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It's Not the Name That Makes a Family

By Madeline Holler |

brady bunch, feminism

Do the strongest families have the samest names? No, not even a little bit.

I’ve been a wife for six years and a mom for nearly 11. But for decades I’ve been a Holler, and I doubt that will ever change. My three kids carry my last name as only one of their two middle names, something they tell me is a total rip-off, since their last names? Crazy common. But I thought I should throw their dad a bone. I not only got to decide whether they would be born in the first place but also got to be pregnant with them, nurse them and basically be their favorite person for their first three to nine years, give or take.

Also, last names just aren’t a big deal to me.

When it does get to be a big deal is when the fact that we have mismatched names could be somehow construed as a weakness in our family cohesiveness — that we have any less of a family identity than if we could all be alphabetized under the same letter. Which is something Meredith hints at in a recent post defending her decision to take her husband’s name full-throttle, no hyphenating, no nothing.

Here’s what she writes:

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.

I know for a fact Meredith isn’t criticizing my family or others like us when she writes that — she’s simply trying to put forth her best defense. But I think it’s kind of dangerous and a somewhat exclusive way of talking and thinking about what makes a family, even (or especially) when it’s just your own family you’re talking about.  Life can get complicated for groups of individuals trying to form a family — same-sex couples who aren’t allowed to list their names on their new baby’s birth certificate, much less go for the whole kit and kaboodle with legal marriage, for example. Or the various combinations of blended families. Older kids who get adopted or little ones being raised by their grandparents. Widowed step-parents raising their step-children. All families, all cohesive, many even happy.

The important thing about deciding on a last name after marriage is that it is the individual’s choice, one made freely and without coercion from spouses or in-laws or even tradition (influence, sure, just not coercion). Which is related to something else I take issue with in discussing married names: the idea that feminists shudder when women take their husband’s name. That may have been the case a few decades ago (though I question even that). Fairness in naming became pretty complicated pretty quickly (awesome New York Times article gets into the nitty-gritty on that), and I think what makes most reasonable feminists shudder at is the idea that a woman’s name is not hers to choose.

Or that choosing to keep hers loosens the glue that holds her family together.


Also on Babble: What’s in a (family) name? Why we gave our kids hyphenated last names

More on Babble

About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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24 thoughts on “It's Not the Name That Makes a Family

  1. goddess says:

    I think maybe it’s that for some people, the family name gives them the feeling of family cohesiveness. For them. I know it does for us. Helps that I was never fond of my father’s last name, so I was happy to take on my husband’s. I’ve told him if he ever divorces me I won’t give it back either. HA! I’ve made it mine through years- no decades- of use.
    But I wouldn’t tell you that YOUR family lacked cohesion. Just that all of us having the same last name made me feel better as a family.

    I have a question about hyphenations- because I think they are an awesome compromise blend for a couple. But……
    Let’s say Mary Jones marries Steve Smith.
    They have Susan Jones-Smith.
    Then Susan Jones-Smith grows up and marries David Miller-Fields.
    Would they have a Jane Smith-Fields? Or a Jane Jones-Smith-Miller-Fields?
    And if Jane Jones-Smith-Miller-Fields marries Thomas Hudson-Locke-Fuller-Green, will they have a Nancy Jones-Smith-Miller-Fields- Hudson-Locke-Fuller-Green?
    Think about with very long Italian names, LOL!
    Antoinette Lukarelli-Signorelli-Tallerico-Mastigliano-Lomardini-Giordano-Berardinelli-Castrogiovanni marries Giovani Mastrangelo-Abbracciavento-Vicchiarelli-Contadina-Tagliabue and they have a
    Gabriella Lukarelli-Signorelli-Tallerico-Mastigliano-Lomardini-Giordano-Berardinelli-Castrogiovanni- Mastrangelo-Abbracciavento-Vicchiarelli-Contadina-Tagliabue….

  2. CathyO says:

    I took the hubby’s name because I always go for the simpler option. I have a sis in law from Chile though, and I like their system. Everyone has 2 last names. Marrying does not change your name. Baby takes Daddy’s 1st last name plus Mommy’s 1st last name. So only the kids would have matching names, Dad and Mom are both different.

