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

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Name-Changing Dilemma Continued

As some of you might have read in last week's post, I've really been struggling with the name thing as we creep closer and closer to the moment when we have to be decisive and bestow a name upon another living being.

The thing about the name dilemma when you're getting married is that you don't actually have to make a decision right away. Of course other people might make the decision for you when they address wedding cards and presents to you, but there actually isn't a specific deadline for making the decision about names when it comes to marriage. You can keep your maiden name for years and then decide to hyphenate, change both of your last names to a new last name, or have one partner take the other partner's name. There really isn't a deadline, and the decision can take as long as you need it to.

Making the decision can be stressful for a lot of us (both emotionally and logistically!), so it can definitely help to put it off until you're done with the maelstrom of wedding planning.

For me, it was easy to keep my name. I had pretty much made the decision as a women and gender studies minor in college. I just couldn't subscribe to the whole woman-gives-up-her-name mandate. My name was (and is) an integral part of my identity, both professionally and personally. Because my name (Sara) is so common, I am often referred to by my last name (Cotner). Plus, having a unique last name has helped me combat the annoyances of having such a popular first name.

That's not to say that I judge people who decide to take their partners' names. We each have to do what feels right for us. For me, keeping my name was a statement about my feminist values and my recognition that the world has a long tradition of oppressing women. It was a celebration of my ability to choose for myself what name I wanted, without feeling obligated by societal expectations.

As Matt and I puzzle through what we're going to do with our baby's name, these same desires are coming up. I had pretty much resigned myself to using my last name for the baby's middle name and Matt's for the last name. But when I tried to communicate that to Matt, I started crying. There was something about it that felt like a huge, terrible loss.

The digger I deep, the more I realize I want to hold fast to my feminist values, and I want our son to be aware of those values. If we give him my maiden name as a middle name, I can't help but feel like it sends the wrong kind of message. I feel like we would be saying, "Your dad's lineage is dominant, that's why you have his surname. Your mom's lineage matters too--that's why it's in your name at all--but it's not as important as your dad's, as evidenced by the fact that most people don't even know your middle name."

I guess I don't like the default option: if you want to incorporate your maiden name into your child's name without hyphenating, then it becomes the middle name, while your husband's name is the last name. We could buck this trend by making Matt's name the middle one and mine the last, but honestly, I like the aesthetics of "Cotner Bradford" over "Bradford Cotner." Aesthetics are yet another reason why the name-changing dilemma varies so much from couple to couple.

I should say that Matt has been advocating for a hyphenated name the entire time. I've been the one resisting it, primarily due to logistics. I don't want to create a lifetime of annoyance for our sweet little boy.

But in the end, I'm feeling like the hyphenated route is the best way for us to communicate our commitment to equality and partnership. It puts our two names together--equally--for our child and the whole world to see. I do think we're lucky that Cotner-Bradford isn't too long and it sounds pretty smooth together. I do think the societal annoyances around hyphenated names will start to disappear as they become more and more popular.

And, honestly, if our little boy decides for himself that he doesn't want a hyphenated name, later down the line, we can support his decision by helping him change it officially.

I'm feeling more at peace with this decision for now, but I reserve the right to change my mind in the next week or so! There's one more parent (of one of my students) with whom I would like to talk. She's a self-proclaimed feminist, and she kept her name when she married. Now her daughter has her husband's last name and her maiden name as a middle name. I'd like to hear her perspective.

We might not have much time left! Our official "due date" is February 15, which puts us one week and one day away from the decision. Then again, it's completely normal to deliver within the 38-42-week range, so I may have more (or less!) time than I think...

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Katie R. said...

When I married my first husband I took his name. It was just what I wanted and did not think about it too much. We gave our first daughter my maiden name as her first name. When I got divorced I kept my ex's name as it was the same as my childrens' and I wanted to avoid the confusion associated with having a daughter with a first name the same as my last.

Harri said...

