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Is a Family's Identity Muddled when Mom and Dad Have Different Last Names?

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I quite deliberately became a Carroll at the same time I became a wife

Besides my utter disinclination to ever throw my hat into the political ring, I never really had a prayer of making it as an elected official before I was married because, unlike Bush (Sr. and Jr.), Clinton (Bill and Hillary), Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Dan Quayle, very little fun can be made of my maiden name.

However, new hope of becoming an elected official rose as soon as my surname changed from Cohen to Carroll. My married name isn’t one with an incredible amount of morphing options, but it still has a few more punny headline possibilities than, “What’s Cohen on?”

My married surname also moved me up in the alphabetical universe. The shift is admittedly minor – from Co to Ca – but imagine the shock if I had married someone at the other end of the alphabet. I’m not sure I could lower myself to the M-Z line at registration tables after spending over 30 years queuing in front of A-L.

Certainly it isn’t all fun, PAC games and alphabetical seniority with my married name. First, there was the hassle of the legal change. I always thought changing my address was a pain. As it turns out, changing a name comes with all the headaches of an address change plus a few more government agencies.

Then there was the assumed inevitable disapproval from some of my college professors. As a Women’s Studies minor, I could almost hear the shudders and tsks of the Birkenstock-wearing, waist-length haired Ph.D.s if they had heard that one of their former students had become so oppressed that she gave in to traditional masculine societal pressures and shed her warrior identity. (Of course, I gagged a little when I read Anne E. Kornblut’s piece in the New York Times years ago when she asked, “… Should a woman risk changing her name?” After all, isn’t it now a truth universally acknowledged that freedom of choice is one of the advantages of being a liberated woman?)

I do remember feeling a bit of guilt surrounding my name change. My sister and cousin changed to their husbands’ last names when they got married before me, leaving my parents, my aunt, uncle and me as the last Cohens in our family. And since I’m not a boy (sorry about that, again, Dad), it was in me that the final glimmer of hope remained that our family name would survive. At least I have the comfort of knowing that a seemingly endless supply of Cohens roam the planet – a “Cohen” Google search turns up 181,000,000 results.

Tessa Blake asks in a recent essay on The Huffington Post if hyphenated names will ever be cool, and I’d argue no (unless you’re a Jolie-Pitt, of course). I suppose if my guilt was overwhelming, I could have always gone the hyphenation route, but few things are more annoying than a hyphenated last name. Someone will always screw up where it belongs when alphabetizing (although since I would have a double C name, the mistake would probably never be that far off). When filling out automated forms, there’d never be enough space to complete the spelling of the two-name last name. Plus, how would the decision be made as to whose last name goes first? And then if our daughters marry and decide to hyphenate? They’ll have three-part last names? I felt a responsibility to do my part to put an end to the hyphenated last name madness.

What mattered most to me, though, then and now, is sharing a name with my husband and starting our own family identity. To some people, a marriage license isn’t necessary to form a lasting union. To others, like me, I wanted the whole kit and kaboodle — the license, the name, the entire sense of family. And we did feel different after getting married. It isn’t just our relationship, but our marriage. It changed who we were together and strengthened our bond. Having the same last name was one of the contributing factors to the glue that holds us together, I’d argue. It’s not tangible, but it still kind of is.

Then there are the inevitable hassles and confusion that come with kids having different last names than one parent or the other when it comes to school, travel and other bureaucratic headaches that are simply an everyday reality, I think it’s just nice to create a deep sense of family in many ways, and everyone having the same last name is one of them.

Could my husband have changed his last name to Cohen instead of me changing mine to Carroll? I guess, but we went with tradition on other things, like our wedding, or simply getting married, for instance. I’m not opposed to tradition just for the sake of being a rebel (or a feminist — I stand strong for myself and other women in other ways that matter more to me). Plus, he happily agreed that despite his Catholic upbringing, our children could be raised strictly Jewish, so trying to get him to go against the grain on the last name thing just wasn’t important. I kept site of what mattered most — to me, anyway.

I have an old friend who felt strongly about feminism, matriarchy and names, and thus, she changed her first name to her mom’s maiden name and her last name to her dad’s mom’s maiden name. But, of course, those are both still patriarchal surnames. For women who keep their last names for strictly feminist reasons, I always wonder to what other lengths they’ve gone to maintain their identity. I’m not knocking anyone’s choice — at all! really! — but I mostly just think about kids, and I know not a few of them who would have preferred if their parents had avoided the hassles of multiple family identities.

And if changing my last name meant I’ll now have the freedom to run for president and have news organizations everywhere twist my name in order to make cringe-worthy wisecracks, well, then, I’m even happier I signed up to be a Carroll.

How much do/did last names matter to you when it came to marriage and kids?

Also on Babble: It’s Not The Name That Makes The Family

Image: Meredith Carroll

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