Tying the Knot in a Meaningful and Memorable Way (Without Losing Our Savings or Sanity)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Name Changing Dilemma

When Matt and I were getting married, we faced the name-changing dilemma: I didn't want to change mine, and he didn't want to change his.

I didn't want to change my name for several reasons, namely:
  1. By the time I got married, I had already been Sara Cotner for 30 years. I've made so many contacts throughout those years; I didn't want to make it difficult for people from my past (primarily former students) to find me. Plus, my name is a huge part of my identity.

  2. I'm not a huge fan of hyphenation. I find it cumbersome. I totally support people who choose that route for themselves because I think it's a good compromise and I like the philosophy behind it. I just don't personally like it for practical reasons.

  3. I don't like the patriarchal tradition of women giving up their last names when they get married.

  4. I like my last name. If I didn't like it, I would most likely have ignored my previous three reasons and just changed my name to Matt's (which is Bradford).

In the past 2.5 years since we've been married and maintaining our separate names, I can only recall two problems we've had: one time I had a hard time picking up a UPS package because our last names didn't match (but they ended up giving it to me anyway) and, just the other day, I had to repeat to the receptionist at the doctor's office: "We're married, we just have different last names" (it was an insurance card issue).

And the truth is, there have been a couple times when it's been helpful to have different last names. For example, I was trying to sneak Matt into a free event for educators at the museum, and it helped that he looked like my colleague rather than my husband (Editor's Note: I didn't compromise my integrity too much. Matt is technically in education; he's just not in the classroom anymore.)

But now that we're on the verge of welcoming the newest member into our family (in two weeks!), we're facing the dilemma all over again. As I see it, these are our options:

  1. I could change my last name to Bradford and all of us could have the same last name. Again, I don't like this option for all the reasons listed above.
  2. Matt could change his last name to Cotner and all of us could have the same last name. Again, Matt wouldn't want to do this.
  3. We could hyphenate the baby's name and he could be Cotner-Bradford. I like the way it sounds, but, again, I think hyphenation is cumbersome. I don't even know how to alphabetize hyphenated names! And think about how long it would take him to bubble in his last name on standardized tests. Plus, when/if he gets married, he would face this same dilemma all over again, so we would only really be solving the problem temporarily.
  4. We could give the baby one of our last names as a middle name and use the other name as a last name. I kind of like this option because it honors both of our last names, but one of our last names would be relegated to the middle name spot, which isn't used very often. I'm thinking we would put my maiden name in the middle because I think Cotner Bradford sounds better than Bradford Cotner. Also, I think I have an inextricable link to the baby already by virtue of the fact that he and I have shared a body for nine months. It might be nice to create a different kind of bond for Matt by giving the baby his last name.
  5. We could make up a new last name (perhaps by blending our names together) and then all share it. Although I like the theory behind this idea, it seems like a shame to lose our real last names entirely.

Oh, the decisions! I really don't know what to do (and our decision-making window is coming to a close!).

Please chime in if you have some sage advice!

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Mindy said...

I knew a family who gave their first child the fathers last name and the second child the mothers last name. It's an interesting alternative but people tended to think they were a step family. Have you decided on a first name yet?

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Mindy: Thanks for bringing up that option! And, no, we're not sure on a first name yet. We need to hurry!

Viviane said...

Here in Brazil the costumary is the first name, mother's surname and father's surname. Sometimes we even have more surnames than that, I for instance, have two of my mother's surname.
All the best!
PS: your blog was a source of inspiration and reflection during the chaos of my weddig

Roxanne W said...

I would say above all, of course, go with what feels right. But maybe hyphenating isn't as bad as you'd think. Especially if you give it to Coconut at birth, he'll be used to it. Luckily Cotner and Bradford aren't too long, so it wouldn't be much worse than having a really long last name.
I understand wondering what he would do should he get married and have children, because I kept my last name and sometimes wonder about that too. But I think that it will be something he can figure out, and who really knows what the trends in last names will be by the time he's grown? Plus, he'll always have a little bit of each of you in his name (although he would do that with the middle name option too!)

Carissa said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic. I also didn't change my last name and we haven't had to figure out a baby's name yet. I agree that you all should just do what feels right. I have a friend who has made three trips to the local social security office (and the baby is now almost 2-years old) because the first compromises that were made didn't feel right. It also sounds like Matt is open to putting all options on the table. I think it is enormously helpful when both parties recognize the sacrifices that are made to be a family. Because, whatever option one chooses, one partner will have to give up more.

Married In Chicago said...

I just thought I'd share my own experience - I have my father's last name as my last name and my mom's last name as my middle name. So my middle name is my mother's last name (since she didn't change her name). For what it is worth - I like it! I've heard some people worry that it is confusing for a child when their last name isn't the same as both of their parents, but I never experienced that.