FWIW, I actually really like the idea of using Bradford as a middle name (it has an ambiguity that makes it sound like it could be a 'first' name or a surname, to me) and Cotner as the surname. I think it sounds and looks good aesthetically, but I also think it's obviously important to you as a feminist, and that makes me feel good about the idea.

my partner and I will definitely be keeping our own names after marriage; we're both card-carrying feminists and as a transman I've already changed my name (more than once, actually), and see no reason to go through all the hassle again, but we're very unsure as to what to do about children's names. We're pretty sure we're both going to be able to be on the birth certificate, even though I won't be biologically related to the child/ren my partner wants to give birth to, and for that reason she's suggested they get my surname, but your points about my name seeming then 'more important' than hers make me feel uncomfortable about that. Unfortunately we don't aesthetically really have the option to hyphenate, so I guess we'll see...

Brenna said...

Oh, names. I changed mine to my husband's when I got married, and now am working toward changing it back. I thought I wanted us to share a name, but it turns out there are other things that are more important to me. In Iowa, where we live, your name change at marriage is free. The rest of the time, it's $185, so I think I felt pressured to make the "right" decision then. Whoops.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that hyphenated names are growing on me. The aesthetics grow on me as I appreciate the message more and more. And your names sound great together. I am also a teacher, and I don't think my students with one four-syllable name have a cumbersome time with it. At least he can learn to spell it in chunks! :)

If you're thinking of having more than one child, you could also take turns with your last names and middle names. I think that's a nice option too.

Thanks for your thoughtful post!

Ellie said...

As a child raised with a hyphenated last name, I loved it. It wasn't until I got older that it started to become a huge pain - mostly because people are sexist, and would ask me if I was married (starting when I was 18). Most of my fellow hyphenates use only one name professionally, and it's really not so bad.

I will say, I always thought that hyphenating last names would get more popular. It doesn't - don't kid yourself. It's gonna remain an unorthodox choice that only certain parents do. It will always be somewhat difficult, but the trick is to keep his first name short enough - then it will fit on everything. My sister's full name is one character longer than mine - mine rings in at 24 but she is at 25 and it means that her name doesn't fit on airline tickets, so she can't pick up her tickets at the kiosk because her last name doesn't match the name on her credit cards.

I fully support hyphenating - I like it a lot - and it's great growing up, because you feel like both your parents are really cool for giving you a hyphenated last name - it's like "my mom is fierce and my dad is an awesome feminist" - it's a great feeling. That being said, I really hope you are giving your boy a name that is 7 letters or less long, and easy to spell, because anything longer + a hyphenated last name is a huge hassle to deal with growing up.

Heather said...

It's a really interesting topic, and while I took my husband's last name, seven months later, I still wonder if this was the best decision, or even really mine. When I casually mentioned the idea of trying to keep my last name, he was not receptive to the idea. My husband felt like there was no sense in getting married if we weren't even going to share the same last name, but he would never consider changing his. Sometimes I wonder whether or not I should have stood my ground, but realized that a hyphenated last name as long as ours would be horrendous for a child to have to deal with, and in the end I gave up my name. It still feels weird saying "Mrs. His Last Name. I suppose in time, I'll just get used to it.

I think you should go with what feels right in your heart.

Nancy said...

Incidentally, I think there is as much or even more value to a significant first name -- the name people call you dozens of times a day! So both my kids' first and middle names are significant to my family/heritage, they have my husband's last name, and that's a solution that has worked beautifully for us.

Anonymous said...

Sara, it's sad to see that this is really stressing you out. The point of feminism is to empower women, not to cause them more stress! I think both of your choices (hyphenated and your name as a middle name) are perfectly fair as far as mother and father's family name is concerned.

Emma Graves Fitzsimmons said...

