When I got engaged, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to change my last name. I was 28, so I was well into adulthood and had embarked on my professional career. More than that, I simply felt like a Robertson. Granted, it’s a Scottish last name, and no one in my family has been to Scotland nor do we follow any Scottish traditions, but it was the name I grew up with and I liked it.
My then-fiancé (now husband), Luca, is from Italy. His last name is Renda—not something hard to pronounce, like Pandimiglio or Squarcialupi. But even though I’m an American mutt, with Scottish, Danish, Norwegian, English, Irish and French blood, as far as my genealogy-researching mom can tell, I don’t have a drop of Italian in my veins.
It took some time for me to find the right words and the right moment to bring up the topic with Luca. We were on a walk in the neighborhood when I gingerly broached the subject with a tentative, “I’ve been thinking about not changing my name.”
“Why would you?” came the matter-of-fact reply.
In Italy, women traditionally don’t take their husband’s name upon marriage, a tradition that became law in 1975. It’s not necessarily a feminist stance—women carry their fathers’ surnames, after all—but it didn’t matter what their reasons were or mine. Keeping my maiden name after marriage was clearly a non-issue for my soon-to-be husband.
Although we got married in New York and live there now, my husband and I spent the several years in between living overseas. We’ve had two kids, whom we gave my husband’s last name.
We lived for eight years in Latin America, where the custom is to use two last names on official documents: first the father’s, then the mother’s. (The late, great Colombian author Gabriel García Marquez is an example.) The father’s last name usually comes first, and when the child grows up and has children of his or her own, it is the paternal last name that gets passed on.
Later, we moved to Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country that straddles east and west culturally, and is populated by a mix of Christians and Muslims. Christian women often take their husbands’ names upon marriage, while Muslim women traditionally keep their maiden names—but there were countless exceptions to each of these rules. I also met many women of both religions who chose instead to tack their husband’s surname on as a second last name.
Having a different last name than one’s children isn’t for everyone.
Nowhere—not in Latin American or Lebanon, Seattle (my hometown) or New York (my new home), not even at passport control in Italy or the U.S., has anyone ever questioned me about having a different last name than my children. It is far from the norm, but with 20 percent of American women keeping their maiden names upon marriage, it’s not so unusual either.
I know many people wonder how it might affect the kids. So I spoke with my 18-year-old niece, Fiorella Mijares, about her experience. Fiorella was born in Venezuela and, as is the tradition there, has her father’s last name. Women keep their maiden names upon marriage, and her mother’s last name is Castro. Fiorella’s parents split up when she was little, and her mother ended up meeting and eventually marrying my husband’s brother (last name Renda, of course).
Fiorella was 10 when she and her mother got an apartment with her stepfather. “I remember that when we first moved in together, we had to put a tag on the mailbox with all of our last names. Ours was so big with respect to the others, but we just laughed about it, and I didn’t think that it was strange,” says Fiorella.
She doesn’t remember anyone ever asking her about their different last names. And that’s not just because Fiorella grew up in Italy where naming traditions are different than the U.S. During her last two years of high school, Fiorella and her family lived in Durham, North Carolina.
Having a different last name than one’s children isn’t for everyone. My sister Anna took her husband’s last name, Stokes, when she got married, and decided to keep it when the marriage ended in divorce.
“I did it purely for the boys,” she says. “I wanted them to have a sense that we were still a 'family' through our name. I didn't want them to face questions from teachers or friends on why their mom had a different last name, and I didn't want to have to explain any difference to anyone either.”
She says it felt weird at first when the boys’ school friends still called her ‘Mrs. Stokes’, but "again, everyone knew I was their mom.” She’s now been a Stokes for 22 years and believes that even if she were to remarry one day, she’d “probably stay as Stokes or hyphenate, just to keep the name connection with the boys.”
In today’s world of globalization and blended families, women should feel free to do whatever feels right for them. We may want to honor certain connections and relationships by choosing to change or keep our names, but it’s not an all-or-nothing game.
At the end of the day, the bonds that tie families together are not made out of names, but of love.