When my husband and I found out we were expecting our first baby, we immediately started a list of potential names. We wanted something unique but not weird, something that rolled off our tongues easily. When our 20-week ultrasound confirmed we were having a boy, we settled on our son’s moniker. It wasn’t until a friend who wanted to get a blanket embroidered asked what my baby’s monogram would be that I realized we still had something major to decide: his last name.
When we’d gotten married several years earlier, I opted not to change my name. I liked my name and didn’t want to go through the hassle and paperwork involved in changing it. I also felt strongly that the tradition of taking your husband’s name was sexist—like an exchange of property. With our baby’s impending due date, we were stuck on whose last name he would carry.
From our initial conversation, we knew we didn’t want him to only have one of our names. (It seemed unfair to erase half of his history just because we wanted things to be simple.) We tossed around the idea of making up a new name, but that seemed too unconventional. We also didn’t really want to hyphenate, as we’d heard from friends with hyphenated names that dealing with a hyphen was a real pain. But with a week to spare (and no closer to finding an alternative), we grudgingly decided to hyphenate.
When our son came wailing into the world, we grinned down at all nine pounds, nine ounces of him, signed the birth certificate and headed home with our hyphenated-last-name baby. About a week later, the trouble started. First, his health insurance card came with just the second half of his hyphenated name, and when I called to let them know there was a mistake, I was told their system wasn’t capable of inputting hyphens. Next, the hospital sent us two bills for his birth, one with the first half of his last name, the other with the second. By the time he turned one, we had encountered issues with almost every major institution we interacted with. Just as we’d been warned, the hyphen was a real pain.
Three years later, when our second son came along, we moaned and groaned in anticipation of another hyphenated name. But giving our kids different last names didn’t seem like an option. Again, we hyphenated and encountered all the same issues we’d had with my first-born. We made calls, corrected and spent far too much time explaining not only that our kids really did have two last names, but why we’d chosen to name them something so inconvenient for everyone else.
At a pre-K orientation, when other parents began talking about all the paperwork public school required, I had an “aha!” moment. I’d already spent four years correcting my kid’s name and there was no way I was going to keep that up for the next 15 years while he worked his way through the school system. That evening, I suggested to my husband that we change our kids’ last names—and this time we would get it right. I still didn’t want to give them just one of our last names, but the unconventional idea of making up a new name suddenly didn’t seem so weird. Motherhood had introduced all kinds of other unexpected things into my life (extended breastfeeding and doing elaborate song-and-dance routines to get my kids to eat vegetables), so I felt more comfortable doing something a bit unconventional as long as I felt it was best for my kids. When I brought this up to my husband, he agreed without a moment’s hesitation.
We spent months debating what our kids’ new, single last name would be. We considered naming them after our favourite hiking trail, or the city we’d lived in and loved when our first was conceived. But finally we settled on squishing together the first half of my last name and the second half of my husband’s last name. (For example, the Helling-Coleman brothers become the Hellman brothers.)
The new name felt both fresh and grounded in their history. We knew we still might have some issues due to the fact that neither of us would share their name (we still each liked our names), but we figured that since they had the same last name, one that was clearly derivative of both our last names, they’d feel connected and it would be clear to outsiders that we were a family.
Logistically, changing their names took just two visits to the county courthouse and $115 each. Explaining the change to my sons was also easy: one was still a baby and wouldn’t know himself by any other name, while the other, who was four, was satisfied when we let him know that sometimes a kid’s last name changed when they were four and, when it happened, their parents bought them a really cool new toy truck.
Explaining the change to others was more of a challenge—we definitely ruffled some feathers. We had family members who weren’t happy that their last name wouldn’t be carried on to the next generation, while others thought it was just plain weird to make up something new. Our kids are the only grandchildren on my husband’s side, and even the hyphenation had caused some disputes. Some family members were just disappointed, and while we understood the sadness they felt, the new name felt right to us and we weren’t changing our minds again.
Once the legal name change was complete, most of the opposition quieted down. Mail and Christmas presents would sometimes come addressed to our sons’ old names, but after a few months and a few hard conversations, most people had gotten over it.
When I reflect on changing my sons’ names, I’m glad we did it. Our kids now share a last name we’re all proud of—to us it’s the perfect mix of their maternal and paternal history. It took us a couple of years to feel comfortable being so unconventional, but like most things related to parenting, confidence takes time.
Now, when people realize my kids have a different last name than my husband and I, the most frequent question we get is “What will your sons do when they get married and have kids?” To that I respond, “We trust they’ll figure it out, at least by the second try, just like we did.”