Hi Sara, love your blog. I think this is my first comment. I grew up with a double last name (no hyphen) in Houston (the Heights actually!), and it's not as much of a pain as you might think. Yes, it takes longer to fill in the bubbles on scantron exams. Yes, there is some confusion when there isn't enough space for both names on your driver's license, but the benefits far outweigh the hassles. I like telling people that my parents wanted me to have both names because they are feminists. I'm a newspaper reporter, and I like how my byline represents both sides of my family. I'm definitely going to keep my name when I get married. The only problem is I can't imagine weighing my kids down with THREE last names!

Cat said...

Giving a child a hyphenated name, in my opinion, is a horrible option. What if someday he decides to marry a woman who wants to take her husbands name? You are basically taking that option away from her. If she takes his hyphenated name then it seems like your last name is her maiden name, or what if she wanted to hyphenate, but now she has two hyphens?

I feel like everyone should be able to make their own name changing decisions. By giving your child a hyphenated last name you are taking that decision away from his future spouse.

Also, I understand and agree that heritage is important, but I don't think you should take out your insecurities on your children. Just because you think making your last name a middle name for your child somehow makes your heritage less important, that is not the case. Both are important, and your children will know that if you make it important.

Anyway . . . I guess it is just my two cents.

Alotta Lettuce said...


Personally, I like the aesthetics of Bradford Cotner more than the reverse, but that's purely a matter of preference, and what's important here is how you and Matt feel about it.

That said, I have TWO adult friends who were given hyphenated last names by their parents, and BOTH of them love it, even the one whose name is composed of two impossibly long, hard to spell surnames. Whatever difficulty each of them faced in terms of pronunciation, is more than made up for by the message that their name sends - one that BOTH of them are proud of.

I also don't think you need to fret about that happens if and when your child marries and/or has children of their own. It's commonplace in Spain for EVERYONE to have two last names, and they've been navigating the waters of what happens when....? for ages, and seem to have few issues with it.

Finally, have you and Matt considered creating a brand new last name that is sort of a juxtaposition of your existing last names? For example, Bratner? Cotford?

I have a former colleague who did this with his wife. Feldmesser and Landmark became Feldmark - a name that they share and have also bestowed upon their children.

Anonymous said...

I had a HARD time taking my husbands name. It took me about 6 months to make my way down to social security! ugh Mostly, because I'd lived with my shorter (though not easier to pronounce) last name for 27 years of my life! It's a difficult thing to give up. My new last name is 10 letters long, and a HUGE pain to spell to people, at work, email, etc. (many companies won't allow you a hyphenated email address (making you choose which name you want anyway), and it's a pain to enter/search for in databases.) I can't imagine having two last names to spell! I don't like the idea of hyphenating for that reason. I like the idea of using your husbands last name as your childs last, and yours as a middle. It is still equally as special. Also, note, you may have trouble with doctors offices, schools, etc. having a different last name as your child. Just more steps to take I guess. And I agree with another commenter, it's sad this is making you so stressed out. It's not rocket science. You won't screw your kid up with either name you choose! :-)

Anonymous said...

Love the discussion this is generating!

Just to weigh in, as a self-determined feminist, my choice is to take my fiance's last name when we marry. It is important to me to share the same name as my partner and future children (and my maiden name is a homonym to a funny word-- years of silly jokes at my expense!).

I believe that feminism does not dictate that we necessarily keep our last names as an act against oppression, but rather makes us conscious of our ability to make our own choices for what feels right.

PS So excited for you, Sara!

Mish In Melbourne said...

For my two cents: I kind of love the idea of a mix of the two names, where Matt's surname become's your baby boy's first name - Bradford Cotner. Both names get a look in, and I think Bradford makes for an awesome first and last name...

On a totally different note - is anyone having trouble loading feeding the soil? I can only see the banner at the top, and no content! :(

Sarah K said...

2 cents: I have my mother's last name. My brother has my father's. This has never caused any problems or confusion. My first name, Sarah, is from my dad's side of the family and it was very important that it be continued. My brother's first name is from my mom's side of the family. So we each have important names from both sides of the family.

