“When are we going to do the coin flip?” Jenni asked.
She was six months pregnant. We’d driven to a lakeside bed-and-breakfast in Northeast Michigan to enjoy a final prenatal getaway and escape the stupefying August humidity in Washington, D.C.
“Whenever,” I replied. “We still have a full trimester.”
“How about today?” Jenni pressed, always eager to complete outstanding tasks.
I hesitated. As long as the coin flip remained in the future, I could relish the delicious anticipation of it without any risk of losing. Beyond our window, the blue expanse of Lake Huron stretched to the horizon, unbroken, limitless. Why decide, why close doors and constrain possibilities, today, here? But this trip would make a memorable backdrop, and saying no seemed unreasonable.
“I guess we could,” I said. “I’ll look for loose change.”
I started searching for the coin that would determine our future child’s last name.
What surname to give one’s child is not a question that keeps many parents-to-be up at night. It’s often not even a question at all, especially for cisgendered heterosexual couples. Definitive statistics are elusive, but two studies from the past 15 years suggest that over 95 percent of children of heterosexual marriages receive only their father’s surname. This is a certainty in marriages where women take their husband’s name, and in a 2015 New York Times analysis, roughly 70 percent of women who married between 2010 and 2014 reported doing so. More striking is the implication you arrive at, looking at these two numbers together, that even when both (cisgendered, heterosexual) spouses keep their names, the vast majority revert to the patrilineal norm for surnames once children enter the picture.
Keeping our own last names when we married was a natural choice, given how we’d approached our engagement. Jenni, who sported shirts that declared “Matriarchy Now” and “El Futuro Es Femeninx,” had made it clear that she didn’t want to be proposed to, and I shared her discomfort with the asymmetrical pageantry and gender norms of traditional proposals. We discussed what a mutual engagement ritual would look like, but before we fleshed out the details, we spontaneously declared our engagement in a hot tub. No proposer or proposee, no kneeling, no ring. Later we made wedding bands for each other in a ring-making workshop and both wore them on our right hands until the wedding to mark our engagement. A spirit of reciprocity was our compass. I didn’t want to take Jenni’s name. Why should she be expected to take mine?
The first real challenge to our breezy egalitarianism arose as I lay in bed on a Saturday morning. Jenni materialized next to my side of the bed and waved something blurry in my face. I didn’t need my glasses to know that it was a positive pregnancy test. If all went well, there would be a baby, and the baby would need a last name.
Hyphenation seemed like the obvious solution. It’s like a youth T-Ball league game: Everyone wins. Except, depending on the names at hand, your progeny. Hyphenation demands crisp, concise ingredients: Newton-John, Abdul-Jabbar, Gordon-Levitt. Otherwise, it grows unwieldy, as in our case, where hyphenation would create a six-syllable, eighteen-letter monstrosity.
Bardenstein isn’t hard to pronounce, but over the years it had intimidated staff at schools, summer camps, and doctor’s offices who were professionally obligated to attempt it. They’d consult their clipboard with furrowed brow and, discouraged by the number of letters, hazard a few tentative guesses: “Mr. … Bar-del-stein? Bar-ter-stein? Berenstein?” To saddle our child with an even heftier name would doom them (and us) to a life spent filling out forms and spelling their name over the phone.
Even hyphenation’s promise of perfect equality proved illusory.
“If we hyphenate, I think it sounds better as Bardenstein-Romanek,” I said as we strolled past flowering dogwoods on a fragrant April evening shortly after Jenni’s first OB-GYN appointment, when we’d heard the frenetic fetal heartbeat.
“I prefer Romanek-Bardenstein,” Jenni said.
“But Romanek sounds cooler.”
“So it should go first.”
“No, it’s like the finale of a performance,” I insisted. “You save your best material for the end.”
“You’re just trying to sell me on your name going first.”
“No, I’m saying your name sounds cooler, which is a compliment, and hyphenated names are better when the cooler name is last.”
“You know when kids have hyphenated names, people just call them the first and drop the second,” Jenni said.
“I can think of at least four people who were called by both.”
“But if they get called by one, it’s always the first.”
I didn’t argue the point.
The issue of hyphenated name order frequently hijacked our exploration of first names that spring.