  3. Linda, t.o.o. says:

    I never legally changed my name, but on my bank accounts and mortgage and a whole bunch of other stuff it’s hypenated and everyone at the kids’ school knows me by my married name only.

  4. CW says:

    I took my DH’s name because I experienced what a complete pain-in-the-rear it was to grow up with a hyphenated last name. I never knew what name my records were listed under. Sometimes they’d be under just my mom’s surname, sometimes under just my dad’s, sometimes the two smushed together without a hyphen, and only sometimes correctly under the hyphenated name. I vowed I would never inflict that upon my own kids…

  5. Madeline Holler says:

    Sure, all fine choices (and you should really read that NYT’s piece on hyphenations — you’d love it). My objection is to the idea that same names indicate a more cohesive family than one where the mom, for example, won’t change hers. If same names is what you decide, what you want, what you always hoped for, what you like, what you’re more comfortable with, that’s great — make it happen. But same names don’t confer anything extra on any family, and if that’s the excuse for doing it than what you’re also reasoning is that there’s something deficient, less or lacking in families where some or all of the members have different last names. Which is not only false but exclusionary.

  6. Meredith Carroll says:

    But Madeline, I almost feel like you’re suggesting that until everyone can make the choice to marry and change their names (i.e. same sex couples) then no one can even talk about how much it means to them, lest anyone feel left out? If I were half of a married, same-sex couple in, say, NY, and enjoyed taking my partner’s name, is that unfair to a same sex couple in a state that doesn’t allow gay marriage? I took advantage of a right that was offered to me, a right that I sincerely hope will be available to everyone, everywhere — soon. Isn’t part of what they’re fighting for the ability to be recognized as more cohesive family units? That a benefit afforded to me is something I enjoy necessarily means my way of thinking is “dangerous?” I never said a shared last name “makes” a family; I said it helped strengthen my family’s bond and our identity – and it definitely did/has. I have people close to me who would argue they wish they shared a last name with more of their blended family. The same last name is not something I *needed* to start a family, but I feel like makes part of our family life easier and, yes, more complete. I’m not sure what’s dangerous about a feeling, although I do feel sad for families who don’t have the opportunity to do the same if it would mean something to them, too.

  7. goddess says:

    You know- you just gotta go with what makes sense and feels right to you Madeline. Don’t worry about how others feel about. That it makes me feel more cohesive as a family shouldn’t mar your experience, cause we are ALL entitled to feel. It’s how you act on feelings that counts.

  8. Kitten says:

    I’ve never changed my name and I don’t feel like that makes me lack cohesion with my son or husband. Of course, changing for me was NOT the simpler option. If I had changed it, both my mom and I would have had to do a heck of a lot of paper work changes that probably would have cost us quite a bit of cash as well. Socially I allow people to call me by my last name with my husband’s if that is what floats their boat (ie, my inlaws). My husband and I almost chose a different last name altogether that we would share, but both of our extended families went crazy crazy crazy at the merest suggestion.

  9. jaybird says:

    Your last line is the clincher. Exactly! I didn’t change my name, not because of big feminist ideals (although I am one), but rather because I had had the name for 30 plus years. I thought about it, thinking maybe I’d change it after having kids. Nope, didn’t then, either. My name is rare, simple, easy-to-pronounce, and almost never misspelled. His is common, but an unusual spelling, so is frequently mispronounced and misspelled. Plus, there would be an annoying alliteration with my first name. The kids got his last name (not that my husband was insistent, but it didn’t bother me in the least and it kept everything chummy with the in-laws). If contractors or teachers call me Mrs. His-last-name, I usually don’t correct them, as I feel it’s an honest mistake. We are a loving family, and the kids aren’t confused at all. Maybe they’ll change their names when/if they marry, maybe not–it’s their choice, as it was for me.