Also, I recently got married. I'm still deciding what I want to do about changing my name, but I'm leaning to just tacking on my husband's last name on the end so I don't have to "give up" any of my names :)

And my last point - I promise - I actually think Cotner-Bradford sounds *really* good. And I don't think having a hyphened last name feels cumbersome to people who are born with them!

Sara said...

I may be in the minority here, but I like Cotner as a first name! :) It could totally work for a little boy, in my opinion.

Kelsey said...

I'm in the exact same situation as Married in Chicago! My mom kept her maiden name and it's my last name and when I got married I did take my husbands last name but just tacked it on the end so now I have 4 names but each one means a lot to me. I really like having my mom's family name as a middle name so I would vote for making Cotner your son's middle name. And you never know, maybe it'll end up being a tradition. In my husband's family all the boys are given the middle name Mack, after his paternal grandmother, and it's a tradition we plan to continue too. I do also like Cotner as a first name! It worked for Steve and Miranda on Sex and the City ;)

Anonymous said...

I have a hyphenated last name that is really easy - each name is only one syllable and fairly easy to spell. So my name is First Name Momsname-dadsname. My cousins are all hyphenated as well, except one who has dropped one of the names since, so we all have half of the same name.

But it was still a pretty big pain growing up. when I went away to college they didn't give me my mail for ages because they said I 'couldn't have 2 names' it is often hard to do things like check in electronically for planes because a lot of computer programs don't have punctuation etc.

also, I just got married and haven't changed my name but as we're starting to think about having kids there's no way I'd do a triple hyphen! so it's only really a short term solution.

all that being said, none of those things are really that big of a deal and I'm sure society (and computer algorithms) will eventually catch up

Jen said...

Hey! I kept my name as well and we've discussed what to do if a baby came along and had similar conclusions to you: aka not sure in the least!

My favorite option is to make a new name by blending the two last names. That way you aren't totally losing either and both gaining a family name.

How about...Bradcot - very normal sounding!

Ms. Bunny said...

No sage advice from me, other than the fact that my parents gave me both of their last names as one word, no hyphen, capital letter in the middle. So I'm Bunny MomsDads. They kept their names as they were.

It met their needs well, although growing up I hated its cumbersomeness. However, now I love it because I am the only person in the world with my last name. If you google me, I am the only one who shows up, which in this day and age is a great thing when you think about professional branding.

Mrs. R aka. Ms. J said...

This was a much harder decision than I ever expected it to be when we first got engaged. Now that we have been married just over a year, I am starting to feel the pressure to decide, for good, what I am going to do. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle in my personal life not to become Mrs. R, but then everyone at work knows me as Ms. J. Legally, I am thinking of tacking my husband's last name on to mine (but not hyphenated), but keeping my business cards and work name under my maiden name. It kind of gives me the best of both worlds then: Mrs. R for legal and future children purposes and Ms. J at work so it isn't so much of a jump there.

Andrea Franklin said...

I like my name and I intend to keep it. We have thought about exchanging middle names as a symbolic gesture and I like that idea a lot. As far as what the children will be called, we have pretty much decided to go with his last name for any that we might have together. I thought that was especially important in our case because he has a four year old son and I want our children to have a close sibling relationship. I have half-siblings that I'm not really close to so that's very important to me. For me, the name kind of reinforces that family connection.

Brannie said...

I really don't like hyphenated names, and I think the best idea you have is yours as the middle and his as the last. I had this debate when I got married as well, and eventually decided to change my name to my husbands because we foresaw this issue with our childs last name and I wanted to share a last name with him (that was actually a bigger priority to me - having the same name as my child than having the same name as my husband). I think it will save a lot of trouble when he gets into the school system.

Victoria said...

y mom didn't change her last name when she married my dad and 30 years ago this caused some discussion in the peanut gallery but my mom didn't care and my dad didn't care so everyone got over it.

I have my dad's last name (so does my brother) and I don't feel less connected to my mom. We are a family because we are a family not because we share a last name. I could not be MORE happy that this is what happened. Hypens? Those names never fit on forms. Made up names? I think that would make me feel LESS connected to my family if I didn't have the name that went back generations.

Once or twice people thought my mom was my step-mom or something like that (it helps that as a child I looked exactly like my dad and not really like my mom) but it was an easy fix. I could not imagine trying to explain that my name was some anagram of my parents' last names.

Kayla said...

My fiancé's name is hyphenated - his parents were unmarried and wanted him to have both of their last names. I absolutely hate it. It's the only reason I won't change my name to his when we get married. Hands down, I do not want my children to have a hyphenated name. Like you said, it's cumbersome and causes more problems than it helps. And since I don't want to keep my own name (I've looked forward to changing it since I was 5, it's that awful!) we're stuck.

