The XX Factor

By Any Other Name

When I was a girl, children who bore their mother’s surname were typically considered legally “illegitimate.” Now that science can settle paternity, questions of authenticity, legitimacy and matrimonially-linked inheritances have thankfully faded from the social consciousness. Jessica’s comment about hyphenated surnames though, and Kerry’s post on “matrilineal cults” both made me think about the historically recent phenomenon of couples who, for reasons of their own, assign their children the mother’s last name.

Although many of my contemporaries in their 20’s had become Mrs. Somebody, by the time I married in 1985, brides had begun to routinely retain their own last names with, typically, future children carrying the husbands’. By then, at 35, I had no interest in changing my cognomen to Grady. I had grown into my Goldstein name and we were inseparable.

Surprisingly, my 13-year-old daughter, though she would have been happy to remain fatherless, changed her family name from Goldstein to Grady. Like many teenage children in newly blended families, she was not particularly embracing the new guy. She’d begun testing a punk persona and taken Rachel Grady as her “street name.” There was really only one thing about her step-father she especially liked: his 5-speed silver Porsche 911. Being practical, we sold the Porsche the next year. He taught her to drive on a manual Ford which burned through several clutches as father and daughter got to know each other better.

Eventually my husband adopted Rachel legally and the court sent us a new birth certificate that has his name on it. The following year, our family added a baby brother, my son Nate. I wanted to name the boy “Howard,” after my dad who’d died nearly a decade earlier, but my husband didn’t like how my father’s patronym sounded. I was hormonal and, at nearly 40, pretty sure this was the last child on whom I could bestow this dubious honor, so I pushed the “baby Howie” option.

I told my husband that we should split this decision: he could choose his son’s first name, provided I could choose the last-mine. He looked so crestfallen I immediately took it back. Our son became Nathan Howard Grady and I can’t imagine him being called anything else. It turns out how we arrive at what we call ourselves, has a lot to do with who we are.

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