  10. LN says:

    Can I just say that Goddesses first comment had me laughing so hard I nearly cried? :) FTR -I am single and have my dad’s last name (as does my mom). Seeing as I have no prospects in site, I’m fortunate to not have to think about this. :)

  11. Madeline Holler says:

    Thanks for commenting, Meredith (and Goddess as always!)!
    No, sure, taking or not taking your husband’s last name can mean anything you want it to mean to you. And of course we’re all entitled to feel the way we want to. I’m just pointing out that no matter how you feel, it’s just a feeling and not a fact. Same names have no bearing on family cohesiveness or family identity or the entire sense of family — yours or anyone else’s. Suggesting so is also suggesting that you’re in a different category of family, one with a stronger cohesiveness, identity and sense of family — an us and them thing, and that’s what I call dangerous. It’s the same kind of reasoning people use when they say unmarried couples shouldn’t raise kids, etc. That the optimal way to raise a family includes X, Y and Z, X being same names, and without X the family is suboptimal — maybe not bad, just not the best.
    All of which is not to say taking someone else’s name is a bad thing. It’s not the action I question. It’s the reason.
    There’s nothing wrong with this particular tradition, I’m just arguing there’s no added extras with it either.
    And Jaybird, yes! The in-laws.

  12. Voice of Reason says:

    I couldn’t reconcile taking my husband’s last name with the way I raise my children; I tell them that men and women have to live by the same set of rules so it seems to me that changing my name would make me a hypocrite as it seems like name-changing is largely still the domain of women. I wouldn’t ask my husband to change his because, really, it seems an absurd undertaking to me. Same goes for hyphenating. Why would I do it if he doesn’t? Plus, it just seems unnecessary. In my children’s classes, slightly fewer than half the mums changed their names… and I don’t remember seeing any hyphenated names in the school directory.
    I understand the idea that sharing a last name promotes cohesion (but would agree with Madeline that it’s still just a notion, not a fact) but I find fault with the reality that, in heterosexual unions, the woman must provide this cohesion by changing *her* name. So, does this mean that men are not interested in cohesion? Anyway, the bottom line is that cohesion can be found in many ways and I don’t believe the divorce rate amongst name-changers is any lower, so how strong is this cohesion, really?
    As an interesting aside, I have a Belgian friend who was shocked when she learned of the name-changing tradition. Apparently, this is not de rigeur in Belgium. Her parents remarked on what an astonishing coincidence it was that her in-laws’ shared the same last name!

  13. Selena says:

    Madeline, this is taking political correctness to a whole new level. And yes, I mean that as a bad thing. It’s perfectly fine for people to want same last names for more of a family unity. That is their decision, opinion, and reasoning, and they are allowed to state that. If they went up to people with hyphenated names and told them, “You’re not a family” because of that, that would be bad. Most families don’t do that, and I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing that. Why do you think you can tell people they’re not right for stating a reason why they love having the same last name?

    As for saying having the same last name is “dangerous” and “exclusionary”, I think that’s uncalled for. It’s like saying that it’s dangerous and exclusionary for people to have kids when some people can’t have kids or afford to adopt–it just doesn’t compute.

    (By the way, I’m fine with hyphenated names and see nothing wrong with that. Same goes for blended families, etc. Just sticking up for the people who want the same last names.)

  14. Madeline Holler says:

    Selena, you’ve missed the point. Same last names aren’t the problem and aren’t exclusionary. Neither is the act of taking someone else’s last name. I’m sticking up for name-takers, too.
    What’s worrisome is the reasoning. The idea that same last names are what create family identity and cohesion is simply false. That’s what I wanted to point out. Furthermore, it indicates the holder of this belief also believes that families with different last names aren’t quite as cohesive, quite as identified, quite as solid.
    Of course you can say and believe what you want, I’m just here to question the assumptions behind those beliefs.

  15. Marcy at Bella Noise says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Madeline. Wasn’t (isn’t?) the feminist fight all about having the right to CHOOSE to do what you are comfortable with? Work outside the home, or don’t. Change your name when you get married, or don’t.
    I chose to keep my given last name after marriage because, as a journalist, I already had a decade invested in my byline at the time I got married. Hyphenating, or using one name professionally and another personally just seemed too complicated. Having said that, if someone at my kids’ schools calls me “Mrs. Kenberg,” that’s OK too.
    Someone once said to me, “But if you keep your name, how will your kids know who their mother is?” Seriously?!?!?

  16. Ryan Biggs says:

    At this rate, how many names will your great grandchildren have?