“What about Luna?” Jenni asked.
“I like Luna.”
“Luna Romanek-Bardenstein,” she pressed.
“Yeah, Luna Bardenstein-Romanek has a nice ring to it,” I said, pretending to mishear her.
“I couldn’t agree more that Luna Romanek-Bardenstein is a strong contender,” she said, her voice rising with insistence.
We reenacted versions of this scene again and again, like a scab we couldn’t resist picking. At first it was funny. But our little improv didn’t—couldn’t—go anywhere. A few back-and-forths inevitably sanded away the thin veneer of amusement until nothing separated us from our raw frustration at this stalemate.
We flirted with a more radical idea: creating a new surname, possibly a hybrid of our names. This approach was fair in the sense that neither surname would survive intact, and it appealed to my love of naming things. (I’m sitting on a stockpile of ~150 potential band names.) Our brainstorm produced two promising portmanteaus—the believable Bardanek, the robust Romanstein—and one nagging question: Would we also adopt the new name? I couldn’t imagine becoming a Bardanek or a Romanstein. Neither could Jenni. We wanted to retain our names and remain the selves we’d been for thirty-odd years. But it seemed both sad and administratively inconvenient for neither of us to share our child’s surname. How often would we have to provide documentation proving that we were indeed our child’s parents, rather than very emotionally invested kidnappers? We decided hybrid last names were like dogs—we’d rather admire other people’s than have one ourselves.
Near the end of Jenni’s first trimester, I tossed out another option, partially in jest, over Thai takeout.
“What if we just flip a coin for last name?”
“Are you serious?” Jenni asked, more amused than dismissive.
“It’ll be like No Country for Old Men, except after this coin flip no one gets killed with a captive bolt stunner.”
Her eyes registered the thrill of a challenge.
“Loser’s last name becomes the middle name?” This had been the fate of Jenni’s mom’s last name.
“You’re on, Bardenstein.”
The coin flip would be fair in a different way than hyphenation or a hybrid name—it guaranteed a fair process but an unequal outcome. It also turned our naming process into a competition. There would be a winner and a loser, and while I was comfortable enough with losing to suggest it, a part of me very much wanted to win.
There aren’t many Bardensteins in the world: more than 10, but likely fewer than 100. We could all probably fit on a school bus. More motivating to me than Bardenstein’s scarcity was its Jewishness. Having a culturally identifiable name is neither necessary nor sufficient for feeling connected to that culture, and my name is far from the most meaningful aspect of my Jewish identity. Still, I appreciated that there was something I couldn’t easily hide or change that marked me as Jewish. It reminded me that all four corners of my family fled places where being Jewish was, to put it lightly, a real safety hazard. There was something wrapped in this sense of being visible, being marked, that I wanted to pass on, and as I contemplated the coin flip it felt as if I were leaving a lot to chance.
In our lakeside B&B, I emptied our bags in search of a quarter. Lesser denominations wouldn’t do for a coin flip of this magnitude.
“Who’s going to flip it?” Jenni asked. “Should we ask one of the other guests?”
“I can do it.”
I liked flipping coins: the resonant ring when my thumbnail struck the coin cleanly, sending it into tight rotations as faithful to their axis as those of a whirling figure skater. I also had an irrational intuition that if I were the one to flip the coin, starting tails up, and I chose tails, fortune might be ever so slightly inclined in my favor. And with the legacy of my last name on the line, I’d feel better if I lost by my own hand.
Jenni developed a sudden curiosity about the fairness of coin flips and began some last-minute research.
“Whoa. This study shows coin flips aren’t 50-50!” she announced after several minutes of fervent Googling. I glanced at her phone.
“Daily Mail? Not exactly a trusted source for academic research.”
“Just read it.”
A Stanford math professor had identified a couple of flaws in the sacred decision-making technology known as the coin flip. The side that starts facing up is more likely to land facing up, because that side is guaranteed to spend as much or more time facing up during the flip. Additionally, one side of the coin may be heavier and thus more likely to land facedown. (As many as 80 percent of penny flips land tails-up, on account of Lincoln’s weighty visage.) My intuition that I’d have a slight edge was more valid than I’d imagined, but now Jenni would never agree to that.
