Why you should care

Because not all last names are given. Increasingly, they are chosen. What’s a married feminist mom to do?

After six years of marriage, one kid and another on the way, I’m changing my name. For years I’ve had a foot in each camp, keeping my name legally and professionally, but inflicting “Nordberg Thompson” on my Facebook and email, and using it for social occasions. As you can imagine, lurking beneath all of this is a deep ambivalence over what it means to legally shed the name I’ve had all my life.

For starters, there’s a logistical loneliness to being a Nordberg in a growing bevy of Thompsons — the only one who doesn’t pop up automatically in airline reservations, and the only one who has to say things like “Hi, this is Anna Nordberg, William Thompson’s mother” every time I call the pediatrician. But logistics are a flimsy reason to do something that a large part of me doesn’t want to do.

My real reason is emotional.

When our son was born, seven weeks early and without a name, he remained “Baby Boy Nordberg” until the birth certificate office hunted us down (babies always carry their mother’s name in the hospital, for obvious reasons). And in those early, scary days, there was something strange about our not all sharing the same name. Not from any patriarchal standpoint, but from a simple family one.

When it comes to names and identity, the emotional often trumps the rational.

I know my husband, flashing his ID at the neonatal ICU while carrying in little coolers of breast milk at 3 a.m., felt like an outsider. You can argue that this is ridiculous, since outside of a two-week hospital stay, our son will carry his name for the rest of his life. But when it comes to names and identity, the emotional often trumps the rational. And I get that. Because I feel equally pulled in two directions.

Professionally, I will proudly remain a Nordberg. But at airline counters and hotel reception desks and, yes, the pediatrician’s office, I want to have the same last name as my husband and son.

There is, of course, an obvious answer to this: the hyphen. And, yes, some hyphenated surnames sound lovely together — sophisticated and vaguely European, as if hinting at titles and estates. But most roll off the tongue like a cement mixer. And Nordberg-Thompson falls into the latter camp.

Which got me thinking, with families taking so many different forms these days, and same sex marriage now legal in 17 states, is this our chance to reset the thinking on how we change and pass down family names?

There are already some creative solutions out there, documented on The Name Change Project. Some families give one child the mother’s name and the other the father’s, while others blend their names into a brand-new one. Thomberg? Nordson? No, thanks.

Some couples even pick a completely new name out of the blue (or sort of do, in this case), which is an interesting twist on the debate. Instead of trying to preserve both family legacies, it’s a totally fresh start.

We grew up as the Nordbergs, and, for better or worse, that made an impression on me.

But, and perhaps this speaks to the traditionalist lurking inside me, none of these seems like a perfect solution. Which is probably why the hyphen remains the most popular in a not-so-great buffet of options.

Maybe the real answer is, we’ll all start caring less about names. Our pediatrician won’t bother to ask my husband and me if we’re married because he’s a Thompson and I’m a Nordberg. As more kids grow up without sharing a family name, they’ll see nothing odd about it. And, of course, marriage isn’t necessary to create a strong parental bond.

But for now, I care. I wonder whether I would feel differently if my mother, a second-wave feminist a smidge older than most of her cohort, had decided to keep her name. Instead, we grew up as the Nordbergs, and, for better or worse, that made an impression on me.

Names are powerful. As the clock ticked down on our son’s hospital time, and the gentle calls from the birth certificate office became more insistent, my husband and I settled on William, a family name on both our sides whose Germanic roots mean ‘determined guardian.’ He got my middle name, which I shared with my mother, and Thompson from my husband.

It’s an old-fashioned name, possibly a bit plain. But when our son’s little giraffe nameplate appeared on his spaceship-like Isolette, next to the Castros and Ajaxes, names that cooler parents who lived in the Mission had come up with, it felt like we had emerged from the temporary fog of the NICU to the permanence of a new family.

And as I poke around on the Internet, researching the hassle of “hybrid name changes” where I keep my name professionally but change it on my driver’s license, I think about all the friends who have warned me to pick one lane or the other. But I can’t. It will be messier this way, I know.

Maybe that’s just the new normal.

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