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What’s in a (Maiden) Name?

People always ask me if I am planning to leave behind the harsh Midwestern winters and return to Texas, where I grew up. My answer’s always the same: “No way. The gender roles are too rigid in Texas.” Most people shrug off my answer and change the subject. If probed, I explain that in my small community growing up, I was taught that marriage was the most important thing I would ever do. I much prefer Chicago, whose patron saint is Oprah Winfrey, a strong female icon who eschewed marriage altogether.

At the age of 35, I got married, a full decade behind most of my childhood friends. I always knew I would keep my maiden name. That decision was right for me, even though it’s a little tricky now that I am a mother of a school-age child who has a different last name than I do.

We recently started preschool for my daughter so now I am acquainted with dozens of new families. You can’t get more urban than our school. It’s 2 miles from downtown Chicago, nestled between a famous shopping district and an infamous housing project.

When I received the school directory, I couldn’t help but notice the other mothers’ names. Of all the families in my daughter’s class, I am the only one who goes by her maiden name. There wasn’t even a single hyphenated name on the entire list. Didn’t anyone else want to keep her name? How is it possible that I am the only one? I would have expected that in Texas, not in my beloved, progressive downtown Chicago.

I must be mistaken. I double-checked the name of a woman I met who’s a partner in a prestigious law firm. Nope. She goes by the same name as her husband.

I poured over our school directory like it was a treasure map, and the prize was someone who has a name like mine—someone who could be my friend in this new, overwhelming stage of my life. Staring at the list, I felt a prickle of shame because I am different. I wondered where I was when women of my demographic decided that keeping our maiden names was passé.

It was starting to get ugly. I was judging myself, and I was judging them.

But it’s only a name. What’s the big deal?

Was I hung up because I thought I was the only “true” feminist? That couldn’t be it because I have met two mothers who are the breadwinners for their families, and I can’t imagine being more feminist than that. Moreover, did changing my name make me the poster woman for radical gender equality? Hardly—I still rely on my husband to change the oil in my car and kill hairy insects.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I am so fixated on the mothers’ names. Clearly, I am going to have to go deeper—beyond the women’s names—to find a more meaningful basis for friendship and connection.

And that’s probably what I should have been doing all along.

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