When I left California to attend college in Boston, the Internet was a mere toddler. Email was relatively new to me, and I signed up for my very first ever email account when I started my freshman year. Under pressure to come up with a pithy name, my mind immediately landed upon Joe Hardy, the main character in the musical Damn Yankees. I had fallen–and fallen hard–for musical theater in the last two years of high school, and Damn Yankees was my current fave, mostly because of the incredibly attractive and talented Jarrod Emick who won a Tony Award for the role. For many years thereafter, this became my online moniker. It ended up serving as a good test of true musical theater fans. If you thought this was an homage to the Hardy Boys, I could easily shun you, but if you knew this was the alter-ego of aging Joe Boyd who makes a deal with the devil, we were kindred souls.
In 2004 when Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, my husband and I planned small but lovely wedding in a mere six weeks, the gay version of a shotgun wedding. We wanted to marry before the powers that be took away the right, something that thankfully never happened in Massachusetts but would happen a few years later in my home state. Amidst the hustle and bustle of organizing a vocal recital with all of our friends for the wedding in lieu of traditional after-dinner dancing, we never even contemplated one (or both) of us changing our names upon marriage. Contrary to some of the common wisdom out there, neither one of us is the traditional “woman” in the relationship. When I see a bug, I scream as though someone is stabbing me, but I also deal with all the finances in the house. My husband tends to do most of the housework and cooking, but he’s also handy with a hammer and a drill. (Here’s a great article from The Atlantic on the subject of gender roles in same-sex unions.) Even if we had thought about changing our names, there was no traditional model to follow. Who would have given up his identity for the sake of the family name?
Then in 2007, our daughter was born. Her mother had left the hospital before naming her, and my husband and I were giddy with the idea that not only we were having a baby, but we got to name her as well–just like all of our straight friends who were having babies the old fashioned way. With very little contemplative thought, we decided the baby would take my husband’s last name and chose an alliterative first name to go along with it. My last name is something for which I have very little affinity. I share a name nearly identical to my biological father, someone who has never been a part of my life. My mother left him when I was very young, and before long she had remarried and taken my step-father’s last name, a name she kept beyond their divorce twenty-two years later and to her death a few years later. I usually refer to my step-father as my dad, although I still speak to him with his first name. While we weren’t exactly the picture of father-son harmony during my formative years, we grew closer in my 20s during my mom’s bout with addiction, his divorce from her, and her death. I contemplated at one point asking him to adopt me as an adult so that I could take his name, but our relationship is a bit too complicated and I am a bit to cowardly to have ever brought up the subject with him directly. With all this baggage, the decision was easy: our daughter did not need to take my name.
Then when it came time for adoption, some heterosexual friends of ours told me some horror stories that they heard from friends of friends. A woman had kept her maiden name and the children had taken her husband’s; while trying to fly with the kids alone, she was harassed and detained because she had a different name than the children she was traveling with. We heard this from enough people that at the eleventh hour we changed the paperwork so that our daughter would have both our names: my husband’s first and mine followed by a hyphen. Two years later, our son was adopted with the same last name, and we were suddenly a hyphenated family.
A few months ago, I started thinking seriously about the implications of this hyphenated existence. Is this just one more thing that will set the kids apart from their peers? There are quite a few of hyphenated kids in our affluent suburban town. Many of the overly educated and underemployed wives are reluctant to give up their maiden names, but their kids are growing up in heterosexual biological families. Wouldn’t a family with one name be more traditional, and thus more mainstream? I brought the issue up with my husband who immediately shut it down. He is not the type to jump on any bandwagon without days of thought. Over the summer months, I worked on him as his reluctance inflated my conviction that it was the right thing to do. Eventually, he yielded. I contacted a lawyer to find out how the three of us could take my husband’s last name.
We brought the idea up to the kids, and while our five year old son nonchalantly shrugged before running off to hit something with a bat, our six year old daughter was not pleased. I underestimated the sense of identity she already has rooted in her hyphenated last name. Having just completed Kindergarten, she expressed anxiety about how her beloved teacher from last year would know who she was. She literally put her foot down, telling me that dropping the last half of her name was just “weird.”
We’ll probably still move forward with the change, but I wonder if it’s the right thing to do now. Is this more about me than it is about the kids? Do I want to share the experiences of my girlfriends who have all taken their husbands’ last names? Is this the result of living in a heteronormative society? Or is this ultimately the right thing for our family and me?