Jenni found a coin-flip simulation website. The page displayed the tails side of a quarter, a button that said “Flip It,” and a running tally of the millions of coin flips conducted to date on the site. Now our coin flip would truly be fair, although the website’s gratuitous number of banner ads made me question its integrity.
We settled on a best-of-three contest.
“Which side do you want?” Jenni asked.
“I don’t care,” I said, which wasn’t true. I still found tails reassuring. “You can be heads, I can be tails?”
“I like tails too—it has a bird.” Jenni, a lifelong bird lover, had forgotten about the quarter’s featured eagle until minutes earlier. “But fine, I’ll be heads.”
Jenni tapped the “Flip It” button, triggering an animation of a spinning coin. It settled on George Washington’s unwelcome profile. I grimaced.
“Best of five?”
“You’re lucky it’s not best of one,” Jenni said, passing me her phone. It felt leaden in my hand.
I tapped, praying to send us to a dramatic tiebreaker. The coin spun.
“Noooooo!” I yelled, surprising Jenni and myself with a reaction I’d seen only in movies. The effervescent thrill of anticipation I’d enjoyed for months turned sour with defeat. Our child would take Jenni’s last name. That mine would be their middle name was meager consolation—Bardenstein is the kind of middle name kids are embarrassed to reveal to their friends. I’d suggested something edgy, and now I felt its sharpness in my gut.
Jenni was convulsively laugh-crying.
“I won,” she said, wet-cheeked, after she caught her breath.
“How does it feel to bring the Bardenstein name to the brink of elimination?” I asked, sending her into a fresh paroxysm of laughter.
That afternoon I processed my loss through mostly tongue-in-cheek attempts to dampen Jenni’s victory. I searched for our surnames on the internet, using the relative paucity of results for mine to show the extent of my sacrifice. As we shuffled along the sandy shore of the lake, I told Jenni that if she really wanted to hyphenate, I’d consider it. (She didn’t, and had suggested no such thing.)
“If you’re really unhappy with the outcome, we can revisit hyphenation.” Her magnanimity underscored my lack thereof.
“I’m just venting,” I said. “I’m glad we did it.”
The sting of losing faded, leaving a residue of appreciation for the result. Our goal was to determine our child’s surname fairly while chipping away at a patriarchal norm. The coin flip was fair in that it guaranteed an equal chance to pass on our surnames, but creating a zero-sum competition put me in the strange position of rooting, at least in the heat of the moment, against what I saw as societal progress. If I’d won, our child would have joined the ranks of the 90-something percent who receive only their father’s surname, outwardly perpetuating the norm we intended to challenge and rendering invisible our attempt to challenge it. What kind of victory would that be? Jenni’s triumph transformed the coin flip from private act to public fact: something enduring that would interact with the outside world. We were lucky that our equal process yielded the result it did.
The outcome’s visibility felt increasingly important in retrospect, sparking doubts about our process. If I believed in undoing patriarchal naming norms, why make my contribution to that undoing dependent on a game of chance? Why tolerate a 50 percent probability of reinforcing the status quo? Interpersonal fairness and societal fairness often exist in tension. In the context of my relationship with Jenni, fairness meant prioritizing equality and reciprocity. That version of fairness wasn’t the fastest route to a world where women and men pass on their names with equal frequency. Maybe I should have simply agreed to give our child Jenni’s last name. If we have a second child, maybe I will.
Back in D.C., we were running late for Jenni’s ultrasound appointment. She hurried in while I parked in a subterranean lot. When I reached the OB-GYN department, Jenni had already been taken to a room, and a nurse came to find me.
“Mr. Romanek? Your wife’s in Room 6.”
By assuming Jenni had taken my last name, she’d unknowingly given me Jenni’s. This disoriented me, being addressed by a name—an identity—that wasn’t mine. A desire to explain swelled in my chest, but I let it pass. As a man with a different last name from my child, there would be more moments of friction and confusion in which external assumptions diverged from our family’s reality.
I remembered the wedding gifts we’d received that were addressed to “Ian and Jenni Bardenstein,” and laughed.
“Jenni’s going to love that you called me that.”