does. And two, I love my husband, and am willing to make compromises for him because he makes big and little ones for me all the time. We got married in my location of choice, we live in the city and home of my choosing, and he pretends like he loves our cat, who I know he can’t stand. He gets out of bed 20 minutes after we’ve lied down to get me a glass of water, and picks up my prescriptions from the pharmacy because I ask him to, even though he’s just as tired as I am.
I wish we could change Western society by making an unconventional choice about our son’s last name, but we won’t. But I know that one day, when he’s legally old enough to drink his own vodka-spiked Slurpee in his friend’s grad school dorm, I can tell him about why deciding on his last name was such a difficult decision. And I know that he’ll understand why.
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