What’s in a Name?

I agonized over changing mine when I got married. Then I lost my husband.

Lisa Larson-Walker

It is fall in New York, and I am at City Hall with my soon-to-be husband applying for a marriage license. Our son, just a week old, is a sleepy little dumpling bundled against my chest. His heartbeat is small and steady, his breath shallow and warm and sweet against my body. For nine months he was a part of me, and now that he is actually here, I can’t quite process the idea of any physical distance between us. Even putting him in a stroller seems wrong, like an unthinkable migration to a reality that I’m still struggling to comprehend—an out-of-body experience, I think, as I juggle child and baby bag and papers. The concept of multitasking suddenly seems as foreign to me as space travel.

A clerk pushes a piece of paper toward me, a boilerplate form requesting all the data points that circumscribe my existence—driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers—a litany of official metrics that frame my formal identity, which, up until a week ago, seemed fairly straightforward, except that now there is this other person who is part of me, only of course he isn’t, and I am suddenly thrust into an emotional tsunami of existential doubt about biology and identity and selfhood, wondering where I end and where my child begins.

I stare at the form. There’s a box for my maiden name, and beside it, another box for my married name. And just like that, I am forced to choose. How can I have a name that differs from my child’s name? The concept of my husband and child sharing a name that excludes me strikes me as a violation of something deeply primal (newly-minted motherhood makes me ferocious on this topic), but letting go of my own name seems equally if not more vexing. There is no right answer, and I freeze. I am hormonal and sleep-deprived and incapable of thinking clearly: not of my own personhood or ego, not about the hard-won victories of my feminist forebears, not about the thorny repercussions of an antediluvian marital custom, not even about the potential consequences of divesting myself of my own pre-existing personal and professional ambitions.

The author and her son, Malcolm, in 1996 and 2011.

Jessica Helfand

I adjust my infant son in his tiny sling. He burps. I cave.

And I hyphenate.

For the next two decades, I live with a name that does not fit on a credit card. It is confusing and mercurial, sometimes unsettling, always irksome. Misspellings are my new normal, with egregious consequences (banking woes, billing errors) at once aggravating and all too frequent. Over time, I learn to compartmentalize. In my studio and with my students, I am maiden-name me. With the electrician and with the pediatrician, I am married-name me. The hyphenated mashup is restricted to only the most official of documents—my passport, my driver’s license—and I routinely hope that I am not obliged to remember in which particular circumstance I used which version, or worse, that I will be expected to spell things out on the telephone to customer service personnel. But I persevere, and gradually, it gets easier.

My husband and I settle into married life and move to the country where we welcome a daughter. There are four of us now, a solid unit: balanced and grounded, two parents, two offspring. When we travel we maneuver as a team, bound by the oddly conventional yet curiously reassuring nomenclature of our mutual surname. There are, I soon find, considerable advantages to sharing a tribal affiliation that’s authorized by law. I’m pleasantly surprised by the comfort of it: a kind of proof of our united front. I begin to see my married name as keenly adjudicated, evidence not so much of a submerged identity as a deliberate gesture that expresses itself through solidarity with my kids—who are, after all, my posse of choice.

And with that posse we begin years of travel: through Europe, across India, into Asia and Africa. The children grow. The dog has puppies. Life is good.

And then, all at once, time stands still.

Walking in the garden on an unusually warm morning in June, my husband collapses. For 15 seconds he lies motionless on the ground. I shout his name—a single syllable—and he jolts awake, confused but cogent. Later, he laughs about it. The children laugh about it, too, but I am not laughing, and three weeks later, we receive an unthinkable diagnosis. Another tsunami of emotions, only this time, I am no longer in the throes of newlywed bliss, bewitched by the mesmerizing joys of a sleeping infant, or faced with the comparatively harmless challenge of filling out a government form, because life—and death, as I soon come to realize—does not afford me such simple courtesies.

The author’s husband and children in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 2002.

Jessica Helfand

In the hospital, I am my spouse’s advocate. To our friends and family, I am his partner. To the banks and the attorney, the hospice nurses, the probate court, and to the almost comically obsequious funeral director, I am his authorized representative. I am his designated driver, his tireless protector, his primary caregiver and proxy in all things and throughout it all, each of my names is invoked interchangeably as I manage bills, shuttle pills, volley calls, and transmit information. After his death, I inherit the work of both of us: selling our house, sorting our finances, running our businesses, and continuing the work of raising our children who are blossoming tall, strong, and independent, with voices and visions of their own, futures to build with their own partners, decisions to make, lives to lead, and names to change only if they choose to do so.

I changed mine once, and the time has come to change it back again.

* * *

Reverse-engineering your identity turns out not to be such an easy thing to do. There are legal forms to locate and sign, Social Security documents to notarize, a birth certificate to find and costs at every stage of the process. Although I consider myself fairly well-educated, it takes me hours of research and multiple calls to my lawyer to even begin to assess how this is done. I feel like I am divorcing myself, and I wonder why I did all of this in the first place. But I am committed to simplifying everything now, and restoring my nonhyphenated name feels at once overdue and necessary.

Is it possible that naming things is part of my DNA? When I graduated from college, I worked briefly as a soap-opera writer; my favorite task was naming villains, which I did by matching them to the names of my ex-boyfriends. In our studio and in our family, I have since been responsible for naming everything from children to projects to pets—the last a category that affords me both great personal pleasure and considerable creative latitude. (I once named a hermit crab Kafka because he was, after all, a crab.)

As a child, I loathed my first name, wishing with all my heart that my parents had chosen instead to call me Francine. When I was about 8 years old, I earnestly lobbied for a name change with my father, approaching him with cautious optimism one day to ask if he’d ever wanted to change his own name, and if so, to what? (“All the time,” he replied without hesitation. “To Rockefeller.”) As a marketing executive at Merck in the pre-digital 1960s, he’d been responsible for coming up with drug names, which he did by generating yards of computer printouts wherein chemical compounds were matched with words that loosely referenced their pharmacological purpose. My wordsmith mother, as it happened, was an ace at this exercise: She once proposed Auntie Em for a pediatric anti-emetic (or anti-nausea) drug. She’d married my father a decade earlier and changed her own name instantly. My older sister would later trade in our family name upon reciting her vows, too.

The author’s children, Malcolm and Fiona, in 2000 and 2013.

Jessica Helfand

Marriage invites us to reframe our coordinates. We seek licenses, join registries, crave progeny and property—self-identifying by virtue of our connectedness to others, like it’s a game, and we’re playing to win. We’re proud of these connections, persisting in the false hope that they’re as eternal as the vows we once clung to. I think of 17 years that came and went in a nanosecond—a baby, a marriage, a family. Another baby. A house and a dog. Many dogs. Many trips. Many changes. Perhaps too many.

All of us hold surnames, but in the end, they’re little more than fleeting totems of identification, perhaps more migratory than meaningful, uncoupled to who and what we really are. The baby I once wore is in college now. Both he and his sister will vote in the coming election. Their resilience remains a beacon of wonder to me, a testament to their independence, their spirit, their inner grace. Watching them, I’m reclaiming of a kind of centripetal force, slow and steady and strong. Ours continues to be a series of odysseys, mercurial and mysterious, alternately joyful and painful. We are bound not so much not by our names as by our experiences, united by love, not duty; by agency, not the alphabet. Felled by loss, we spin out like tumbleweed, gathering air, changing shape, rebounding as we go.

Read all the essays in Slate’s Mother’s Day package.