The way I see it, we have two options:
1. Split his last name and we both change ours to whatever it is. So instead of Bob Smith-Johnson and Jane Doe, we'd be Bob Smith and Jane Smith. The problem with that is we face slighting the parent whose name we sliced off. Considering I'd rather slice off his mother's name, and that's who would pitch the biggest fit, this doesn't seem like much of an option.
2. Pick a whole new name altogether! Bob Smith-Johnson and Jane Doe would get married and be Bob Anderson and Jane Anderson. This is my favorite, probably, since there's an old Italian surname on my side of the family that I love (and have an heirloom from). My fella doesn't care which way or the other, so this all kind of comes down to me..

Paige Ronchetti said...

I agree with the folks who suggested putting your surname as the middle name, and the baby having your husband's last name. In fact, doing that is a big thing in my husband's family, and we plan to use some maiden-names-as-middle-names when we name our future kids.

Anonymous said...

ooh i agree with Sara, I love Cotner as the first name and Bradford as the last name. :) but if you don't like that choice, i agree with #4 of your options, it seems to make the most sense and be the least complicated for everyone. hope that helps! :)

Anonymous said...

ooh i agree with Sara, I love Cotner as the first name and Bradford as the last name. :) but if you don't like that choice, i agree with #4 of your options, it seems to make the most sense and be the least complicated for everyone. hope that helps! :)

Jennie said...

I think the option you listed as #4 is a perfect solution! It gives you both a connection to the baby, but in different ways, which is okay because you're already connected to the baby in different ways anyhow!

Also, from reading through how you wrote your post, it seems like the option that you are most at peace with. :)

Lauren said...

I have a double barrelled surname, and don't find it in the slightest bit a problem. I can check in for flights just fine, I can fit my name on forms easily. I wasn't stigmatised or bullied as a child! I see it as no different to people with unusually-spelled first names or uncommon surnames.

I didn't consider changing my name when I got married, and Sara's reasons for keeping her name pretty much match mine.

I've had the conversation with my partner about what we'll do when we have children, and we'll probably do what my cousin did - give the child one half of my surname and the whole of my partner's. We'll have to 'drop' one side of my family, but I don't think of it like that - it's not like I'll love them any less if I don't 'choose' their name for our child.

Even if there were a few inconveniences caused by having a double barrelled surname, for me, it's much more important that my child has a part of both of us, rather than just their father.

Paula said...

I'm not sure why people haven't suggested that Bradford (or Brad) could be the baby's first name and Cotner his last name. Everytime I see reader's comments on this subject, it seems that having the father's last name passed down is always a given.

Giving your child one of your last names as a first name could become a little confusing at times and what would you do if you had a second child?

I love the idea of creating a new name. Cotford. Bradcot. Bradner. You have some options. I'm interested to see what you two decide to do.

Rajoittamaton Kyllikki. said...

I will actually be taking my husband's given name! I should note that I am a total language nerd, or this would be a really weird explanation.

My name is Shelly, which is old English for 'shelf-lea' (a meadow situated at the top or bottom of a ledge). But my parents always told me it was Irish, so I always traced it back, through Skelly and Scally to MacScalaidhe (meaning 'descendant of a court singer'). This word is further related to the Greek word Skole (from which we get words like 'scholastic').

Well, the guy I am marrying is named Schuyler (pronounced Skyler), which has the EXACT SAME ORIGIN, on the Germanic end of the spectrum.

When we marry, I will be changing the spelling of my name to Skolaidhe. Not only will we have the 'same' name, but we will both have TOTALLY INCONGRUOUS spellings. Which I find delightful, if somewhat inconvenient.

As to last names, I will be taking his last name for civic matters, but I intend to keep my own surname for my academic career. I believed myself as sort of a firstborn son figure, since I have only sisters, and for me it was always important to maintain the family name, for posterity, after my grandfather died.

Don't forget that if you don't mind being (mis)labelled as pretentious, you can always give a child two middle names. I took my mom's maiden name a second middle name as a little girl, albeit that was not a legal name change - just an informal one.

Unknown said...

I actually decided to take my husband's name, but when we discussed it, the baby issue did play a role. I said, if I kept my name, I would also want all our kids to have unique names and suggested using our mothers' and grandmothers' maiden names that hadn't gotten carried on by anyone else.

Emily SW said...

My husband and I wanted to have the same last name, so we are both Firstname Middlename Mylast Hislast. Our legal last name is Mylast Hislast with no hyphen. We honestly haven't run into many problems...the name fits in standardized test bubbles (and those are all going online in the near future--as a person in ed tech can tell you) and we haven't had any problems flying. If I did it again, I'd hyphenate our name, b/c people understand that better, and they often hyphenate it anyway.