I think this is the simplest solution. Coming from a family with different last names, I have a hard time understanding the fuss about matching last names somehow "making" a family. People make a family.

Regardless of what you choose, I'm sure both your family and your feminist values will remain intact.

P.S. I'm married and kept my name. I also like your blog. :)

Married In Chicago said...


My heart is going out to you right now because it sounds like you are putting an awful lot of pressure on yourself to make the "right" decision.

I just want to gently point out that you don't have to make a decision right now. I'm a living example of this. When I was born my legal name was First name, Middle name, Mom's last name. When I was about five (maybe 6?) my parents made the decision to change my legal name and add on my father's last name, making my name First Middle Mom's last Dad's last. 4 in total. And you know what? It is no big deal. There has been no hardship on me nor is it something that brings annoyance in daily life.

Anyways, my whole point is - don't worry about this self-imposed deadline!

Unknown said...


I've been reading for a very long time, but never comment.

I also think that having your partner's surname as his given name would be a great idea. A lot of people in India have their father's given name as their surname, so why not the other way around?

I teach 7th grade, and I've had a few kids who were born with hyphenated names but now they only go by one of them anyway.

I know it might be a silly argument, but hyphenated names just aren't sustainable. What happens when he gets married? Should his kids be named Cotner-Bradford-????. It just seems that having to pick one or the other is inevitable, whether it's you or whether it's him down the line.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Thanks for all your thoughtful (and thought-provoking!) posts.

redfrizzz said...

I like the hyphenate. Also, as a person with a highly unusual first, middle, and last name, I can say from experience that the "annoyance" factor goes away. In fact, it makes you distinct among your peers, professionally, personally, and makes for great stories and family conversations.
I struggle with this issue as well. After 4 years my partner has come around to the fact that i'm keeping my name. But when we have kids, it'll be the same bag of fun you're addressing now...
I do have friends who, when presented with child, decided to take a new route and make a new name entirely. It was a name that defined their new family (with child). They went from Ms. hername and Mr. hisname to Mr. and Ms. newname and baby newname. I love this idea, and wish it would catch on more! Now if only we could think of a cool new last name for ourselves...
You will make the right decision. And no one will judge you for surname punctuation.

Carrie said...

Someone tell me how the heck I'm supposed to address an envelope properly to a woman with one last name, a man with another last name, and two kids with the man's last name?!?! I've defaulted to the Smith-Clark Family, even though none of them has the last name Smith-Clark, so that can't be right.

Then what would I do if it were Sara Cotner, Matthew Bradford, and X Cotner-Bradford or Bradford-Cotner (and perhaps Y Cotner-Bradford or Bradford-Cotner down the line--and maybe Z, too!)? Is there any proper short version for the family?

Anonymous said...

My opinion is that this is a totally personal choice and reading what other people think can just confuse you. It's obvious that most of the commenters agree with you in theory to some extent but then end up taking their husband's last name. You say your last name is important to you, and that you cried when you tried to tell Matt. To me, that pretty much sums it up. If the only thing stopping you is that "hyphenated names sound funny/weird/you don't know if your child will like it" then I think that is silly. People have all sorts of names and like your commenters said, you can always change your mind later. My sister and bro in law did not change their names. When they had the first kid, she took bro in law's last name. When they had their second kid, he took my sister's last name. I have yet to hear one problem with this choice, though many people think it is "silly." (and then you have the whole thing about who gets to give the BOY his/her last name--oy). Who is to say that the baby's first name won't cause him agony? You can't predict these things, and wanting it all (your name, it sounds good, no problems, etc) may just not be realistic. May I delicately suggest you go with your gutt, and your feelings and the rest will fall in place. There was a time that women didn't even really have all these choices, so take joy in the fact that you do. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I think you should name him Bradford XXXX Cotner and then call him Brad! That way he has both of you as part of his name!

CRR said...

