When I married David Adelson, I never seriously considered changing my name to Adelson any more than I ever seriously considered changing my name to Duchovny, or Gosling.
Caveat: For a little while, maybe because I was super-stoked to be married — and super-confident that 20 years of professional feminism made my creds otherwise clear — I tacked “Adelson” on after Harris in non-professional settings.
But “Lynn Harris Adelson” didn’t stick. I STILL LOVED MY HUSBAND, but after the thank-you notes were sent, it started to grate. I’d been a journalist and author forever — and though it was EXTREMELY IRRITATING to be constantly confused with the late bestselling author E. Lynn Harris, whose books best-sold way more than mine — I was not about to touch my byline. Plus, feminism! “Harris” wasn’t going anywhere.
Then came our daughter, Bess. We considered “Bess Harris” for about five minutes, two and a half of which were spent thinking, “That’s a lot of S’s,” and two and a half of which were spent noting that both names came from my side, which seemed unfair. And so, Bess Adelson.
The surname thing remains a huge unsolved problem — and, comrades, a seriously stalled revolution.
Two years later: Sam. Sam, as it turned out, Adelson. I briefly considered “Sam Harris,” then caved. Why? Because “Sam Harris” is a noted atheist and my husband is a rabbi? Because I adored the “Sam Harris” who won Star Search in 1983 and worried my Sam would never measure up? Because I know how annoying it is to be confused with anyone medium-famous? Because I’d been dragging myself to a 4th floor walkup with a toddler in hand and a boulder in utero and was so exhausted I forgot to give a shit about PATRIARCHY? I do NOT REMEMBER.
When Bess was four and Sam two, I brought them together to their annual checkup. (They’re both fall babies, so close enough.) The receptionist said, “Bess and Sam Adelson?” And said to me, “Any change in insurance, Mom?”
I have a fucking name.
Actually — I realized in that moment — I have two fucking names. (Three, if you count the middle one.) None of which is shared with anyone in my family. I am the odd mom out.
That hurt. By then, too much. Personally and politically. My passivity, at that point, was patriarchy.
I went to court the next day.
The process of legally changing a minor’s surname is pretty much the world’s most boring epic quest. Get this signed, that stamped, both notarized, nope, sorry only black ink, lose a turn, take a number, send everything in quintuplicate to Homeland Security and wait.
I had zero concern about whether the kids or school administrators or whoever would be “confused” about whose sibling is whose. All sorts of families have all sorts of names for all sorts of reasons. And I had plenty of role models. I know lots of couples with two kids who’ve done one and one like us, including, colorfully, two identical twins named Lucca Lombardi and Eamon O’Brien. I also know several couples that kept their names and hyphenated them for their kid(s) and one couple who kept their own surnames but combined them into a new one for their daughter. I know at least two couples whose daughters have their mother’s name, just because. I’m sure we all know people who combined their surnames when they got married before having kids.
But I know only one dude who took his wife’s name (giving it to their three daughters, too). I don’t judge an individual who takes a man’s name — a dear friend said she CHOSE her husband’s name to replace her father’s — but I’ll be happy when it’s equally common for him to take hers. We’ve (mostly) succeeded in transforming marriage from a property transfer to a partnership, but the his/hers names thing has hardly caught up. It’s normal for her to keep her name, yet still normal for THAT SAME COUPLE’S kids to get his. Why do so many couples stop there? The surname thing remains a huge unsolved problem — and, comrades, a seriously stalled revolution.
If you or your kid took a dude’s name, no judgment; I don’t know your life. But we should all care about this at a culture and population level. When your straight brother gets engaged, you could say, “Ever think of changing your name to hers? Lots of dudes have done it and haven’t died.” You could ask friends planning to have kids what they’re thinking not about names but about surnames. Betcha you’ll be the first. Betcha you’ll get them thinking.
If more people raise questions, more people will question assumptions. And maybe more people will get more creative. And maybe “creative” will get more normal. I say it’s worth it, even if it requires a boring, pain-in-the-ass “quest.”
Sam’s new birth certificate, passport and Social Security card all finally arrived. And the next time I took him to the doctor, the receptionist called out, “Sam Harris?” I said, “We’re here.”
(Photo provided by the author/Isabella Giancarlo)