We've decided that our children will need to figure out this situation no matter what we chose, so I don't think we're making this too much harder on them.

I also think Cotner-Bradford sounds great...it has the same number of syllables as my own two-name last name, which people can say with no problem.

Debra said...

I don't have children, and at this point, it's not likely to happen. But . . . I would have given them my maiden name as a middle name and my husband's name as a last name. I think that's a nice compromise for everyone. I have a friend who did this for her two daughters (who now both have the same middle name) and it works great.

Sasha-Ingenue said...

I used to nanny a little girl who's parents had different last names (Tocups and Bailey). They decided to have their daughter's first name be Bailey and her last name be Tocups (she was adopted from China and her Chinese name became her middle name). That way both parents got to pass heir names along to their child and both names were used every day. You could name Coconut "Bradford" and maybe even call him Brad for short...? My 1st grade boy crush was named Brad. Heh.

LT said...

Have you seen this article in the New York Times on Swedish name changes?


Evidently many Swedes are opting to choose completely new names, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as couples upon getting married.

As for your situation, I think either hyphenation or two last names is a good option. Or, one name becoming baby's middle name. Don't worry about what he'll do when he gets married -- that's way too far down the line to factor in, in my opinion!

Best of luck!

BEL said...

no babies yet but I also kept my own name. We're thinking of using mine as the middle name. apparently it makes cross-border travel with kids without my husband easier too!

Steven Tyler's PJs said...


Katie Mae said...

I was about to post the NYT article but LT beat me to it. :)

Like many of the Swedes, I was kind of tired of my common last name (Johnson) so I decided to change it to his name (Fritz - less common but easy to spell, plus connects me more to my German heritage and studies). I like the idea of picking a new name from the family tree (I like Dunlap from my dad's side) too though.

A-L, said...

I vote for making Bradford or Cotner the first name, if you want it to carry equal importance (with the other the last name). If you just want your kid to share a name, even if many don't know about it, then using either of the last names as a middle name would also work.

But I just got back from the SSA office 30 minutes ago where I did my name change. My parents never gave me a middle name, so my maiden is now my middle, and I tacked on the husband's name at the end.

I've made my maiden name very prominent on outgoing mail, etc, showing a surprising reluctance to totally ditch it. BUT, I have zero qualms changing it because I was given a hyphenated last name at birth (and a hyphenated first name...my parents really loved me!). The hassles of trying to find my name at schools, computers, doctor's offices, insurance companies, etc. was a royal pain. So I'm actually happy to be getting a nonhyphenated name.

Anyway, just something to think about.

Emily said...

I like option #4!

I'd consider it, if I didn't have such a "last name" sounding last name.

Moxie said...

Disclaimer that I'm not married and don't foresee children anytime in the near future.

However, I agree with your reasons for not wanting to change your last name upon marriage (especially reasons #1 and #3). I hadn't thought of any good solutions for naming children other than to make up a new last name, but that seemed a little "silly" to me. I think the suggestion from others readers to select a historical family name no longer in use is a great one! It puts meaning back in the somewhat whimsical process of creating a new name.

TheRealCherish said...

Very interesting post... #4 was my fav.
I'm not married and have no kids but I've always felt it's important to have the father's last name, because I feel like it almost (sorta) balances out the mom's pregnancy bond. My mom kept her last name for me initially and my dad had it changed to his.
I too like to "buck tradition" in many ways, but there are some things that I think have long term benefits and a "family name", though an ancient tradition, is one that I still agree with.

Pearl said...

I enjoyed your post. I'm engaged, with a wedding coming up in about a year. The name-changing thing was a big thing for me, for all the reasons you mentioned. My name is part of me, and I don't like the idea that it's assumed the woman would give up her name, just because she was the woman.

I decided when the time came, I would go with a hyphen, and here is my reasoning. My name was given to me by my parents. I love that is a part of my Irish heritage.

But I love my fiance, Alex. And in the end, I am choosing him, and he is choosing me. By accepting his name, too, I am choosing him in one of the most visible and meaningful ways that I can.

I guess what I'm saying is, his name is the one I choose, and my name is the one that expresses who I am on a fundamental level.

Perhaps I went on a bit about this, but I've thought about it a lot, as should anyone who is getting married.

Anna said...

A quick thought on "how to alphabetize hyphenated names":

Someone with a hyphenated last name has only ONE last name (which happens to have a hyphen), not TWO last names.

In a hyphenated name (whether this be a first, middle, or last name), the first letter of this name IS the first letter of the entire name.

If your full name is Joe-Bob Doug-Harold Smith-Thompson, then your initials (at least legally and grammatically) are JDS, not JBDHST.

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