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I dislike hyphenated last names. There are only two types of people exempt from my no-hyphenation rule: tweed-wearing, kippers-for-breakfast-eating, pheasant-hunting inhabitants of country estates; and married women on the cusp of feminism – too evolved to give up their own last names, but still insecure without a male appendage. I salute your hesitant evolution, sisters.
So, how to explain my two sons with their hyphenated last name? A last name that I co-authored? They don’t have half an estate between them, country or otherwise, and that fishy smell they emit in the morning isn’t kippers.
Having children and naming them is an exercise in branding, a declaration of ownership. Having and naming children caters to our egos, and my ego demanded that my children have my last name – their mother’s last name.
Parents agonize long and hard over their offspring’s first name, but the last name is usually a cinch. Have a penis? Your last name will be conferred on your children. The quality of your dadness doesn’t matter: Absent fathers, deadbeat fathers, abusive fathers all qualify. No penis? Sorry sister, you’d better have very good reasons for flouting tradition.
So I collected my reasons and got to work on my partner, Kevin.
Children belong to and are of women in a way they never can be of men, I reasoned. They begin lives as cannibals – feeding on our flesh and blood. Biology alone should confer “branding rights” on the mother.
Historically, taking a man’s last name was legally required to ensure financial security, I conceded. But the times and the laws have changed, and women are now a financial force.
Why have naming practices not kept pace? Even married women who have retained their last names, and thus display a sense of self independent of their husbands’, seem perfectly comfortable with their children having their husband’s last name.
They may be okay with being “odd one out” in the house, with not declaring a shared lineage with their children, but I refused to be the “outsider” in our house. I did not want to bear children only to hand them over to the protection of a man’s last name.
And I had culture on my side, too. I was from Kerala, a state in India that practised a matrilineal system of inheritance. Women passed on property to their children. Children took their mother’s family name.
Kevin, a multiculturally sensitive Canadian, would certainly be moved by my pleas to retain my cultural heritage, I thought.
And the icing on the cake was that all-Canadian Kevin had a nearly unpronounceable, multi-consonanted Scandinavian last name while I, the exotic Easterner, had a relatively easy last name that most people could pronounce. So I had ease-of-use in my corner.
I discussed all this with some Canadian friends, all women. Every one of them was dubious.
“Do you have to?” one said. “It’s not that important, and after some time it won’t matter to you at all.”
In that case, it shouldn’t matter to Kevin, either.
“Don’t mention the biology part,” I was advised. “He’ll be hurt if you claim the child is biologically more yours than his.”
But his fight, then, is with the human body and the limitations of manhood, not with me.
“Is he secure enough to do this?” I was asked.
I don’t know, but what about my insecurity?
“Where will this end? What names will your children give their children?”
That I do not know, but it’s the children’s problem, not mine.
“What about your last name as a middle name?”
Oh, come on.
The only sensible suggestion was that both Kevin and I check our egos at the birthing door. In other words, neither one should pass on their last name but we’d make up a new last name for the child. Then each member of the family would have their own unique identity, their own first name, their own last name.
All well and good, except that we were having a very hard time deciding on a first name, and following this suggestion would require us to put in twice the effort.
Kevin and I discussed this long and hard. I listed my reasons, urged him to strike a blow for matriarchy (and yes, the irony of depending on a man to do that is not lost on me).
He heard me, he understood me, he agreed in theory. But ... it turned out his ego needs were as strong as mine.
And so, in due course, there I was at the hospital packing up our unnamed first newborn while Kevin finished up the paperwork that would let us leave.
It was then that hospital staff broke the news to us that we couldn’t go without providing some identifying name for the child. A last name was needed.
Kevin glared at me. I glared back. And we glared some more. The parking meter was running. Our son was wailing. The staff were getting impatient. I was longing to get home to a nice, long bath.
So I barked, “Just hyphenate the damn thing.” And we were on our way.
Kalyani Menon lives in Toronto.