The Universal Notebook: Girls and their names

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Somewhere, perhaps in one of his elegant short stories, John Updike likened knowing a flower without knowing its name to knowing a married sister who has changed her name. Like so many things I once knew so well, I can’t find the passage now that I need it, now that my girls are changing their names.

Two of my three daughters have new names. Hannah Beem became Hannah Blackburn two years ago when she married Chris Blackburn. Nora Beem became Nora Dufhilo when she married Mike Dufhilo in March. Or she is in the laborious process of doing so, applying for a new Social Security card so she can apply for a new driver’s license so she can register her car, etc, etc.

Changing your name must be difficult for a young woman. Not just the logistical difficulty of things like booking an airline ticket and having the airline demand to see your marriage license because your frequent flyer miles are in your maiden name, but the ontological difficulty of knowing who you are when you are called by a new name. It doesn’t seem fair that we ask women to do this. And, of course, not all married women do.

When Nora asked me whether I thought she should change her name, I wasn’t much help I’m afraid. I just told her that it was a decision she would have to make for herself and then ran through the pros and cons with her, mostly having to do with the awkwardness surrounding motherhood.

I’m sure mothers who do not have the same surnames as their children, who decide for philosophical or professional reasons to keep their maiden names, understand better than the rest of us that you are not your name. Still, the patrilineal naming tradition strikes me as an unfortunate holdover from centuries of male dominance, a matter of convenience.

Personally, I’ve never been big on genealogy, figuring people I never knew have little meaning for my life beyond biology. But I am conscious of the family names that we leave in our wakes. My daughters, for instance, have matriarchal lines that run back through Thompson to Radomski and Gailey before they get lost. My maternal grandmother was a Morrison, my paternal grandmother a Ritter.

Some of these names live on in the family as middle names, and one of my nieces took the unusual course of giving her daughter not her own surname, nor her mother’s, but her grandmother’s, so there is still a bona fide Radomski in the family. A brave, feminist statement I thought.

Carolyn Thompson changed her name to mine when we married in 1980, but I would never have insisted that she do so and I wouldn’t have minded at all if she hadn’t. I think she did it for purely practical reasons, but it has always seemed like a gift she gave me, an honor I didn’t deserve and still have to earn every day.

I just hope my new sons-in-law are appropriately honored and humbled that the Beem girls have taken their names. They now must spend the rest of their lives becoming the men my daughters already think they are.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.