@Cat In Italy a lot of people have double barreled names, and when they marry they take one name from each person (ie Smith-Jones marries Williams-Clark and becomes Smith-Clark). Simple.

Don't worry about the whole double barreled thing - my hubby was really reluctant about us going d-b, but likes it now. Each of us just uses whatever name works for us at the time, and it's fine, and not confusing.
Obviously it's a personal choice, but it is becoming more common in younger generations (in the UK at least). All the kids I know with d-b names get on with it fine, and most like it.

Or what about Cotford? Or Bradner? We nearly went with this option...

Stacey said...

Have you considered actually naming the child "Cotner Bradford" then giving a unique middle name? Maybe the middle name would then be what the child goes by in life, but their first and last name would identify both you and your husband. No hyphenation, no problems with whose name is more important, no issues with a middle name that no one will know. Plus, I think your first name actually makes a nice unique unisex name should you decide to carry it on to second/third children.

I had a friend who shared the same first name as three of her siblings ("Mary"....they were religious) but were each given middle names that they used in their daily lives.

Anonymous said...

I was just going to suggest exactly what Stacey just did. I think Cotner Bradford is a great name with Cotner being the first name and Bradford for last.

Then he'll be called your name every time his name is said making it the most feminist of all.

Also, just my two cents, I grew up with a hyphenated last name and unfortunately it was a nightmare. Always made fun of, no one could ever pronounce it, people didn't understand that it wasn't two last names but instead just one. I've dreamed of the day since I was little when I would get married and get the chance to take a new name. To me getting married and taking my husband's name won't be losing who I am, but instead will liberate me from the last name that has plagued me and give me the chance to have a beautiful new name.

Anonymous said...

"Then he'll be called your name every time his name is said making it the most feminist of all."

Ugh. So feminist = winning, right?

You're the baby's mother. You are an equal part of his heritage. Why all of these hangups and insecurity about being left out just because of a name?

The Thirty-Something Bride said...

Oh goodness, this is terrible. The notion that keeping or relinquishing a maiden name is either a feminist approach or some sort of subservient role is as antiquated as the word "feminist."

Hyphenating YOUR name is a choice. Hyphenating your child's name is ridiculous. From the moment the child exits the womb and has this hyphenated name on his birth certificate, you've subjected him to a role. YOUR role. Why not give the kid a traditional name and let him figure it out for himself? Will he be less of who he is with your husband's name? Your husband turned out all right with it, why can't his son?
I think this whole debate seems really over-inflated, but this is just my two cents on the matter.

Anonymous said...


I feel like your post could've been written by me (and not just because I'm also named Sarah). However, I am a child of hyphenation, and when it comes to giving names to kids, I'm going to go down a different path.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my last name. It's long, it's a tongue twister, but it's unique and it's mine-- only me and my brother have this name. People also routinely call me by my last name, and I can't imagine being anyone else.

However, I have no idea how to reconcile my name and my girlfriend's name when we have kids together. I simply can't give the kids THREE last names. In the end, the bargain we've settled on for now is that SHE passes on her (also rare, but not hyphenated) last name, but I get first choice and primary picking on first and middle names.

I think it will be sad to see my last name end with my generation, but names end and start all the time.

Some other ideas I like for couples focused on equity is combining names (i.e., Cotford or Bradner), or picking a family name that you both have in common somewhere in the family tree (doesn't work if you come from completely different parts of the world, but does more than you'd think).

But most importantly... GOOD LUCK! Have a happy, healthy baby and surround your kid with a loving family. That's much more important than the kid's name.

Kelly said...

I thought it would be useful to point out that there is no world-wide custom that dictates that the bride must take the groom's last name. In Japan, it isn't so uncommon for the groom to take the bride's last name. In other cultures, there is no name change at all. While in others hyphenated names are the most common. The same goes with children's last names. There is no universally "correct" or "wrong" way to go here.

I just thought I'd mention it, as it sometime helps to look at these things from other perspectives.

No matter what you chose, good luck with your decision!

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