    To each their own, but sometimes reinventing the culture’s traditional naming system to suit you seems a little selfish. For example, if you stick your kid with a hyphenated last name, that sorta eliminates the possibility that they can do the same when they marry. Unless they go for a triple hyphen (or a quadruple hyphen, if the father is also hyphenated).

    Also, think of the impact this will have on the genealogy business 40 years from now.

  17. Voice of Reason says:

    But, Ryan, Madeline hasn’t hyphenated her name. If her family carries on as they are (and mine too, as we have gone down the same path) her great grandchildren will have exactly ONE last name. Simple.

    Let’s not foget that lots of people have children with partners (heterosexual and homosexual) without getting married, too, so this debate goes beyond the conventional “What to do about name changing after marriage?” question.

    And Marcy at Bella Noise, that is absolutely hilarious – some people really do not think before they speak.

  18. Jen says:

    I think people are getting a little too defensive here. I, too, changed my last name to my husband’s (after 5 years of marriage!) because, to me, it did make us a more cohesive family unit. I wanted to be Mr. and Mrs. ____, and to have our children have the same name I have. I’m not saying that everyone feels the same way, but that reasoning is certainly not “false” as Madeline says above. For me it is true. For you it may not be.

  19. Madeline Holler says:

    Again, you have the FEELING that you’re in a more cohesive family unit (though what you’ve describe is simply a fact that you have the same name). You haven’t, in fact, created a more cohesive family unit. Names have nothing to do with how cohesive a family actually is.

  20. Jen says:

    Madeline – I don’t believe that you have any idea how my family works. For us, the name change (for a variety of reasons) DOES create a more cohesive family unit. Again, for you it may not, but for us, it does.

  21. Meg says:

    My husband has a daughter from a previous relationship and her surname is her mother’s. We weren’t married when I had our son who took my husband’s surname. It was tiresome to start with to point out with health visitors, mother and baby groups etc that my son and I had different surnames. I never bothered mentioning that I was very much together with his father as it’s nobody’s business and I liked the air of mystery! We married when our son was nearly 2 and I took my husband’s name. We’ve now gone from being a family of 4 with 3 surnames between us to a family of 4 (nearly 5) with only 2 which is fine. My husband’s sister has 2 daughters by 2 men and wasn’t married or in long term relationships with either – the eldest daughter had her dad’s surname until very recently (she’s 7) and the baby has had her mum’s from birth. There was a great deal of upset from the 7 year old that she was the odd one out in her family of 3 and the situation wasn’t helped by her father being in trouble with the police, drug issues, him not turning up for visitation etc. Yet my husband’s sister would still tell him that his daughter should have his surname. Our (me and hubby) view is that it doesn’t matter what his daughter’s surname is – it’s more important that she stays with us on weekends and midweek, that she’s involved in all family occasions and comes on holiday with us. Her mother’s her main carer but we are her family too and the surname doesn’t change that. It certainly didn’t help my niece to feel more ‘cohesive’ with her father. And although my stepdaughter won’t have the same surname as the baby’s that’s due to come out of my tummy in March she talks to him, has thought of names for him, chosen outfits, feels him kick – all of which is far more important than sharing a name.

  22. Meg says:

    Another thought – I know a couple of families (literally a couple – 2 families) where the girls take the mum’s surname and the boys take the dad’s. In the case of my uni friend it was because both her parents had super cool surnames but didn’t want to hyphenate. They’re a very loving, close, funny family.

  23. Meg says:

    Final comment – promise! My husband is one of 7. I’m not sure how many fathers there were involved but it’s at least 3. He never thinks of his older siblings as half brothers or sisters though. They all have his mother’s surname which is the surname she was born with. The uncomplicated aspect is what works and it keeps things ambiguous – no one from the outside would question why there are so many surnames going on – they’re a family unit with one surname. It could be that maybe the more complicated the family the stronger the need for a ‘cohesive’ surname.

  24. goddess says:

    Madeline- perhaps an analogy would help:
    Some people think that a family dinner where every member is expected to be present makes their family more cohesive.
    Another family- this might not be the case. But it works for the first and that feeling of cohesion may serve to make THEIR family more cohesive, but the second may never even register that as a feeling.
    Get what I mean?

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